The Emancipation Proclamation: Copperheads Respond

In conjunction with a current exhibit, the Brooklyn Historical Society blog is featuring a series of blog posts called “The Emancipation Proclamation: Americans Respond.” Learn more here.

The American political landscape was marked by many different and complicated factions during the Civil War. One group, often dubbed “Copperheads,” remain the most misunderstood. Copperheads were Unionists affiliated with the Democratic party who opposed the Civil War. For reasons including a fear that emancipated slaves entering the labor force would threaten the livelihoods of northern white workers, Copperheads called for immediate peace with Confederate states – essentially on Confederate terms, which meant maintaining southern slavery.

Copperheadism found particular support in areas near the Ohio River, and in larger cities. There they spread their message through newspapers like the Chicago Times. The Times was published by a man named Wilbur F. Storey, and it often employed inflammatory language criticizing the war, black Americans, and Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Unsurprisingly, the Times excoriated Lincoln after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862:

“We protest against this proclamation, in the name of the constitution, in behalf of good faith to the conservative millions of the northern and border states, and for the sake of the only means by which it has at any time been possible to restore the Union. We protest against it as a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.”

In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, the newspaper became so vitriolic in its criticism of Lincoln that General Ambrose Burnside shut the Times down. Only two days later, President Lincoln, responding to critics demanding freedom of speech, lifted the ban.

Historians have debated how influential Copperheads were in shaping the political landscape during the Civil War. Certainly they shaped the lexicon around which Americans discussed and continue to discuss race. For example, Copperheads were responsible for creating and popularizing the word “miscegenation” during the 1864 presidential election. They proved adept at blending spectacle with racist language and ideas during times of political instability – in ways that influence political rhetoric even today.

In December 1863, a pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races” hit newsstands. Seemingly written by an anonymous Radical Republican, it advocated the intermarriage and blending of the races until race was indistinguishable. To most mid 19th-century Americans – even those who opposed slavery – these ideas were seen as dangerous and revolutionary. Unsurprisingly, it prompted fear among the populace, inflamed tensions during an election year, and caused confusion and discord among Republicans and abolitionists.

The pamphlet turned out to be a Copperhead hoax. It was written by two employees of the New York World – another Democratic newspaper with some Copperhead leanings – and was meant to hurt Lincoln’s re-election efforts and embarrass abolitionists. Yet the word “miscegenation” stuck, in ways that continue to shape Americans’ public and private lives into the 21st century.

Recently, BHS has been exploring, contextualizing, and chronicling the very experience so mocked by Copperheads in their “Miscegenation” pamphlet. Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) is an oral history project and public programming series that examines the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity. Capturing and preserving the complex experiences of mixed-heritage Brooklynites – it seems like we’ve come a long way from the widespread racist beliefs of the 19th century. Yet the often-inflammatory political rhetoric that still exists in 2014 reminds us why programs like CBBG are so important.

Source: The Chicago Times, September 24, 1862.

Julie Golia

About Julie Golia

Julie Golia is the Director of Public History at Brooklyn Historical Society and co-host of BHS's podcast, Flatbush + Main.
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4 Responses to The Emancipation Proclamation: Copperheads Respond

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