||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Vallandigham, Clement Laird (July 20, 1820 – June 17,
Clement Vallandingham was a leading Peace Democrat (“Copperhead”), who was
one of the most vocal and tenacious critics of the Lincoln administration during
the Civil War.
He was born on July 20, 1820, in New Lisbon, Ohio, to Rebecca Laird
Vallandigham and Clement Vallandigham, a Presbyterian minister and
schoolteacher. Young Clement was educated in the classics at his father’s
school before entering Jefferson College (Pennsylvania) in 1837. Financial
difficulties forced him to drop out after a year and to take a job as principal
at Union Academy (Maryland). In 1840, he returned to Jefferson College for the
fall term, but left in January after a quarrel. He studied law with an older
brother in Ohio, and in 1842 was admitted to the state bar.
Vallandigham got involved in politics at an early age, campaigning for the
Democratic Party in the 1840 election. He served as a delegate to the
Democratic county convention the next year, and then was elected without
opposition to the Ohio state legislature in 1845. Two years later, he moved to
Dayton to become a partner at a law firm, as well as editor and part owner of
the Western Empire newspaper. In 1849, Vallandigham became active again
in politics, losing a race for judge. Thereafter, Ohio Democrats nominated him
for lieutenant governor (1851) and Congress (1852, 1854, 1856), but he lost
every election. He contested the last narrow defeat, and finally in May 1858
the Democratically–controlled U.S. House of Representatives disqualified enough
Republican votes to give Vallandigham a victory. It was bittersweet, however;
Congress adjourned the next day, ending the term. He was elected in the fall,
though, by a slim margin, and then reelected in 1860. After gerrymandering by
the state legislature, he lost in 1862.
Vallandigham adhered to a Jacksonian philosophy throughout his political
life—states’ rights, strict constitutional interpretation, low tariffs, and
anti–national bank. The conservative political philosophy of Edmund Burke and
Presbyterian Calvinism were also major influences on his thought. Although
Vallandigham admitted that slavery was immoral, he opposed abolitionism on
political and constitutional principles and resisted equal rights for black
Americans on racist grounds. He was a Unionist who repudiated secession; yet he
also opposed the Union war effort and became a leader of the Peace wing of the
Democratic Party (“Copperheads”).
Vallandigham’s ardent, persistent criticism of the Lincoln administration and
the war caused one of the major political controversies of the Civil War. In
1863, Ohio’s military governor, General Ambrose Burnside, issued an order
against public expressions of sympathy for the Confederate enemy. Considering
that policy to be a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free
speech, Vallandigham tested it by delivering a vitriolic speech condemning the
military decree and “King” Lincoln’s war to free blacks and enslave whites.
Consequently, the former congressman was arrested, tried, and convicted in a
military court. The incident provoked outrage in the Northern Democratic press
and undermined War Democrats’ support of the Lincoln administration.
Vallandigham appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of
certiorari. In Ex parte Vallandigham (1864), the Supreme Court
unanimously denied the petition, citing lack of jurisdiction, and thereby
avoided the constitutional question of the military arrest and trial of
civilians. Lincoln commuted his prison sentence to exile in the Confederacy.
Vallandigham soon left the South for Canada, at which time the Ohio Democrats,
infuriated over his arrest, nominated him for governor. He directed his campaign
from Canada ("Canady" in this cartoon means "Canadian"), but lost overwhelming
to the Republican nominee.
When Vallandigham returned clandestinely to Ohio in June 1864 and again began
speaking out against the war, Lincoln told military and civilian officials to
ignore him. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1864,
Vallandigham was instrumental in convincing delegates to add a peace plank to
their party platform. The plank called for an immediate halt to the fighting,
followed by peace negotiations between the Union and the Confederacy. The
Democratic presidential nominee, General George McClellan, tried to distance
himself from the peace plank, but Republicans used it to paint the Democrats as
Confederate sympathizers. Vallandigham campaigned for McClellan and Democratic
candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, but his party lost
both the presidency and more seats in Congress.
At the close of the Civil War, Vallandigham helped form the “New Departure”
wing of the Democratic Party. He and like–minded Democrats argued that their
party could only return to power by accepting the results of the Civil War and
Reconstruction as irreversible facts and by looking to the future. While still
holding to strict constitutionalism, states’ rights, low tariffs, and resisting
racial equality in social affairs, Vallandigham supported moderate
Reconstruction policies, civil service reform, a wealth tax, hard monetary
policies, and labor–capital cooperation. Running on those issues, he lost
elections to the U.S. Senate (1867, 1869) and the House of Representatives
In the post–war years, Vallandigham also resumed his law practice, earning
renown as a talented trial lawyer and gaining a large clientele. In what would
be his last case, he acted as defense attorney for a man charged with murder.
The unusual defense was that the victim had shot himself accidentally.
Vallandigham dramatically recreated the alleged accident with what he thought
was an unloaded pistol. The gun, however, was loaded, and Vallandigham shot
himself accidentally, suffering an agonizing death several hours later on June
17, 1871. On his deathbed he reaffirmed his Calvinist belief in predestination.
Sources consulted: Dictionary of American Biography; William
G. Andrews, “Vallandigham, Clement Laird,” American National Biography