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Copperhead Themes: What is the Price of Dissent?

Created on 25 June 2012

courier-152ADissent: often scorned, sometimes praised, always misunderstood. The American Civil War is sometimes called the Second American Revolution or the Second War of Independence, yet the American Revolution is never referred to as our country’s first Civil War. And why not? One could argue that the situation was exactly the same, and that is the people wanting to remove themselves from a ruler they deemed as tyrannical. Don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant? Well, there were plenty of people who didn’t think King George III was either.

One of the main themes of the movie Copperhead is going to be the price of dissent, when a family up north goes against the status quo in not supporting the Union Army or the abolitionist movement, and speaking out against the war. For many people, this is going to be a change of pace, as we have to align ourselves with the main characters and the somewhat unfavorable opinions they have. Make no mistake, you do not have to agree with them, but you must, however, attempt to understand where they are coming from, in seeing what the times were like and not judging them by our very different standards today. I have often wanted to write a humorous mock-textbook of some kind in my spare time, where each chapter studies a different part of American history from the loser’s point of view, or the side that is often defamed or ignored by the regular books.

This would include a staunch loyalist opinion for the American Revolution chapters, a sympathetic approach to the Confederates and Copperheads for the Civil War, and most definitely an anti-army sentiment for the Indian Wars waged after the Civil War’s end, which systematically murdered and rounded up thousands of people who lived on this land before us. While I do not know if the book would be a success, it is likely to get people thinking. What if there was no Revolution? What if there was no Civil War, or what if the Copperheads were more vocal and successful? What if the United States government left the Indians alone? The list of questions is endless.

It is quite easy to take the side opposite the dissenters, the side that is given the most light, because there is more information on them and their stances are clearly defined. Why take the time to understand why people in the colonies might have loved King George III like we love George Washington today, when we can just call him a tyrannical madman and be done with any argument in five seconds? Why take the time to understand all the different little things that started the Civil War, rather than just yelling about slavery and moving on to something else?

In my time working at the Proprietary House historic site in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for the last three years, I have learned to immerse myself in the other side’s point of view, because the house was the mansion home of our colony’s last Royal Governor, William Franklin, from 1774-1776. While anyone British or loyal to the Crown may be reviled nowadays, he is our folk hero, because he is always misunderstood and often shunned from any textbooks or popular works. Come on a tour of our humble house, and you will hear him receive the royal treatment—no pun intended. He was the illegitimate son of the legendary Benjamin Franklin who eventually became governor through hard work and service, and quite surprisingly, not because of the famous name he carried. When the colonies were on the verge of full-on war, he chose to stay loyal to the Crown and dissent against his father, a decision that led to one of the most famous arguments and family split-ups in history. The two never reconciled, and Benjamin never forgave him.

While William was indeed a very popular governor, so much so that upon his arrest by Colonial Militia led by Col. Nathaniel Heard on June 16 of our independence-declared year, he was allowed to address the townspeople who had gathered by to see him off. He had many accomplishments during his 13-year tenure as governor, which included advancements in agriculture and education, and even better treatment for the Indians. He was, in his own right, a local hero, but it is because of his dissent that we do not recognize and learn of him today, while his father is glorified in monuments all over the country.

Just imagine for a moment, if you will, the repercussions of William choosing to agree with his father and rebel against the crown rather than follow his own instincts to stay loyal. Imagine how revered he would be, right alongside his father. Imagine the monuments constructed and endless amount of books written about him. Imagine how different our country would have been; perhaps William would have stayed in government, and eventually have become a president of our newly founded country. There are so many stories, just like William’s, which result in a myriad of what-if scenarios based on one single decision, and above all, the overall outcome of the time period.

Had the British put down our revolution, William would have most likely been re-installed as governor and over time, if we did gain our independence through peaceful means after many more years, maybe his story would not be shunned. After all, if the Revolution was not a success, the textbooks would make sure to note how insane the colonists were in thinking they could rebel against the mighty King, and of course, his army would be the heroes for coming to the rescue, and not the other way around. Perhaps the only thing in William’s future there would have been martyrdom.

If we move on to the Civil War and the Copperhead movement, what if the Union ended up losing the war or seeking a truce? Wouldn’t the Copperheads then be the heroes, because they wanted to stop the war and the slaughter that came with it in the first place? Most certainly. All the instances of being called snakes and un-American would have went right down the drain along with the map of the United States. Some people find this thought saddening, or even frightening. I call it intriguing.

People who speak out against any war, save for the Vietnam Conflict (or have we renamed that a “Police Action” yet?) are subject to the derisive comments of the populace. Loyalists were tarred and feathered, Copperheads were taunted and lynched, and if you spoke out against World War II or the American government in the 1950′s and 60′s, you very well may have been subject to our very own Communist Inquisition. Only with Vietnam did that all change, where people saw the horrors of war and shocking statistics of casualties being broadcast right into their living rooms. That is what it had to take for the dissenters to become those who stood up for war. Does the war in Iraq and Afghanistan ring a bell with anyone?

At first, yes, anyone who spoke out against the war immediately after the September 11th attacks was labeled un-American and un-patriotic, but after a few years, my, did the tables ever turn. I am against war and I have always spoken out against it, including the conflicts we are currently involved in. I do, however, support the troops and wish for them to all come home safely. The reason why I very rarely address that topic on my blog or when teaching, even when asked to elaborate, is because people have a hard time making the distinction between being anti-war and anti-soldier. Condemn the war and support the troops, and you will hear the snide remarks from conservatives going on and on about liberty and patriotism ad nauseam, then the complaints from the liberals saying you are not being harsh enough. It’s become a fruitless topic to address because the end result is always mindless, biased bickering, not intelligent discussion.

We have a chance here with Copperhead to change all of that, and develop a new way of understanding. This film may be set during the Civil War, but it may also be an allegory for every war we have ever fought, because although the times and technology change, people do not. There will always be those for the war and those against it. There will always be families torn apart because of differences in opinion. In the end, it does not matter to me what your opinion is so long as you can back it up. You may have always thought yourself to be a staunch Unionist. Maybe this film will change your mind. You may have always been a Confederate sympathizer. Maybe this film will change your mind. Just keep in mind the theme and overall question: What is the price of dissent? Think about it, and what it means to our everyday lives. You may be surprised at what you learn about yourself.