Mankind is the most perverse and onrezonable beins uv the human family. Wile they assent 2 a principple, they never will put it into practis ef it bares hard onto em ez indivijjles...
– The Nasby Papers, p.551
The preceding badly-spelled wisdom, along with many other political musings, used to make US president Abraham Lincoln laugh during the long and dreary struggle that was the Civil War. In fact, he was known to try to cheer his Cabinet up by reading aloud snippets from the writings of Petroleum V (for Vesuvius) Nasby, that voluble Confederate sympathiser whose rantings appeared in Ohio newspapers. The Nasby Papers, a broad satire aimed at right-wing Northern supporters of the Confederacy, provided a welcome relief from business for the president who had been heard to say that what with the strain of running the war, '...if I did not laugh I should die.'
'Petroleum V Nasby', of course, was a pseudonym – it was a name too weird even for Civil War America. The fictional Nasby was a drunken, semiliterate Ohio 'Copperhead' preacher (of the 'Church uv the Noo Dispensashun') – a Northerner who supported slavery and the South in theory, but in practice did little to advance either the Union or Confederacy, and whose 'ideas' were a mishmash of secondhand political slogans and half-baked nitwit illogic. Nasby was the pen name of that stalwart antislavery Republican, Ohio newspaper editor David Ross Locke, a brilliant but angry newspaperman. But before we talk about Locke and how his satire helped Lincoln get re-elected, the modern history student needs to know a few things about political life in 1864.
Democrats and Republicans in 1864
21st-Century readers of US political arguments from the 1860s get confused, with good reason. 21st-Century Republicans are not likely to support minority issues, while Democrats are. To understand politics in the 1860s, reverse the definitions. The new Republican Party was the party that had elected Lincoln to the White House, and it was violently antislavery. Some members even supported civil rights for women. The Democratic Party of the 1860s, on the other hand, contained a large faction that supported slavery, or were indifferent to it; that favoured ending the Civil War by allowing the Confederate States of America to continue to exist unmolested by the Union; and who opposed the draft. In fact, in 1864, the Peace Democrats, who wanted a negotiated end to the war, nominated George B McClellan for president – and everybody, including Lincoln, expected the ex-general to win.
To make things even stranger, McClellan used to be commander of the Army of the Potomac. In other words, he was running the war for the Union (not very successfully) until Lincoln fired him. McClellan was telling everyone that the Union couldn't win the war, that Lincoln was an unfit leader, and that he, McClellan, had an exit strategy that involved letting the Confederacy have its own way. Lincoln's supporters had reason to worry, and so did the Commander in Chief, who needed to run for re-election while prosecuting a major war against an enemy whose capital was 90 miles south of his own.
As late as August in that election year, a pessimistic Lincoln was writing a memorandum to his cabinet members saying that '...it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards2.' Things looked bleak to anyone who hoped for an end to slavery and the continued existence of the United States as an intact entity.
What saved Lincoln's presidency? It could be argued that two men were instrumental in turning the tide of that election: William Tecumseh Sherman, who captured Atlanta in September, delivering a much-needed morale boost, and Petroleum V Nasby, who made the voters laugh by poking fun at the defeatist rhetoric of the Copperheads. Lincoln won by a landslide in 1864 – only to die of an assassin's bullet in 1865.
What Exactly Was a Copperhead?
A copperhead is a type of poisonous snake found in the United States. It is considered especially dangerous because, unlike a rattlesnake, it doesn't make a warning noise before striking.
This is what Harper's Weekly thought a Copperhead politician looked like in 1863. A political Copperhead was a Northerner who supported the Confederacy. Unionists thought they were as dangerous as snakes. However, political Copperheads were anything but silent, and they did not like Mr Lincoln.
One of the most vocal Copperheads was Clement Laird Vallandigham (1820-1871) of Ohio. (Yes, that is a real name, not made-up like Petroleum V Nasby.) Vallandigham was a member of the US House of Representatives who opposed the Republican Party and all its works and pomps, such as trying to preserve the Union and opposing slavery. Vallandigham was so vocal about his opposition to the war that he was arrested in 1863. This was because General Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio, had issued General Order Number 38, saying that anyone who expressed sympathies with the enemy would not be tolerated3 . Vallandigham's enraged supporters burned the offices of the Dayton Journal, an Ohio newspaper they didn't agree with. The Congressman was jailed 'for the duration of the war', but he didn't stay there. Abraham Lincoln had a better idea: he exiled Vallandigham to the Confederate States of America, forcibly depositing him behind Confederate lines.
Vallandigham was not too happy about his expulsion from US territory. The Confederacy was not happy, either: they didn't want the noisy Congressman. Vallandigham travelled to Bermuda by blockade runner, then made his way up to Canada. He kept up his anti-Lincoln crusade from Canada, and Democrats nominated him as their gubernatorial candidate in 1863. He lost by a landslide to the Unionist candidate4.
Petroleum V Nasby
Ohio newspaperman David Ross Locke created Petroleum V Nasby to mock the Copperheads. Writing his imaginatively-spelled 'letters to the editor', which originally appeared in the Hancock Jeffersonian and were reprinted in other newspapers from California to the UK, Locke used the blustering, drunken Nasby to satirise woolly thinking and thinly-veiled hypocrisy. The Nasby Letters skewered opponents of the Union war effort with broad and not exactly good-natured parody:
Wareas, We vew with alarm the ackshun uv the Presydent uv the U. S., in recommendin the immejit emansipashun uv the slaves uv our misgidid Suthern brethrin, and his evident intenshun uv kolonizin on em in the North, and the heft on em in Wingert's Corners, and
Wareas, In the event uv this imigrashun, our fellow townsman, Abslum Kitt, and uthers, hooz familis depend upon thare labor fer support, wood be throde out uv employment, and
Wareas, Wen yoo giv a man a hoss, yoo air obleegd to also make him a present uv a silver platid harnis and a $350 buggy, so ef we let the [ex-slave] live here we air in dooty bound to let him vote, and to marry him off-hand, and
Wareas, Wen this stait uv affares arrivs our kentry will be no fit plais fer men uv edjucashen and refinement, and
Wareas, Eny man hevin the intellek uv a brass-mountid jackass, kin eesily see that the 2 races want never intendid to liv together...
– The Nasby Papers, p. 1.
Nasby supported Vallandigham, loudly, often, and in really bad English. The fictional Copperhead trumpeted the gospel of opposition to Abolition and all things Republican, such as equal rights for minorities and women. Nasby's home town seceded from Ohio. The town angrily opposed Washington, 'armed with justice, and shot-guns.'
The Nasby satire was popular during the war. It was even more popular after the war. Editor Locke, who bought the Toledo Blade, continued to use Nasby in his paper to lambast post-war efforts to undercut Reconstruction. Audiences clamoured for readings as late as the 1870s, when Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, started demanding that he should get paid as much as 'Nasby' – who was the top-earning lecturer on the circuit and got $400 a night. Most people in the audience hardly knew David Ross Locke by name: they referred to him, as did Twain, by the name of the alter ego character he had become identified with. It is small wonder that a 2012 article in the New York Times referred to Locke as 'the Stephen Colbert of the Civil War'. Like Colbert, Locke supported a progressive agenda by making himself out to be a reactionary. He feigned a fondness for the ideas of those he targeted for scorn. Just as Colbert pretended for a decade to idolise conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly, Locke trumpeted his worship of Vallandigham back in the 1860s. And like Colbert, Locke often got confused with his character5 .
Locke retired Nasby in the 1880s. He had served his purpose. Locke built the Toledo Blade into a nationally-known newspaper. The Blade is still a paper with a national reputation. In 2004, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. There are still political scandals to report on, such as Coingate, a 2005 Ohio investment scheme involving people close to the Republican Party there. The names change – even the orientation of the political parties – but the challenge to reporters remains: make sure the public knows what the politicians are up to. So it's as well to remember that satirical techniques pioneered back in the 19th Century still seem to be effective in 21st-Century election years. David Ross Locke would have been proud.
If you've read The Nasby Letters and are eager for more satire, there's always The Struggles (social, financial and political) of Petroleum V Nasby, 1893. The 'Prefis" begins, 'Uv the makin uv books there is no end.' Readers fluent in gamer talk or lolcats may find this easier going than those who rely solely on the OED.
During Reconstruction, Nasby 'moved' to Kentucky, so that Locke could make fun of it. The 1868 tome is called Ekkoes from Kentucky.
Locke published a humorous account of his travels in Europe in 1882 under the title Nasby in Exile. It's in real (19th-Century American) English, and in a style more like that of Mark Twain. Citizens of England, Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, France, and Germany might want to check out what he said about their countries in the bygone time. It's bound to have been nicer than what he said about Kentucky.