Abner Beech sits reading aloud from his newspaper. “Benjamin Wade, a Republican of Ohio, says anyone who quotes the Constitution in the current crisis is a traitor,” he says with disbelief. “A traitor! The Constitution!”
Beech’s sons appear unmoved by their father’s appeals to the Constitution, much like Obama voters and Supreme Court justices. Quoting the Constitution today can get you called a lot worse than a traitor.
Set in the 1860s as the Civil War raged, much of the political discourse in the new Ron Maxwell film “Copperhead” seems almost contemporary. Beech’s argument with Avery, a local Abraham Lincoln Republican who refers to Democrats as “Slaveocrats,” could almost have been an Internet flame war.
Except for the conclusion. After Beech invokes the editors Lincoln had jailed and the young men conscripted to fight in the army, Avery asks poignantly, “Doesn’t the Union mean anything to you?”
“It means something. It means more than something,” Beech replies. “But it doesn’t mean everything. My family means more to me, my farm, the corners mean more. York State means more to me. Though we disagree, Avery, you mean more to me than any Union.”
A powerful statement of an old American political tradition, simultaneously radical and authentically conservative, offered with more empathy and nuance than your average comments thread.
“Copperhead” is an unusual Civil War film. Though we hear of the war’s incalculable human cost, we never see a battle. Though we hear of black men being sold and beaten, there are no scenes with slaves. The entire story is told from a local perspective.
Abner Beech’s politics make the film stand out too. He is a Northern Peace Democrat, a Copperhead as the title says. He holds no brief for the monstrous institution of slavery and has some sympathy for the Union the Republicans are trying to preserve. But most of all, he hates war and loves the Constitution.
“I don’t want Cuba. Hell, I don’t even want Texas,” Beech says. “But I do not want my boys dyin’, and I don’t want the Constitution dyin’ with them.”
Maxwell, perhaps best known for “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” has made the first recent Civil War film that portrays this viewpoint in a favorable light. Based on Harold Frederic’s 1893 novella “The Copperhead,” with the screenplay by the underrated antiwar localist writer Bill Kauffman, it doesn’t treat America’s bloodiest war as just another step in the long march of progress.
Beech’s son Jeff is named after Thomas Jefferson. Jeff falls in love with a woman who thinks this sounds too much like the treacherous scoundrel Jefferson Davis instead, so he begins to go by Tom. To impress her further, he ultimately joins the Union Army and goes off to war.
Jeff’s love interest Esther is the daughter of the staunch abolitionist Jee Hagadorn, who walks with a cane and always seems to be on the verge of exploding. Hagadorn begins to rally the whole town against Abner’s contrarian political views, to the point that his livelihood and physical safety are jeopardized.
Billy Campbell delivers a wonderfully understated performance as Abner, while Peter Fonda’s Avery and Angus McFayden’s Hagadorn are perfect foils. Lucy Boynton is consistently charming as Esther.
The film is slow-moving at first and sometimes heavy-handed in its politics. (You can imagine what Ron Paul would think of sharing a party with Benjamin Wade.) And while it isn’t the simple morality tale found in most Hollywood portrayals of the Civil War, hardline abolitionists like Hagadorn are sometimes treated as caricatures.
Yet one of the last scenes is a moving eulogy that grapples with war, slavery and what happens when political disagreements tear a community asunder. A church congregation that had not long ago concluded the old hymn “Abide with Me” was confronted with the question: “What happened to love thy neighbor?”
“Maybe in the face of all this madness,” Hagadorn’s grieving son concludes, “we can start loving our neighbor.”
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.