Penny for His Thoughts

(Apologies for the title – I couldn’t resist a little Copperhead joke.)

I’ll be covering Clement Vallandigham in more detail in the long-delayed podcast, but for now it’s worth taking a look at this very controversial personality.

Survey histories, such as the Ken Burns documentary, have little time for complex character portraits, and in most cases will have an editorial bent. The Burns documentary cast Lincoln – as many of us do – in a golden glow, but we forget that he and/or his administration had some questionable policies during the war. Vallandigham was cast as an irritating thorn in the side of Our Hero, and the hissing epithet “Copperhead” made the group sound more nefarious than it might appear upon closer inspection.

As a modern, anti-war and pro-civil rights Canadian, I often wonder how I would have reacted to the events of the day. When Quebec was rattling its séparatiste sabre, I was toeing Greeley’s “let the erring sister depart in peace” line. When the US invaded Afghanistan, I was against the destruction but supportive of the higher aims of creating a secular state with civil rights for all – an ennobled cause like that of Emancipation. As the Middle Eastern wars dragged on, though, I questioned the value of prolonging it. Would I have supported a peace candidate in 1864? And given how much the PATRIOT Act appalled me, would I have had the same feelings of revulsion in reading Lincoln and Hamlin’s names in the paper as I did seeing Bush and Cheney’s? (In truth, I don’t imagine Hamlin got as much say or press as Cheney did.)

Vallandigham, as we learned from the Disunion piece on the Chaplaincy legislation, was a politician who cared about religious freedom, and was an anti-war, free-press protestor who was first jailed, then exiled for thought crimes. I have a feeling I would have voted for him.

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