Interview With Bill Kauffman On Copperhead, The War Of Northern Aggression, Secession And More

todayJuly 2, 2013

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Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – The only line that concerns me right now is occupied by the one and only Bill Kauffman, who is the screenwriter for the great new film Copperhead playing in theaters right now in limited release.  I’m sure it will make it to a theater near you and certainly to a DVD Player near you.  Check out today’s transcript for the rest…


Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  The only line that concerns me right now is occupied by the one and only Bill Kauffman, who is the screenwriter for the great new film Copperhead playing in theaters right now in limited release.  I’m sure it will make it to a theater near you and certainly to a DVD Player near you.  Bill Kauffman, old friend, how are you, sir?

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Bill Kauffman:  Good, Mike.  Happy Adamsian Independence Day today.

Mike:  What’s Damsian?

Kauffman:  Adamsian, John Adams.

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Mike:  Yes, yes.  Tell us a little bit about how you were recruited or did you recruit yourself to do the screenplay for this film Copperhead?

road-to-independence-BH-RTIDE2-detailKauffman:  How unusual to have a motion picture that does not feature superheroes or zombies or cartoon characters or witless bachelors but set in the American past.  The director is Ron Maxwell, who is best known for the two great Civil War epics, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.  He and I have been friends for a number of years.  Actually about three and a half years ago we were talking over breakfast.  People were always asking him: When are you going to make another Civil War movie?  He’d say: I need something that approaches the war from a different angle, that seems fresh.  It turns out we both read this novel called The Copperhead, which is by an Upstate New York writer named Harold Frederic, who was once very prominent, praised by F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others.  He published one volume of Civil War stories that the great critic Edmund Wilson praised as differing from any other Civil War fiction and myth.  There was no Southern moonlight and magnolias romanticism, but nor was there any Northern Battle Hymn of the Republic righteousness.  These were spare and unsentimental but often really heartbreaking stories set on the home front in Upstate New York in Frederic’s case.

The home front is always the forgotten casualty of any war.  It’s the case today.  We don’t want to be heavy-handed in drawing parallels or anything, but mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters go off to war and there’s an absence there.  It’s often said absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in fact if you look at the statistics kept for the last number of decades, when parents and spouses are removed from their home places to the theater of war, things like divorce rates skyrocket, family breakdown occurs.  In the case of our movie, which is set in a little hamlet in Upstate New York in 1862, the war, even though it seems very far away, is kind of omnipresent and pervades everything.  It splits the two families at the center of the story.  It splits the town itself.  It’s a very American story, I think.  This is the most American of weekends, so we hope some folks get out to see it.

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Mike:  I saw it.  I got an advance copy sent to me at the end of May.  It took me two nights to watch it because it runs at epic length, a little over two and a half hours long, but it takes that long to tell the story.  The center of the story that I thought was just so engrossing was that this family — the dad is played by the actor Billy Campbell, I believe.  The character that he plays is, I don’t want to say that it’s understated because it’s not.  To steal a line from Robert Downey, Jr., he’s so overt he’s covert.  I have to ask you, though, there’s a lot of quoting Jefferson.  Jefferson is thrown under the bus by one of the boys in the town.  He renounces his name, doesn’t want to be called Jefferson anymore or Jeff.  He’s now called Will or something to that effect.

Kauffman:  Tom.

Mike:  When you’re writing this, are you thinking that Abner is a pacifist, because that’s what you’ve been accused of, or is he just a constitutionalist?   He keeps going: There’s no justification for this war, no justification in this Constitution here, boy.  You need to read this.

Kauffman:  He’s a mix.  The antiwar movement of that era, as with any antiwar movement, is a mixture of people.  Probably most of the antiwar Democrats during the Civil War were essentially constitutionalists.  They thought, A, the central government doesn’t have the power to wage war, to bring the Southern states back into the union.  And B, if it does, it’s going to lead to this incredible erosion of freedoms.  In the southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, there were some out and out racists who were pretty much indifferent to slavery, just as within that coalition there were pacifists.

Abner has sort of a Christian pacifist streak.  All the characters in this film, in this little village, they all go to the same church, which was often the case in little towns.  They didn’t have separate denominational churches.  These people have lived and breathed and absorbed the Bible.  From the Bible, they have different views of their obligations, both to their neighbors and to the nation.  Abner Beech, the protagonist, played, as you say, wonderfully, this subtle and powerful performance by Billy Campbell.  He’s essentially an old-fashioned constitutionalist Democrat.  He calls himself a Jeffersonian.  As you say, his son was named after Thomas Jefferson and renounces the name because, as the woman he loves tells him, Jefferson is also the name of the president of the rebellion.  It’s a traitor name.  He renounces that name and, against his father’s wishes, runs off to join the Union army.  That kind of sets in motion this series of events that culminates in both tragedy and a sense of hopefulness and reconciliation and forgiveness…

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Mike:  I don’t want to give the ending of the film away, but there is a bit of closure at the end.  It still had me wanting more.

Kauffman:  You want Copperhead 2, Mike?

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Mike:  I could have watched it another hour.  It could have been a miniseries.  You could have just kept going on and telling the story.  I think the other thing that stands out to me about the film Copperhead is the portrayal of how — I think is very accurate, and of course all Ron’s films are extraordinarily accurate — is the portrayal of the American male, the man of the house and the sons, as all living this life of virtue that they’re called to.  Whichever side they’re on, they all still want to be gentlemen at the end of the day, and they all still want to do what they’re doing with respect and not to betray what it is they’ve learned in the course of their upbringing.  How do you go about fashioning a script that ultimately has to be acted out?  You do it in words and they act it out.  Is that part of the process that you took and you applied to fleshing out the characters of the young boys and their father?

Kauffman:  We were very lucky because this source novel, this short novel of 100 pages by Harold Frederic is just a marvelous story, as I say, unlike any other Civil War fiction.  It gave us the characters.  In some cases we took the characters in different directions.  For instance, Jee Hagadorn, who’s Abner’s chief protagonist, is a very fiery abolitionist, man of God, yet also something of a fanatic.  One of the weaknesses in the book is he comes off a bit as a caricature.  To me what’s interesting about him is here’s a man who’s absolutely right on the central moral question of the age, that slavery is a bad institution and we should get rid of it and should have gotten rid of it generations ago.  Yet in his fanaticism, he’s kind of elevated . . .

Mike:  I think we lost Bill.  We’ll call him back.  Bill, we lost you right in the middle.

Kauffman:  Right when I was on a roll, Mike.

Mike:  I was telling the audience that the actor that Maxwell hired to play the character you’re talking about, people would recognize him from Braveheart.  He’s Robert the Bruce.

Kauffman:  Yes, Angus Macfadyen is Robert the Bruce.  He’s a terrific actor.

Mike:  He is.  So this guy, in the way you wrote him, he’s a fanatical abolitionist.  Of course, there were tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of them across the North.  Is that how he was portrayed in the book?

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Kauffman:  Even more so actually.  The author Harold Frederic seems to have based that character on his grandfather-in-law whom he despised.  In the book he’s a completely unsympathetic character, yet, as I say, he’s right on the basic moral issue.  He sees himself as a man of God doing his duty.  We really tried to humanize him.  I think Angus Macfadyen did a terrific job at making him a really poignant character, who raised these two fine children who are in some ways the moral centers of the story.

Mike:  The entire storyline about the abolitionists versus those — if you’re not an abolitionist in this particular town, you’re asked if you’re a copperhead.  I actually was trying to find how the term copperhead came about.  I’ll tell you my story and maybe you can tell me yours.  I had read that there was what we would call an urban legend today that someone who was an opponent of the war had sent a parcel through the mail.  I can’t remember where it was opened up at, but it was addressed to either Lincoln or someone in the Lincoln administration.  Allegedly when they opened it up, a dead snake fell out of it, a Copperhead.  It was an assassination attempt or whatever.  They were trying to get the guy bitten.  That’s how the name copperhead stuck, even though there was no return address and no one knew who sent it.  That’s all I could turn up.  Is that what you found out?

Kauffman:  If that’s an urban legend, it’s a great story.  We should stick with it.  I don’t know.  The best historian of the antiwar movement in the North, a guy named Frank Klement, wrote several books.  If your readers want to learn more about this can go to his works.  The copperhead is a poisonous snake generally found in the South.  The antiwar Democrats of the 1860s, as is sometimes the case in our country, the antiwar people are considered traitors or not quite reliable.  They get stuck with this name, which of course also dehumanizes them.  It’s one unfortunate thing about our national discourse, and I think it’s gotten much worse in the last 150 years, the failure to see folks with whom you disagree as human beings.

Mike:  Along those lines, one of the things that you have been writing about a lot of late, and I assume there must be some longer work that you are putting all this together in, and it’s actually the cover of the latest issue of American Conservative magazine, what’s emerging to be called localism.  I call localism republicanism.  Republicanism is alive and well in the movie Copperhead, directed by Ron Maxwell and you, Bill Kauffman, the screenwriter.  There is a scene in the film that is a reenactment of how I have read that actual elections did transpire in New York and Maryland and other places where there were Democrats, which was there was ballot box stuffing.  The elections were rigged.  If you were a Democrat, you’re not supposed to be here and vote.  Tell me a little bit about how that came about.

Kauffman:  Again, that’s from the novel.  The difficulty in this small community that the minority party, in this state the Democrats, have in voting.  The way voting has evolved is interesting.  I think when people see the film they’ll expect you go into a booth and it’s private and you just pull a lever or something.  In fact, you would go to the polling place and there would be people outside the polling place representing the parties.  It didn’t have to be just two parties.  There was none of this ballot access law nonsense by which they keep third parties off the ballot.  The partisans would hand you a ticket and you would walk in.  The tickets would be different colors, in our case it was red for the Republicans and blue for the Democrats at the time.  You put the ballot in a box.  It was open voting.  There wasn’t really a secret ballot.  Yeah, there were cases of intimidation.

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On the other hand, in some ways I actually prefer that system because it was almost a privatized way of voting.  Once the government took over who’s going to be on the ballot, which happened generally in the 1890s, early 1900s, the very first thing the parties did was try to screw over the other party, especially the populous party.  They would do anything they could to keep the populous off the ballot.  That’s where you had these things like signature requirements.  If you want to run for assemblyman, you have to have 5,000 signatures before you run.  That’s the kind of thing our forefathers would have been appalled by.

Mike:  Yes.  Bill Kauffman wrote the film Copperhead.  You can see it in theaters this week.  It is a different send up of events that happened during the War of Northern Aggression.  Bill, let me switch gears for just a moment here.  You wrote the book Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.  As I was reading it, I was going: Man, where did this guy get all this stuff from.  I was following your footnotes.  Doors, when you’re doing historical work, tend to open other doors.  I just kept following them.  The result of that work, which I thank you for in the credits, is What Lincoln Killed: Episode I. 

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It is amazing to me that what was once a settled part of American history, which was that the Constitution was a compact and was voluntarily entered into by the states, and that the new general government would serve as the agent for the states and things they didn’t think they could handle themselves or thought it would be better that they handled as one group, that that was settled all the way up till the 1830s.  We know that this was settled and secession was on the table.  We’ll be having Independence Day on Thursday.  Few people are going to call it Secession Day, which is what it is.  This was a settled part of history.  No one disagreed with this, including the guy — this was the most fascinating part of some of your work — including the guy from which his hand sprung the actual text of the Constitution, Gouverneur Morris.  Morris was behind the scenes leading the charge for Northern states to secede in 1814 through this thing called the Hartford Convention, right?

Kauffman:  Absolutely.  That’s the interesting thing about secession.  As you say, this nation was born of secession.  Before the Civil War, almost all serious attempts to divide the country came from the North, as you say people like Gouverneur Morris or early in the early 1800s when Northerners were upset about Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, which they thought was unconstitutional. Later on, there were efforts to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act, which the Northerners thought, and I think correctly, set an imposition of the central government upon them.  It forced them to return runaways.  It was considered a tool by which to discipline an overreaching central government.  Obviously the Civil War, I suppose, settled that question.  One great good came out of the war, the emancipation of slaves, but the great moral and political failure I think of our country was the failure to emancipate the slaves not only way earlier than happened but without bloodshed.  700,000 dead, that’s a considerable number.

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Mike:  One final question for Bill Kauffman here on the Dude Maker Hotline.  Another one of the guys that you’ve written famously about, or I think you wrote famously about, was the great Luther Martin, the forgotten founder.  Throughout the early days of American history, if there was one gentleman who received the most short shrift, it’s probably Martin.  If Martin doesn’t show up at the Federal Convention of 1787, we have a vastly different form of, or that convention produces a vastly different form of government.  There may be a chance that Madison’s plan might actually make it through unedited.  There’s Martin to say: I can’t go back to Maryland in my hand.  Are you insane?

Kauffman:  Old Luther staggers into Philadelphia and emerges as the loudest, most claimant voice for liberty and decentralism and the states.  He’s been almost completely whitewashed out of history.  As you say, I did a biography of him that I hope partially restored him.  Maybe it just threw a few more shovelfuls of dirt upon him.  He was a great, great, colorful figure.  I love Luther Martin.

Mike:  Is the story true about the guy who hired him in 1810 or so who said: I’ll hire you but you can’t drink.  Martin found the most ingenious way around drinking.  Is that true?

Kauffman:  It is, yes.  He actually soaked a piece of bread in either rum or brandy and just gnawed at that thing all during the trial.  He was toasted, as he usually was, and won the case.  The old line: I never knew he was a drunk until I saw him sober once.

Mike:  The other fascinating thing about Luther Martin is, and many people don’t know this, anyone that runs in our little circle that loves American history and old American history, especially the history of the founding era and founding fathers, they all know the case McCulloch v. Maryland.  What they don’t know is who argued the case, right?

Kauffman:  Yes, it was Luther Martin as attorney general defending the rights of Maryland and all sorts of echoes of the constitutional convention debates of 30 years earlier in there.  Luther was like this racked and spectral old ghost, wandering yet again into an American debate, just as he appeared as the defense attorney for Aaron Burr in his trial.  This guy would just keep showing up.

Mike:  He does all this while he’s inebriated.  Your parents not be correct if they say you’ll never amount to anything if you take Dean Wormer’s advice, that fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.  Tell that to the parents of Luther Martin.  I said final question but this is really the final question: Is republicanism / localism actually poised to make a comeback in your opinion, and not just a comeback but a revival that actually has an impact on our brazen and jingoistic or Jacobin tendency towards nationalism?

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Kauffman:  I think so.  I think people from all over the political spectrum are dissatisfied with this behemoth, leviathan central government, which is bureaucratic and its tyrannical tendencies.  They’re casting about for alternatives.  At a political level, it doesn’t really have a political expression yet.  Even things like farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, homeschooling, the revival of regional literature, they’re all these interesting cultural currents.  Again, they have no political expression.  They’re not Democrat or Republican.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and John McCain, they don’t partake in any of this.  It’s kind of bubbling under the surface.  I’m a congenital optimist, but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.  I think there’s an interesting kind of localist revolution or counterrevolution brewing.  We’ll see how it goes.

Mike:  How’s the State of Iroquois coming?

Kauffman:  My dream to separate Upstate New York from Downstate New York.  We’ve been working on it for about 225 years now, Mike.  I think we’re getting closer.

Mike:  Someday maybe you’ll actually get there.  The film is Copperhead.  It’s in limited release now in theaters.  Hopefully it’ll come to a town near you.  If not, I’m told that it’ll be available on DVD soon and probably Pay-Per-View as well.  Bill Kauffman, Happy Adamsian Independence Day to you, my friend.

Kauffman:  Happy Independence Day to you, too, Mike.  Thanks for having me on.  Go to to see where it’s playing.

Mike:  There you have the one and only Bill Kauffman.

End Mike Church Show Transcript



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