Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

A Copperhead in Quincy Goes to Washington: Senator William A. Richardson

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

A Copperhead in Quincy Goes to Washington: Senator William A. Richardson

Article excerpt

STALWART ILLINOIS DEMOCRAT WILLIAM A. RICHARDSON was no stranger to political maneuvering during a military engagement. Writing from the war front in Mexico, 1847, Richardson described how a neighboring American squadron had all of their horses stolen by Mexican soldiers. He then abruptly changed the subject and discussed the need to arrange a meeting to appoint delegates, "get your friends to work," Richardson advised, "and all will be well."1 His station in this war was fundamentally different than the situation he would face thirteen years later. Richardson and his fellow Democrats had a choice to make when Lincoln issued his Proclamation of War: Would they stand united with the administration to quash the rebellion, continue the partisan struggle, or even utilize the chaos of war to gain political leverage?

The winners of the political debates surrounding the Civil War are well documented. Lincoln, the Radical Republicans, and even pro-war Democrats receive a great deal of historical attention. This article will investigate those who opposed the war and openly challenged the Lincoln administration. These Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, operated throughout the North, including Lincolns home state. William A. Richardson (Image 1) was a leading figure of the Democratic Party in Illinois. He was a political servant to Stephen A. Douglas during Douglass lifetime as well as a proponent Douglass political philosophy. But while Douglas was supportive of Lincoln at the onset of the war, Richardson gradually evolved an opposite stance. He personally attacked Lincoln in public speeches and worked with fellow Illinois Democrats to challenge federal laws. His role in national and local politics will be the primary concern of this article. Through an examination of Richardson within the larger milieu of Copperheadism, a clearer picture of both Richardsons politics as well as the nature of the peace movement will be discerned. Since the 1960s, the leading Copperhead historian was Frank Klement. Klement's research supported the idea that the Republicans, "out of political malignancy," exaggerated the danger of Peace Democrats for politcal advantage.2 More recent interpretations, however, have highlighted the menacing disruption the group caused. The Copperheads, under this lens, nearly commandeered the Democratic Party and endangered the outcome of the war.3

Like many other Peace Democrats, William Richardson has received scant attention from historians. Jerome Thavenet's 1967 thesis took a redeeming, slightly hagiographical, view of Richardsons political career.4 A few Illinois journal articles delve into facets of his life; Robert Holt's 1933 political biography of Richardson compared him to his mentor, Douglas, and emphasizes lost opportunities Richardson had in making his mark on the national stage.5 Robert Howard's article focused on Richardson's work prior to the war, but also stressed Richardson's failures as a statesman.6 In more broad treatments of the Peace Movement, Richardson is often overlooked in favor of more flamboyant Copperheads, such as Clement Vallandigham. When Richardson is mentioned, he is often mischaracterized or quickly glanced over. The purpose of this article, then, is to situate Richardson within the context of the larger Peace Movement, noting confluences and divergences in their trajectories to illuminate a more accurate characterization of Richardson, his role in national politics, and the Peace Movement in Illinois. An analysis of Richardson's career illustrates that he was an influential figure in a powerful opposition movement that nearly succeeded in challenging state laws drafted to expedite the war effort in Illinois. Richardson, however, was not conspiratorial or traitorous. The Civil War presented questions and problems the nation had not yet faced and Richardson looked backwards instead of forwards to answer those problems. He was a romantic conservative who never fully grasped the gravity of the Civil War. …

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