Clement L. Vallandigham

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Clement L. Vallandigham

Born July 29, 1820
New Lisbon, Ohio
Died June 17, 1871
Lebanon, Ohio

Ohio congressman and candidate for governor

Leader of the antiwar "Copperhead" Democrats

As a leader of the antiwar Democrats known as "Copperheads," Clement L. Vallandigham emerged as a bitter critic of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) and his administration during the Civil War. Vallandigham's opposition to Lincoln was based on his belief in the principle of states' rights and his certainty that the Union could never be restored through war. In 1863, however, his criticisms of the war effort became so strong that he was exiled (forced to leave) from the North.

A veteran of Ohio politics

Clement Laird Vallandigham was born in New Lisbon, Ohio, in 1820. The son of a minister, Vallandigham studied at the New Lisbon Academy and Pennsylvania's Jefferson College before opening up a law practice in his hometown in 1842. In the mid-1840s he won election to the state house of representatives, where he became one of Ohio's best known politicians. In 1852 and 1854, however, Vallandigham's campaigns to win a seat in the U.S. Congress ended in defeat.

By the mid-1850s, Vallandigham was one of Ohio's leading Democrats. Married to the daughter of a wealthy Maryland planter (plantation owner) and slaveowner, he sided with the South in the growing national debate over slavery. For example, he strongly supported the principle known as "states' rights." This principle was popular among Southerners who feared federal efforts to limit or end slavery. It held that each state has the right to decide how to handle various issues for itself—including slavery—without interference from the national government.

In 1856, Vallandigham ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives once again. At first, it appeared that he had been defeated. He contested the election results, however, and in May 1858, authorities awarded him the seat. After winning reelection in November 1858, he became known across the country for his vocal support of states' rights and active opposition to abolitionism (the movement to end slavery). Vallandigham worried that Northern efforts to end slavery would cause a revolt in the South that might break the Union in two.

During the 1860 presidential campaign, Vallandigham threw his support behind Northern Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861), whom he viewed as more moderate on the slavery issue than Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln or Southern Democratic nominee John Breckinridge (1821–1875). Lincoln won the election, though, triggering a wave of secessionist proclamations across the American South. When Southern states declared their intention to secede from (leave) the United States and form their own country, Lincoln ordered the U.S. Army to prepare for war in order to keep them in the Union. By mid-1861 the American Civil War had begun.

Opposes Lincoln and his war policies

During the first months of the Civil War, Vallandigham launched a series of harsh attacks on Lincoln and his war policies. Vallandigham wanted to see the Union restored, but he did not believe that the North could force the South to return. Instead, he thought that the North's best chance to restore the Union was to agree to let slavery continue in the South. "In considering terms of settlement we [should] look only to the welfare, peace, and safety of the white race, without reference to the effect that settlement may have on the African," he stated.

Vallandigham's views and his outspoken nature quickly made him a leader among a group of antiwar Northern Democrats known as "Copperheads." These politicians urged the North to either let the South depart in peace or convince it to return by guaranteeing states' rights.

As the war progressed, Vallandigham actively opposed virtually every aspect of Lincoln's war policies. He voted against conscription (a military draft), criticized Lincoln's efforts to silence unfriendly newspapers, and even encouraged Northern soldiers to desert from the army. Vallandigham's calls for desertion infuriated Lincoln, who viewed the Ohio congressman as a traitor (someone who betrays one's country). "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator [clever troublemaker] who induces [persuades] him to desert?" asked Lincoln. "I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional but withal [actually] a great mercy [kindness]."

Vallandigham's actions and statements also made him a target of Lincoln's Republican colleagues. As time passed, they became determined to neutralize the outspoken Ohio legislator. In 1862, they changed the shape of his congressional district to ensure his defeat in that year's elections. They did this through a process called gerrymandering, in which one political party divides a geographic area into voting districts that give an unfair advantage to its party in elections.

Arrested and exiled

After losing his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Vallandigham decided to run for governor of Ohio. As he campaigned, he repeatedly denounced Lincoln's policies and leadership. He charged that during Lincoln's presidency, "Money [had been] expended [spent] without limits and blood poured out like water." Vallandigham also suggested that if he was elected governor, he might encourage the state to join the Confederacy. Union military leaders threatened him with arrest for making statements of sympathy for the enemy, but Vallandigham continued to speak out. In fact, the Copperhead leader began to hope for an arrest because he thought that it might energize his fading campaign.

In May 1863, Vallandigham's continued criticisms of Lincoln finally resulted in his arrest by General Ambrose Burnside (1824–1881; see entry), the commander of the Department of the Ohio. Charged with treason (betrayal of one's country), Vallandigham was tried by a military court even though he was a civilian. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years in a military prison.

Vallandigham's conviction, though, worried many people in the North, including some members of Lincoln's Republican Party. "The Vallandigham case did indeed raise troubling constitutional questions," wrote James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. "Could a speech be treason? Could a military court try a civilian? Did a general, or for that matter a president, have the power to impose martial law [temporary military rule over the civilian population] or suspend habeas corpus [a section of the Constitution meant to protect individuals from illegal imprisonment] in an area distant from military operations where the civil courts were functioning?"

As expressions of concern about Vallandigham's conviction increased, President Lincoln decided to commute (end) his jail sentence and banish him (send him away) from Union territory. On May 26, Vallandigham was transported to Confederate territory, where his Union escort released him. Upon arriving in the South, however, he discovered that the Confederate leaders did not trust him. Unwelcome in the Confederacy, Vallandigham moved to Canada. He settled in Ontario, where he began a strange "campaign-inexile" to win the governorship of Ohio. Despite being forbidden from entering Ohio, he managed to gain the Democratic nomination for governor in June. In October 1863, though, his bid for the governorship ended in a landslide (overwhelming) defeat at the hands of Republican candidate John Brough (1811–1865).

Continues to oppose war

Vallandigham continued to battle Lincoln and his war policies during the final two years of the Civil War. In June 1864, he returned to Ohio in disguise. Resuming his work with the "Copperhead" Democrats, he also became involved with a mysterious antiwar organization known as the Sons of Liberty. Members of this strange organization were dedicated to states' rights, sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and fiercely opposed to the Republican Party. Many Northerners believed that this organization provided dangerous support to the Confederacy through spying and other espionage activities. In reality, however, the group remained small and insignificant throughout the war.

Lincoln learned of Vallandigham's return to the United States almost as soon as it occurred. The president, however, let him resettle in Ohio. Aware that Vallandigham's previous arrest had boosted the Copperhead's popularity, the president decided that it was better to just ignore him. Lincoln's instincts in this situation proved correct. Vallandigham continued to criticize the president and his Republican allies for the war's financial cost and heavy casualties. When Union military forces registered a series of big victories in the summer and fall of 1864, however, Vallandigham's influence diminished quickly.

Postwar career

The North won the Civil War in the spring of 1865, forcing the rebellious Southern states to return to the Union. This development doomed Vallandigham's political career, since he had always insisted that the Union could never be restored by war. He tried to win election to political office in both 1866 and 1867, but both efforts failed miserably.

In the late 1860s, Vallandigham resumed his law practice. He established a partnership with a former judge that became very successful. In June 1871, however, he accidently shot himself during a trial when, using a pistol that he did not realize was loaded, he tried to demonstrate how a murder victim actually might have committed suicide. Vallandigham died one day later from his wound.

Where to Learn More

Klement, Frank L. Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, andTreason Trials in the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and theCivil War. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1970. Reprint, New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Klement, Frank L. Lincoln's Critics: The Copperheads of the North. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Books, 1999.

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