Clement Laird Vallandigham was born on July 29, 1820, in New Lisbon (now Lisbon) in eastern Ohio. He was the fifth of seven children born to Clement and Rebecca (Laird) Vallandigham. The senior Vallandigham was a Presbyterian minister. To make ends meet financially he founded the New Lisbon Academy, a private school where young Clement received his primary education.
By the age of seventeen, Vallandigham was so far advanced in his schooling that he entered Jefferson College at Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, as a junior. After only one year of study, however, Vallandigham left college to accept an appointment as a teacher and principal at Union Academy, Snow Hill, Maryland. In 1841, Vallandigham returned to Jefferson College to complete his senior year, but school officials dismissed him he before graduated after he engaged in a heated argument over constitutional law with one of his professors.
Following his dismissal, Vallandigham returned to New Lisbon and studied law under the tutelage of his eldest brother, James. After being admitted to the Ohio bar on December 5, 1842, Vallandigham joined his brother’s law practice in New Lisbon. Soon thereafter, James left the firm to join the ministry and Clement inherited the practice.
As Vallandigham’s New Lisbon law practice thrived, he became an active member of the Democratic Party. In October 1845, Columbiana County voters elected twenty-five-year-old Vallandigham to the Ohio General Assembly, where he served for two years. During his tenure, Vallandigham supported the growing nationalistic agitation for war with Mexico, opposed the Wilmot Proviso (excluding slavery from the territories), and resisted efforts to repeal Ohio’s “Black Laws,” which suppressed the rights of citizens of African descent.
On August 27, 1846, Vallandigham married Louisa Anna McMahon, the daughter of a Maryland slaveholder. The couple remained married until Vallandigham’s death in 1871, and they produced five children.
One year after his wedding, Vallandigham moved his law practice to Dayton, Ohio, where he also purchased a share of the Dayton Western Empire newspaper in 1847. Serving as editor of the weekly periodical for the next two years, Vallandigham staunchly defended the principle of states’ rights, and he assailed abolitionists who he viewed as the fountainhead of sectionalism that threatened the Union. In June 1849, Vallandigham sold his share of the newspaper to concentrate on his thriving law practice and his political aspirations.
In 1852 and 1854, Vallandigham made unsuccessful bids for the U.S congressional seat from Ohio’s third district, losing to Lewis D. Campbell, the candidate of the Whig and Know-Nothing Parties. In 1856, Campbell, who was then a Republican, again defeated Vallandigham by a scant margin of nineteen votes. After a lengthy challenge to the election results, on May 25, 1858, the U.S. House of Representatives declared Vallandigham the victor shortly before the session ended. On October 12, 1858, Vallandigham narrowly defeated Campbell (9,903-9,715) to keep his seat. Two years later, Vallandigham won another close election over Republican Samuel Craighead (11,052-10,918). In the first congressional election after the beginning of the Civil War, Republican Robert B. Schenck soundly defeated Vallandigham’s bid for reelection (13,027-11,770) in 1862. In total, Vallandigham represented Ohio’s third district from May 25, 1858, to March 3, 1863, in the 35th into the 37th Congresses.
During his tenure in Congress, Vallandigham remained an ardent supporter of states’ rights and a relentless opponent of abolitionists. As the Union began to unravel following Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election, Vallandigham supported the Crittenden Compromise, an unsuccessful attempt to avoid disunion.
After the Civil War began, Vallandigham consistently voted against measures to fund the Union war effort. Vallandigham also harshly criticized what he considered President Lincoln’s abuse of power. In an especially scathing denunciation of the president delivered on the House floor on January 14, 1863, (two weeks after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation) Vallandigham trumpeted that “War for the Union was abandoned; war for the negro openly begun, and with stronger battalions than before. With what success? Let the dead at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer….” He went on to proclaim that:
I have denounced, from the beginning, the usurpations and the infractions, one and all, of law and Constitution, by the President and those under him; their repeated and persistent arbitrary arrests, the suspension of habeas corpus, the violation of freedom of the mails, of the private house, of the press and of speech, and all the other multiplied wrongs and outrages upon public liberty and private right, which have made this country one of the worst despotisms on earth for the past twenty months; and I will continue to rebuke and denounce them to the end….
Ambrose Burnside Comes to Ohio
In a seemingly unrelated event eleven days later, President Lincoln drafted General Orders No. 20 (U.S. War Department) announcing that he was relieving Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, at Burnside’s request. On March 16, 1863, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered Burnside to proceed to Cincinnati and take command of the Department of the Ohio. Burnside arrived in the Queen City on March 25.
Meanwhile, after completing his final term in Congress on March 3, 1863, Vallandigham returned to Ohio where he continued to serve as the preeminent spokesperson for the Peace Democrats—or Copperheads as their opponents derisively called them.
General Orders, Number 38 (Department of the Ohio)
Vallandigham was back in Ohio only a few weeks before Burnside issued his controversial General Orders, Number 38 (Department of the Ohio), on April 13, 1863, making it a crime to express public opposition to the war. Bolstered by President Lincoln’s Presidential Proclamation 94 (September 24, 1862), which denied the writ of habeas corpus to persons suspected of being disloyal to the U.S., Burnside felt secure in proclaiming:
The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried . . . or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department.
Freedom of Speech?
Refusing to let Burnside’s threats silence him, Vallandigham delivered an inflammatory speech at Mt. Vernon, Ohio, on May 1, 1863, denouncing the war and “King Lincoln.” Mocking Burnside’s order, Vallandigham asserted that “General Order, No. 1, the Constitution of the United States.” protected his right to speak freely.
Arrested and Imprisoned
Burnside disagreed. Under his command, 150 Union soldiers surrounded Vallandigham’s Dayton home at 2:40 a.m. on May 5, 1863, to arrest the former congressman. When Vallandigham refused to surrender, the soldiers forcibly entered his house and seized Vallandigham in his upstairs bedroom.
Spirited overnight by train to Burnside’s Cincinnati headquarters, Burnside imprisoned Vallandigham and charged with violating General Orders, No. 38. Specifically, Burnside accused Vallandigham of:
Publicly expressing, in violation of General Orders No. 38, from Headquarters Department of the Ohio, sympathy for those in arms against the Government of the United States, and declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its efforts to suppress an unlawful rebellion.
In the formal indictment, Burnside alleged that:
Clement L. Vallandigham, a citizen of the State of Ohio, on or about the first day of May, 1863, at Mount Vernon, Knox County, Ohio, did publicly address a large meeting of citizens, and did utter sentiments in words, or in effect, as follows, declaring the present war “a wicked, cruel, and unnecessary war;” “a war not being waged for the preservation of the Union;” “a war for the purpose of crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism;” “a war for the freedom of the blacks and the enslavement of the whites; [and] characterizing General Orders No. 38, from Headquarters Department of the Ohio, “as a base usurpation of arbitrary authority,” inviting his hearers to resist the same, by saying, “the sooner the people inform the minions of usurped power that they will not submit to such restrictions upon their liberties, the better;”. . . All of which opinions and sentiments he well knew did aid, comfort, and encourage those in arms against the Government . . . .
When Burnside brought Vallandigham before a tribunal of seven military officers on May 6-7, 1863, he refused to enter a plea. Instead, Vallandigham insisted that because he was not a member of the military, nor did he reside in a state in rebellion against the United States, or in a state under martial law, he was not subject to military justice. If he had violated any law, he argued, he should face a jury of his peers in a civil court, as guaranteed by the Constitution.
Ex parte Vallandigham
On May 9, 1863, before the tribunal reached a verdict or passed sentence, Vallandigham’s supporters filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court insisting that the former congressman was beyond military jurisdiction. On May 16, 1863, Judge Humphrey H. Leavitt denied the request. Nine months later, in the case of Ex parte Vallandigham, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn Leavitt’s decision, ruling on February 15, 1864, that it had no constitutional authority over appeals from military courts.
Guilty as Charged
Meanwhile, on May 16, 1863, Burnside’s tribunal found Vallandigham guilty as charged and sentenced him to prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor for the rest of the war.
Vallandigham’s arrest, trial, conviction, and sentence spawned a firestorm of criticism and protest in the North. The day after the arrest, a mob ransacked and torched the offices of Dayton’s Republican newspaper, the Dayton Journal. Three days of protests and riots required Burnside to declare martial law in the area to restore order.
Following the trial, Democratic newspapers denounced Burnside and Lincoln as military despots intent on trampling the Constitutional rights of free speech, peaceful assembly, and trial by jury. Even Republican newspapers such as the New York Daily Tribune and the New York Evening Post challenged the legality of the affair.
Although President Lincoln believed that he was upon solid legal footing, the political fallout became damaging. Rather than let Vallandigham become a martyr to those clamoring for peace, Lincoln yielded to the pressure. Following a cabinet meeting on May 19, 1863, the president shrewdly announced that he would banish Vallandigham to the Confederacy. On 26 May, federal soldiers escorted the Copperhead leader to Tennessee and sent him beyond Union lines.
Vallandigham’s deportation amplified the outrage of Democrats, especially in Ohio. On June 11, 1863, Democrats overwhelmingly nominated the exiled Copperhead for the office of Governor of Ohio by a vote of 411-11.
Vallandigham did not remain in the South long. On June 17, 1863, he boarded the steamer Cornubia at Wilmington, North Carolina, which safely ran the Union blockade headed for Bermuda. After spending ten days on the British island, Vallandigham booked passage to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there the refugee traveled to Windsor, Ontario, where he conducted his campaign for governor in absentia.
By the time voters went to the polls on October 13, 1863, Union forces were riding the crest of decisive victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July. The turn of fortunes removed much of the wind from the sails of Peace Democrats. Consequently, Republican candidate John A. Brough (pronounce Bruff) swamped Vallandigham at the ballot box 288,856 (60.61%)-187,728 (39.39%)).
Dragging Down McClellan
During the summer of 1864, President Lincoln ignored Vallandigham’s surreptitious return to the United States under heavy disguise. The outcast attended the Ohio Democratic Convention in June where delegates elected him to attend the party’s national convention. When Vallandigham addressed the 1864 Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, he received a mixed reception. Still, his views on the war were persuasive enough to secure a peace plank in the Democratic platform, much to the chagrin of the party’s presidential candidate George B. McClellan. Blackened by the brushstroke of disloyalty, McClellan’s candidacy went down in flames as President Lincoln easily prevailed in the fall election.
Following his return to the United States, Vallandigham resumed his legal practice in Dayton. After the Civil War ended, he remained active in the Democratic Party in Ohio. In 1868, he lost a closely contested bid to regain his congressional seat to incumbent Republican Robert C. Schenck (16,293 (50.74%) – 15,818 (49.26%)). He subsequently attempted to distance himself from his Copperhead past by embracing the Democratic Party’s “New Departure” strategy, but he was never again a formidable political player.
On the evening of June 16, 1871, at the Lebanon House Hotel in Lebanon, Ohio, Vallandigham fell victim to an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Serving as counsel for a murder suspect, Vallandigham was making preparations in his hotel room to show the jury how the victim had shot himself while attempting to draw his own pistol. Unwittingly choosing a loaded revolver for his demonstration, Vallandigham pulled the trigger as he removed the gun from his trousers and at once exclaimed, “My God, I have shot myself.” The wound proved to be painful and fatal. At roughly 9:30 the next morning (June 17, 1871) Vallandigham took his last breath.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the jury (perhaps influenced by Vallandigham’s hapless experiment) acquitted the dead counselor’s client.
Following a large funeral on June 20, 1863, Vallandigham was interred at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.