The New Copperheads

During the Civil War, when the issues of right and wrong were clear, one of President Lincoln’s appointees, General George McClellan, betrayed him.  The anti-war Democrats to whom McClellan pandered were called “Copperheads.”  They rallied around McClellan to defeat the president politically, when they could not defeat the armies of America militarily.  McClellan had a pretty high opinion of himself.  He knew what Lincoln did not:  That the war come not be won, that giving up and bringing the troops home was the only sensible answer, and that the president was not much of a leader.

Democrats overwhelmingly supported this type of defeatism and these Copperheads would shrink from almost nothing to insure that the war ended, whatever the sacrifice already made to preserve the Union and whatever the costs of allowing the Union to dissolve.  These Copperheads did not really care about moral issues, like Lincoln and his Republicans did.  Slavery was an abomination in the South and democracy scarcely existed, but McClellan and the Copperheads did not care.

The public approval ratings for Lincoln – if there had been such ratings in 1864 – would have shown him as the least popular president in history.  The mainstream media of the time pilloried him mercilessly.  Although Lincoln was intelligent, lesser men, like McClellan, considered him a buffoon.  Although Lincoln had an almost transcendent nobility, lesser men, like McClellan, considered him no more than a crass pol.  Although Lincoln would be judged by history to be great, lesser men, like McClellan, judged him to be ordinary.
McClellan was putty in the hands of the treacherous Copperheads.  His own sense of self-importance made McClellan feel that he was much more important to the war effort than the Republican Party or the Republican president.  He fancied himself at the center of things, when actually he was an incompetent whose time spent in the administration prolonged the war.

McClellan was a Scot, coming out of  the long history of brave Scots, including "Braveheart.  But McClellan was anything but a William Wallace.  While Braveheart martyred himself for his nation, for his king, Robert the Bruce, and for human freedom,  the Scottish-American McClellan placed himself about his leader and his nation:  He, McClellan, not his nation or its leader was the focus of all that mattered to him.

History has not been kind to McClellan or the Democrats he served.  McClellan did not serve his nation or the principles of liberty upon which his nation was founded.  He had a chance for greatness, but his self-importance got in the way.  There is no “McClellan Memorial,” nor should there be.  Tenacious and loyal lieutenants of Lincoln like Grant and Sherman would earn a place in history.  Sherman, unlike McClellan, was so lacking in personal ambition that the political phrase “Shermanesque” has become associated with complete rejection of crowns of office (“If nominated I will not run.  If elected I will not serve.”)  Grant spent the end of his life writing magnificent memoirs, as he was  painfully dying, so that his family would not live in poverty.  Those lieutenants of Lincoln, although not perfect, were real men, great men, noble men, men of history.  McClellan is only remembered as a disloyal, self-centered whiner.

McClellan and his Copperheads of Lincoln’s times are, of course, the McClellan and his modern Copperheads of Bush’s times.  Historians can argue about the merits of the Civil War, although overwhelmingly the consensus of historians is that it was an awful, but essential, war – a grim duty for any good American.  No one, however, can dispute that if McClellan deigned to serve as the commander of the Army of the Potomac, that he had a duty to prosecute the war with diligence and duty, not to undermine the war and Lincoln to feed his own appetite.

No one should dispute, either, that Scott McClellan, the moral descendent of the earlier McClellan, could have rejected the premise for Operation Iraqi Freedom, eschewed the benefits of serving in the Bush Administration, and honorably opposed the administration and its war.  Or he could have been like Grant or Sherman, loyal despite the hardships and second-guessing that inevitably follow in the wake of long wars.   Or McClellan could have followed the path of least moral resistance, of lowest personal risk, of greatest ease and comfort – he could have served as Press Secretary when that brought him gain and then become friends of the Copperheads when that brought him greater gain.

When McClellans of any age commit the sin of serpentine behavior in the course of ordinary politics, most of us can forgive the crass avarice, the sick vanity, the emaciated values that motivate such weak souls to wickedness.  But when vastly better men and women place themselves in harm’s way, when they lose their lives and limbs, their bodies and their blood, then only the most craven, heartless and venal creatures can profit by their sacrifice.  Such a creature was McClellan and is McClellan.