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No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North

by Adam I.P. Smith, Oxford University Press, 2006, 280 pages, $55.

When the United States is at war, there’s an age-old tendency to “rally round the flag”—a feeling that partisanship should give way to the need for wartime unity. So it was in the North during the Civil War, according to historian and author Adam I.P. Smith, who teaches American history at University College London. Yet his new book No Party Now explores the political discord that lurked beneath this surface of apparent unity in the Union during wartime.

“Drawing on a nonpartisan patriotic ideal dating back to the founders, Lincoln supporters presented a vision of patriotic loyalty and unity that was intended to stand in opposition to the ‘divisive’ partisanship that they associated with Democrats, demagoguery and disloyalty,” writes Smith. And for or the first year and a half of the war, with Lincoln stating his war aim as the preservation of the Union, this “united front” of Republicans and pro-war Democrats held firm.

The political climate changed in the fall of 1862 when President Lincoln announced his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The carefully created Union Party coalition of Republicans and War Democrats was increasingly attacked by Peace Democrats (also called “Copperheads”) as representing radical abolitionism and miscegenation. Smith shows that Lincoln supporters fought back by equating their Copperhead political opponents with the Confederates and Jefferson Davis.

Lincoln worked tirelessly to maintain his fragile political coalition, even if he angered hard-line abolitionists in the process. He justified his Emancipation Proclamation as a “military necessity” that would aid the Union Army, refusing to turn to the soaring rhetoric about “justice for all” and “human equality” that men like Frederick Douglass wanted to hear from him. Lincoln the pragmatist also called for the colonization of newly freed slaves, which further outraged radical egalitarians and abolitionists.

What Smith makes clear is that Lincoln was a consummate politician who understood the Northern electorate better than anyone. Lincoln knew that he couldn’t get too far out in front of Union voters, many of whom were shameless white supremacists who equated abolitionists with the devil. So even as Lincoln allowed African-American soldiers to fight and die for the Union (again, something he defined as a “military necessity”), he went along with the Army’s decision to pay these soldiers considerably less than their white counterparts.

Democrats, especially in large urban areas where immigrants were numerous, used the dual issues of emancipation and military conscription to assault Lincoln politically. Copperheads such as Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham accused Republicans of wanting to free blacks and enslave poor whites through the draft. They also accused Lincoln of abusing his constitutional war powers by suspending habeas corpus and rounding up political opponents. Vallandigham himself was arrested for speaking out against the draft, and convicted of subversion by a military court—Lincoln later ordered Vallandigham released behind Confederate lines.

Smith shows how Republicans, campaigning under the Union Party banner, used organizations such as the Union Leagues, the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Army itself to build support for Lincoln and the war. As Smith shows time and time again, Union Party attacks on partisanship were themselves highly partisan attempts to depict Peace Democrats as disloyal.

In 1864 Copperheads controlled the Democratic Party platform and crafted their famous “peace plank,” which called for a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. Lincoln and his supporters pummeled Democratic standard-bearer George McClellan as a defeatist seeking to conclude the war on terms favorable to the Rebels. Ultimately, the “peace plank” killed McClellan’s chances of winning the 1864 presidential election.

Smith makes a compelling case that Lincoln effectively seized control of the potent language and symbolism of American patriotism, and used these to win electoral victories against opponents whom he tarred as unpatriotic. Quite simply, the war profoundly altered the political landscape, making Northern political opposition to the Lincoln administration seem almost treasonous. “Civil War politicians simply could not conceive of a legitimate role for a ‘loyal opposition,’” concludes Smith. That same conflict between the need for national unity during wartime and the nation’s history of organized, rambunctious political parties has constantly been a challenge for “fighting democracies.”

Smith’s book is a brilliant political analysis, but its lone weakness is its tendency toward abstract language that is more at home in the world of political science than the history books. Thus, while the book will prove invaluable to anyone undertaking a serious study of partisan politics in the Civil War North, it may leave those seeking historical drama and colorful personalities wanting more history and less abstract analysis, however brilliant it may be.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here