Author and professor of English and the history of American civilization at Harvard University
When Lincoln heard the news of Gen. Joseph Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville on May 6, 1863, with 17,000 casualties, his face turned ashen. “My God! My God!” he moaned. “What will the country say?” It said it wanted an immediate end to the war, as reflected by the dramatic rise of the “Copperhead” peace movement in the summer of 1863.
Amid the news of Hooker’s defeat, Clement Vallandigham, the leader of the peace movement, was arrested at his home in Dayton, Ohio, for fomenting treason. In speeches, he had encouraged resistance to conscription, which had recently been passed, and declared that war was being waged to free blacks and enslave whites.
In the wake of Vallandigham’s arrest, Copperheads rioted throughout the North. They set fire to Republican newspaper offices, attacked conscription officers, and killed blacks. The July riots in New York and Boston were so intense that Union troops had to be called in to restore order.
With Vallandigham silenced, two unlikely Copperhead voices emerged in the summer of 1863: former president Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Pierce and Hawthorne had met as students at Bowdoin College and for the rest of their lives remained close friends and staunch Democrats. Both men hated the Lincoln administration and emancipation.
Pierce called Lincoln the “instrument for all the evil” in the nation, and the Emancipation Proclamation “the climax of folly & wickedness” because it invited blacks “to slay & devastate without regard to age or sex.” He wanted peace and the Union as it was — with slavery.
Hawthorne preferred peace with “amputation,” hoping that the Confederacy would remain a separate slaveholding nation. Like Pierce, he thought that masters and slaves lived together in “peace and affection.”
Confederates viewed Copperheads as allies, funding their newspapers and encouraging their leaders. Gen. Robert E. Lee told President Jefferson Davis “to give all the encouragement we can . . . to the rising peace party of the North.”
On July 4, Pierce delivered an oration at Concord, N.H., with Hawthorne at his side. “Any of you,” he told the crowd of 25,000, “may be the next victim of unconstitutional, arbitrary, irresponsible power.” He urged resistance to Republican rule.
Pierce’s speech remained so popular that many Democrats urged him to run for president in 1864. Hawthorne loved the speech and dedicated his new book, “Our Old Home,” to Pierce, declaring that “no man’s loyalty [was] more steadfast.”
Hawthorne’s abolitionist friends were outraged by his dedication. “Do tell me if our friend Hawthorne praises that arch traitor Pierce in his preface & your loyal firm publishes it,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Hawthorne’s editor. “Patronize such a traitor to our faces! I can scarcely believe it.”
Other Hawthorne admirers followed the example of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who simply “cut out the dedication,” thus separating what he considered Hawthorne’s ignoble politics from his beautiful art.