The foregoing events obviously threw into question the conventional wisdom derived from the War of 1812 about what opposition to both war measures and war alike would do to an opposition party. Discarding the expediential course of the Whigs in the Mexican War, then, most of the Democratic Party leadership in the role of opposition to the new Republican Party during the Civil War chose to revert to a relatively uncomplicated kind of dissent. In general, its opposition to the Republican administration of Lincoln and to the Republican Congress in their conduct of the war was not disentangled from opposition to the war itself.
Democratic policy might have been different if the great Democratic paladin of the Middle West, Stephen A. Douglas, had not died almost at the outset, on 3 June 1861. Douglas had said that "The shortest way to peace is the most stupendous and unanimous preparation for war." But it would have been difficult for Douglas to hold his party to such a policy. The style of American politics at mid-nineteenth century was one of rough-and-tumble conflict, with the business of the opposition regarded as straightforward opposition to virtually everything the party in power stood for. In this context the maneuverings of the Whigs during the Mexican War could more readily be perceived as having been too subtle and devious by far. Furthermore, the war at hand was a civil war, and the Democratic Party and politicians of the North had long been the comrades and allies of the leaders of the Confederacy, against which the federal government was now contending. It was too much to expect a prompt, wholehearted embrace of old political enemies in common cause against old friends. This matter was especially crucial; historical studies of the Copperhead dissent that was to develop have attempted to tie it to various economic and social interests—assuming, for example, that poor agriculturalists might have objected to the business alliances of the Republicans. But the one consistent gauge of any district's tendency toward Copperheadism seems to have been the Southern ties of segments of its population.
Aggravating the latter dissent, and displeasing others who initially supported the war, as hostilities continued Republican policy came to include emancipation of the slaves. Therefore the issues of race and slavery again became intermingled with dissent in war, and the Democrats became the voice for all of white America's deep fears of racial equality, toward which Republican war policies could be interpreted as tending.
Finally, American parties, although diverse coalitions, were by no means without ideology. The ideology of the Democratic Party was well summed up in its favorite wartime watchword, "The Union as it was, the Constitution as it is." This maxim rightly implied that the methods taken by the Lincoln administration to prosecute the war—centralizing methods threatening to transform the old loose federation of states into a consolidated nation—seemed to many Democrats so subversive of a proper Union and the true Constitution that a victory for Lincoln's Union would be scarcely more appetizing than the independence of the Confederacy.
The Democratic position was so close to a plague-on-both-your-houses attitude that it is not surprising that under the tensions of civil war, Republicans were likely to suspect nearly the whole Democratic leadership of Copperheadism. Furthermore, after Douglas's death the core of the Democratic membership in the House, thirty-six Representatives, subscribed to a pact of party unity conceived and drawn by Representative Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, who was candidly an obstructionist. After the summer of 1861, the Democratic congressional delegations offered much more nagging of the administration and parliamentary foot-dragging than willingness to sustain the war. Most Democratic leaders would have protested sincerely that they were not disloyal to the Union—the old Union. Much recent scholarship has been at pains to deny that even the leaders of the Copperhead faction among the Democrats were disloyal to the Union. But the insistence of these Peace Democrats that the only Union worth preserving was the old noncentralized Union makes this a distinction of limited practical application.
By the fall elections of 1862, the prolonged war and the disappointingly few victories—none in the crucial eastern theater—were reflected in the Democratic gains in the congressional and state elections. By that time too, the Emancipation Proclamation added abolition to the Union war aims and aggravated discontent with Lincoln's leadership. In the State of New York the Democrats elected Horatio Seymour to the governorship. During his campaign Seymour had called emancipation "a proposal for the butchery of women and children, scenes of lust and rapine, and of arson and murder." As governor he employed a states' rights rhetoric reminiscent of Jefferson Davis, and his scornful opposition to conscription contributed to the New York City draft riots of July 1863. In the Midwest the Republican governors of Indiana and Illinois believed that the newly elected Democratic majorities in their legislatures were in league with an empire of secret societies planning a coup d'état to ensure the victory of the Confederacy. The governors collected evidence that Indiana alone had 125,000 members enrolled in antiwar secret societies and that in Illinois 300 secret lodges met every Tuesday night. The Confederate government believed these and similar reports and sent agents to cooperate with the secret societies. Thus can a fratricidal war generate hysteria, because the threat of the secret societies was a chimera. No substantial danger ever emerged from their alleged plotting. The Confederate agents who made contact with them found the Copperhead malcontents unwilling to take risks or action, and no coup d'état ever had a chance of success because the overwhelming bulk of Northern sentiment—including that of the rank-and-file Democrats who continued to serve in or send their sons and brothers into the Union armies— remained determined to restore the Union by war, war-weariness notwithstanding.
This fact proved fatal to the Democratic Party's immediate antiwar policies and highly injurious to the party for many years to come. By the presidential election of 1864, the Democratic Party formed its ranks for the campaign around the principles that while the Union ought to be restored, Lincoln's centralizing war was the wrong way to restore it, and that in addition to being wrong the war was a practical failure. The Democratic platform of 1864 called for a cessation of hostilities "to the end that at the earliest possible moment peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union of the States." The assumption that peace could come first and be followed by restoration of the Union was one that was not supported in any of the attitudes of the Confederate leaders. Furthermore, to adopt the assumption would imply that all the sacrifices accepted thus far to seek reunion through war had been needless. Northern voters were not willing to concede that they had sustained so large an error so long, and at so high a price. In late August, Lincoln himself believed that war-weariness would defeat his bid for reelection, but the best remedy for war-weariness, a succession of military victories, intervened. On 5 November the electorate chose Lincoln for a second term by a margin of 55 percent, a respectable victory by the standards of American politics.
The Confederacy had its own problems of war-weariness and dissent. There were many contributing factors, but above all, Southern support for the war and for the Confederacy crumbled away as the South lost the battles. In contrast, Northern support for the war solidified itself as the North at last won battle after battle. For partisan politics the consequence of this latter fact was that on 25 February 1865 Harper's Weekly could without much exaggeration proclaim: "We are at the end of parties." The Democratic Party had so identified itself with the idea of the war as a failure as well as a wrong that the Union victory left the party appearing impossibly myopic. So much had the Democratic leadership identified itself with opposition to the Civil War that during the war large numbers of War Democrats had felt obliged to join the Republican Party. So much had the Republican Party identified itself with the Union and the war that victory in the war represented such a complete vindication of the party that the memory of the war would go far to assure Republican supremacy in Northern politics for a generation. Heeding the implied warning, in no subsequent war has a major party been willing to risk joining its fortunes with those of dissent.