The Great Misgiving

As I’ve mentioned before, Robert Frost is the patron saint of this blog. You know who that is, don’t you? Sure you do. Everyone’s read “The Road Not Taken,” whether they wanted to or not. That poem’s a staple of middle-school English classes since Frost’s own lifetime.

I always liked pomes growing up. I might’ve even liked “The Road Not Taken” when I read it in middle school. Yet it wasn’t until high school, when I read Frost’s “The Most of It,” that a poem really captured me. Especially these lines:

He would cry out on life that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech
But counter-love, original response.

Frost was my first favorite poet. After high school, I spent a few years pretending to like more sophisticated stuff. Then I figured out (perhaps a little too late) that sophistication is a kind of sophistry. Good poetry is simple, like all good things: truth, beauty, God, etc. So I came back to the poet who talked about wanting to be loved.

Anyway. I couldn’t care less what a poet’s political views are, as long as his pomes do the job. I do take a little pleasure, though, in knowing that most of the good’uns have been conservatives of one stripe or another. And Mr. Frost was no exception. As the poet entered his twilight years, his friend Louis Untermeyer said,

“There is nothing feeble or soft about him, no weakening of posture or power; he is still wide-shouldered, craggy, tough in texture, solid as New Hampshire granite. He is still disillusioned about Progress; distrustful of Science which has taken man deeper and deeper into matter, further into space, and further away from the spirit. He says he will call his last book The Great Misgiving.

Speaking of great misgivings, Frost’s full name was Robert Lee Frost. He was named after the famed Southern general. At the age of about fourteen, Frost’s father ran away from his home in New Hampshire and tried to enlist in the Confederate Army. He was what’s known as a Copperhead: a Northern sympathizer with the Southern cause.

(If you’re wondering, Frost the Elder didn’t make it. Some say he was captured by Union troops and sent back to his family. Others say the Confederates turned him away because he was too young. The latter makes for a better story, I think, so I choose to believe that one.)

The Copperheads aren’t remembered well in American history books. And, before I go any further, let me say that my own ancestors fought in the Grand Army of the Republic. I’m immensely proud of their service. But a blog like this one couldn’t ignore the topic. So, let’s dive in.

Your Copperheads come in roughly three varieties. The first and most common were the opportunists. Most were poor whites from big, Mid-Atlantic cities. They were working-class nativists and immigrants who weren’t especially political but felt the Northern war effort was a waste of blood and treasure—especially their own. The gangs that led the New York Draft Riots, like the Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits, were opportunists.

The second are the anti-abolitionists. These were the most ardent Copperheads, who not only opposed the war but actively sympathized with the Southern cause. Usually, they came from the Midwestern states and territories. Ohio congressmen Alexander Long and Clement Vallandigham were the most notorious anti-abolitionists.

The third we might call anti-federalists. These hailed almost exclusively from the New England countryside. Most were abolitionists on principle, but were horrified by President Lincoln’s plan to invade and subdue the Southern states. Most had long since grown suspicious of the size and scope of the government in Washington. That is to say, they belonged to a political tradition that many liberal, urbane Northerners today would prefer to forget.

We’ve already talked about the lie you were fed in history class, about how the North has always been progressive whole the South has always been conservative. Well, if not, it’s a lie. For most of American history, the North was dominated by family farms and small-scale fisheries. Meanwhile, down South, chattel slavery allowed the planter class to do agriculture on a much larger scale. Their society was more affluent, their culture more refined.

This remained the case well after the Revolution. That’s why Southern aristocrats like Thomas Jefferson tended to sympathize more with the Jacobins while a stout, middle-class Northern lawyer like John Adams shared Burke’s horror at the Reign of Terror.

The South saw slavery as a civilizing force. It afforded their gentry the leisure to read classical philosophy and build neoclassical estates. The savage Yankees all lived in saltboxes and farmhouses; the best their elites could hope for was a drafty brick rowhouse on Beacon Hill.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 1800s, when the institution came under fire by abolitionists, that the South began to think of slavery as a pillar of tradition rather than an engine of progress. No doubt this was helped along by the Industrial Revolution, which gave the North an economic advantage over the South. Suddenly, their plantations seemed rather quaint—at least compared to the “dark, satanic mills” popping up in states like Delaware and Rhode Island.

So, here’s your North/South dynamic. But that’s still only half the story. There’s also the feuds that took place between the Northern states.

Again, we tend to think of the North as staunchly Federalist and the South as staunchly Anti-Federalist. The former supported the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and favored a strong central government; the latter preferred the old Articles of Confederation and wished to preserve more autonomy for state governments. We usually say the Federalists were more urban, while the Anti-Federalists were more rural. Over time, the victorious Federalists evolved into Whigs, while the vanquished Anti-Federalists coalesced into the Democratic-Republican Party.

This is true, so far as the party identities go. But the geography isn’t quite right.

First of all, some of the most distinguished Anti-Federalists were men of the North. You’ve got Sam Adams and John Hancock from Massachusetts, George Clinton from New York, and Joshua Atherton from the Great State of New Hampshire. (The latter was also an early abolitionist.) And while Massachusetts was staunchly loyal to the Federalist Party, more rural states like Vermont and New Hampshire frequently swung to the Democratic-Republicans.

These Northern malcontents are the “Damn Yankees” to whom this blog is devoted. True: they were the same backwards rubes whom urbane Southern aristocrats like Jefferson scorned. They were family-farmers, lobstermen, and whalers, as their grandparents and great-grandparents had been. But they hated Industrialism as much as the Southerners did, and for the same reason: they saw it as a threat to their traditional way of life.

But while the Southern way of life depended on chattel slavery, the Damn Yankees were rugged individualists. They disliked Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, with their emphasis on high finance and global commerce. They believed the new economic order would destroy their local economies and tight-knit communities. They feared the Federalists would make it more difficult for a man to earn a modest living off the land or the sea. And they feared that a strong, central government would privilege more developed states like Massachusetts over rural ones like New Hampshire and Vermont.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

So, there grew up a sort of unspoken affinity between the Damn Yankees and the Southern traditionalists, who gradually coalesced around the Democratic Party. Again, the former always tended strongly towards abolitionism. And they never really warmed to those decadent Dixie highbrows. But when those Southern states began to secede from the Union, they could hardly blame them. When Mr. Lincoln dispatched the Grand Army to make them heel, their worst fears seemed to be realized.

Above all, however, the anti-federalist Copperheads had too much respect for their Southern countrymen to take up arms against them. Historians are forever using the phrase “brother against brother” to describe the Civil War. Little wonder, then, that so many in the North refused to kill their brothers. That was their great misgiving.

Robert Frost’s old man was a Copperhead of the anti-federalist sort. As the poet once declared: “You know, I inherited my status as a state-rights Democrat from my father—maybe my grandfather. I’ve never outgrown it.”

Another, oddly enough, was Franklin Pierce. The only president to hail from New Hampshire, Pierce was a lifelong Jacksonian and a conservative Democrat. Throughout the Civil War, he corresponded with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who’d served as Secretary of War in the Pierce administration. One contemporary report quotes a speech in which Pierce asks,

“What are to be the ultimate fruits of having first wronged and then conquered and humiliated a spirited and gallant people, whose fathers were the loved friends and co-laborers with our fathers in the Revolution, and who have nobly stood with us, as companions and fellow-soldiers, in every war with foreign foes since that period, remains to be seen.”

Pierce was openly condemned by many of his fellow New Englanders. The Detroit Tribune called him “a prowling traitor spy.” Unionist propaganda accused him of serving as “Chief Sachem” of a pro-Confederate conspiracy called the “Knights of the Golden Circle”—which (I hope it goes without saying) didn’t really exist.

One of the few who remained loyal to Pierce was Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two had been close friends since college, and Hawthorne was often accused of being a Copperhead himself. In 1863, Hawthorne even dedicated his last final book, Our Hold Home, to the disgraced former president.

Copperhead or not, Hawthorne was (like Pierce) a Northern Democrat, an old-school conservative, and a Damn Yankee through and though. As Russell Kirk wrote, Hawthorne’s “was a truly Tory democracy.” Hawthorne “disliked snobbery and commercial appetites; he wanted to be proud of America.” Kirk continues:

“His democracy was the democracy of his friend President Franklin Pierce, an intelligent, moderate, and honest gentleman of considerable talents with whom partisan historians have dealt brutally. Like Pierce, Hawthorne knew that the curse of Southern slavery could not be dispelled by punitive legislation or Northern intimidation. He detested slavery, but he understood that, its existence being contrary to the trend of economic forces and moral convictions throughout the world, with the passage of time it would pass away without interference. “

But it was Orestes Brownson who perhaps gave the most cogent defense of Copperheadism.

Hailing from Vermont, Brownson was another Northern Democrat He was also an integral member of the Transcendentalist movement before converting to Catholicism, becoming America’s first real Catholic intellectual. In his magazine Brownson’s Quarterly Review, he wrote:

 “We have some madmen amongst us who talk of exterminating the Southern leaders, and of New Englandizing the South.  We wish to see the free-labor system substituted for the slave-labor system, but beyond that we have no wish to exchange or modify Southern society, and would rather approach Northern society to it, than it to Northern society.

“The New Englander has excellent points, but is restless in body and mind, always scheming, always in motion, never satisfied with what he has, and always seeking to make all the world like himself, or as uneasy as himself.  He is smart, seldom great; educated, but seldom learned; active in mind, but rarely a profound thinker; religious, but thoroughly materialistic: his worship is rendered in a temple founded on Mammon, and he expects to be carried to heaven in a softly-cushioned railway car, with his sins carefully checked and deposited in the baggage crate with his other luggage to be duly delivered when he has reached his destination.  He is philanthropic, but makes his philanthropy his excuse for meddling with everybody’s business as if it were his own, and under pretense of promoting religion and morality, he wars against every generous and natural instinct, and aggravates the very evils he seeks to cure.” 

Remember, this isn’t a Southern nationalist talking. These are sentiments felt by thousands and thousands of Northern Democrats. And they clearly had a bone to pick with New England’s new industrial, commercial, progressive, middle-class elite.

There wasn’t much left of the old conservative Democrats after the war, but you still find them here and there. There’s Frost, of course, who referred to himself as “an Old Line Democrat” and a “Jeffersonian. ”

Trouble is, the Democrats had long since ceased to be the Party of Jefferson. Yet Frost remained a conservative and localist throughout the New Deal era. Sometimes, he’d be accused of disloyalty to President Roosevelt by his fellow partisans, but he didn’t care. On the contrary, he seemed to have a bit of fun playing the retrograde. So he wrote in his poem “Build Soil—A Political Pastoral”:

I was brought up
A state-rights free-trade Democrat. What’s that?
An inconsistency.

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