Clement L. Vallandigham

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Clement L. Vallandigham

Clement Laird Vallandigham (byname: the wily agitator; 1820-1871) was a United States Congressman of Ohio and member of the Democratic Party during the period of the American Civil War, and best known of the anti-war "Copperheads" in the Democratic Party. His efforts to sabotage the war effort led to his arrest and exile into the Confederacy.

Vallandigham was born in New Lisbon, Ohio, on July 29, 1820. He was educated in the common schools and afterwards studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1842. Elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1845, he became one an extreme state rights Democrat, emphasizing his principles in the legislature in the local and national party conventions, and in the columns of a newspaper, the Western Empire, which he edited at Dayton, Ohio, in 1847-49. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857, opposed from the beginning to the policies of the newly formed Republican Party, especially as they related to slavery. Of Southern ancestry, his beliefs and politics were pro-South; so much so that by the time the Civil War began he was the leader of a group of Democrats whose mission was to undermine the Republican war effort by convincing men through inflammatory speeches, letters, and publications not to enlist. They were known as "copperheads" after the poisonous snake.

In late April, 1863 he was delivering derogatory speeches against Lincoln and the war effort in Ohio - some of which called on soldiers to desert - in defiance of a military order by Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside to anyone within the Military Department of the Ohio not to sympathize with the enemy. Burnside felt it deliberately undermined the war effort and ordered his immediate arrest on May 5; Vallandigham was tried and found guilty by a military commission of treasonable conduct in the service of the Confederacy and sentenced to prison. Lincoln changed his sentence to banishment to the Confederacy. By then, Vallandigham was one of the most reviled and hated men in the Union. In February 1864 Vallandigham appealed through counsel to the U.S. Supreme Court for revision of the sentence of the military commission. His petition was denied, the Supreme Court declaring that its authority did not extend to the proceedings of a military commission.

Copperheads were strong in the lower Middle West and Vallandingham was their hero. His sympathizers vigorously attacked the administration for his "unlawful arrest"; they claimed that his right of habeas corpus guaranteed by the Constitution was denied by his military tribunal. Ohio Democrats defiantly nominated Vallandigham for governor in 1863, and others tried to put pressure on Lincoln to reverse his decision and restore him to his seat in Congress. To a small committee of Democrats, Lincoln famously answered

"Must I shoot some poor soldier boy who deserts, and not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?"

Vallandigham did not stay in Southern exile for long. By that fall he was in Canada, continuing his denunciations of the war effort. The campaign for the governorship weakened in the wake of the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Although he returned secretly to Ohio in 1864, Union authorities did not arrest him, even when he actively campaigned on behalf of General George B. McClellan for president and wrote the anti-war Democratic platform.

After the war, Vallandigham called the Reconstruction policy of the Republicans tyrannical and unconstitutional, but in actuality he was finished as a politician, with Lincoln's tag line "wily agitator" now firmly implanted. By 1870 he had urged his party to steer away from opposing Reconstruction and concentrate on financial issues; he himself would find more success as a lawyer. However, on June 16, 1871, he was rehearsing his final arguments in a murder trial; he wanted to demonstrate to the jury that the defendant's gun could have fired accidentally while pulling it from his pocket. While making the same move, Vallandigham shot himself in the abdomen; he died the next day.

See also

Further reading

  • Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1998), pro-Vallandigham
  • Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006), the standard history excerpt and text search