Clement Laird Vallandigham was born July 29, 1820 in New Lisbon, Ohio (now Lisbon, Ohio), to Clement and Rebecca Laird Vallandigham. His father, a Presbyterian minister, educated his son at home.
In 1841, Vallandigham had a dispute with the college president at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He was honorably dismissed, but he never received a degree.
Edwin M. Stanton, the future Secretary of War under President Lincoln, was Vallandigham's close friend before the Civil War. Stanton lent Vallandigham $500 for a law course and to begin his own practice. Both Vallandigham and Stanton were Democrats, but they had opposing views of slavery, Stanton being abolitionist and Vallandingham anti-abolitionist.
Shortly after beginning to practice law in Dayton, Vallandigham entered politics. He was elected as a Democrat to the Ohio legislature in 1845 and 1846, and served as editor of a weekly newspaper, the Dayton Empire, from 1847 until 1849.
While in the Ohio state legislature, Vallandigham voted against the repeal of the "Black Laws" (laws against the civil rights of African-Americans), but he did want the question put to a referendum by the voters. In 1851 Vallandigham sought the Democratic nomination to be Ohio's lieutenant governor, but the party declined to nominate him.
Vallandigham ran for Congress in 1856, but he was narrowly defeated. He appealed to the Committee of Elections of the House of Representatives, claiming that illegal votes had been cast. The House eventually agreed, and Vallandigham was seated on the next to last day of the term. The delay was due to "the division which had arisen in the Democratic party upon the Lecompton question." He was reelected by a small margin in 1858 and won again in 1860. During the 1860 presidential campaign, he supported Stephen A. Douglas, although he disagreed with Douglas's position on "squatter sovereignty", which was used by detractors to describe popular sovereignty. Vallandigham lost his bid for a third full term in 1862 by a relatively large vote, which loss meant he would be out of office early in 1863. However, his loss was at least partially due to redistricting his Congressional district. Despite this loss, some still considered him to be a future presidential candidate.
In October 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown raided Harper's Ferry, Virginia, seizing the United States Army Arsenal. Vallandigham was member of a group of government officials who interrogated the captured Brown as to his aims, which Brown stated were an attempt to set off a rebellion of slaves against their masters.
Vallandigham was always a vigorous supporter of constitutional states' rights. He believed the federal government had no power to regulate any legal institution, which slavery at the time was. He also believed the states had an implied right to secede and that, legally, the Confederacy could not militarily be conquered. Vallandigham was a believer in low tariffs and that slavery was a matter for each state to decide. During the ensuing war, he would become one of Lincoln's most outspoken critics.
On February 20, 1861, Vallandigham delivered a speech titled "The Great American Revolution" to the House of Representatives. He accused the Republican Party of being "belligerent" and advocated a "choice of peaceable disunion upon the one hand, or Union through adjustment and conciliation upon the other." Vallandigham supported the Crittenden Compromise, which was a last minute effort to avert the Civil War. He blamed sectionalism and anti-slavery sentiment for the secession crisis. Vallandigham proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution. The United States would be divided into four sections: North, South, West, and Pacific. The four sections would each have the power in the Senate to veto legislation. The Electoral College would be modified, with the term of President and Vice-President increased to six years and limited to one term unless two-thirds of the electors agreed. Secession by a state could only be agreed to if the legislatures of the sections approved it. Moving between the sections was a guaranteed right.
Vallandingham strongly opposed every military bill, leading his opponents to charge that he wanted the Confederacy to win the war. He became the acknowledged leader of the anti-war Copperheads, and in an address on May 8, 1862, he coined their slogan: "To maintain the Constitution as it is, and to restore the Union as it was." It was endorsed by fifteen Democratic congressmen.
On January 14, 1863, Vallandigham delivered a speech titled "The Constitution-Peace-Reunion" in the House of Representatives. In it, he stated his opposition to abolitionism from the "beginning". He denounced Lincoln's violations of civil liberties, "which have made this country one of the worst despotisms on earth". Vallandigham openly criticized Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, charging that "war for the Union was abandoned; war for the Negro openly begun." He also condemned financial interests that were profitting from the war. "And let not Wall street, or any other great interest, mercantile, manufacturing, or commercial, imagine that it shall have power enough or wealth enough to stand in the way of reunion through peace." Vallandigham added, "Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers, these are your trophies." Vallandigham's speech included a proposal to end the military conflict. He advocated an armistice and the demobilization of the military forces of both the Union and Confederacy.
After General Ambrose E. Burnside issued General Order Number 38, warning that the "habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy" would not be tolerated in the Military District of Ohio, Vallandigham gave a major speech on May 1, 1863. He charged that the war was no longer being fought to save the Union, but it had become an attempt to free the slaves by sacrificing the liberty of white Americans to "King Lincoln". Burnside also suppressed circulation of the Chicago Times.
The authority for Burnside's order came from a proclamation of September 24, 1862, in which President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and made discouraging enlistments, drafts, or any other "disloyal" practices subject to martial law and trial by military commissions.
On May 5, 1863, Vallandigham was arrested as a violator of General Order Number 38. His enraged supporters burned the offices of the Dayton Journal, the Republican rival to the Empire. Vallandigham was tried by a military court on May 6 and 7. Vallandigham's speech at Mount Vernon, Ohio, was cited as the source of the arrest. He was charged by the Military Commission with "Publicly expressing, in violation of General Orders No. 38, from Head-quarters 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."
The specifications of the charge against Vallandigham were:
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"; stating "that if the Administration had so wished, the war could have been honorably terminated months ago"; that "peace might have been honorably obtained by listening to the proposed intermediation of France"; that "propositions by which the Northern States could be won back, and the South guaranteed their rights under the Constitution, had been rejected the day before the late battle of Fredericksburg, by Lincoln and his minions", meaning thereby the President of the United States, and those under him in authority; charging "that the Government of the United States was about to appoint military marshals in every district, to restrain the people of their liberties, to deprive them of their rights and privileges"; 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"; declaring "that he was at all times, and upon all occasions, resolved to do what he could to defeat the attempts now being made to build up a monarchy upon the ruins of our free government"; asserting "that he firmly believed, as he said six months ago, that the men in power are attempting to establish a despotism in this country, more cruel and more oppressive than ever existed before."
All of which opinions and sentiments he well knew did aid, comfort, and encourage those in arms against the Government, and could but induce in his hearers a distrust of their own Government, sympathy for those in arms against it, and a disposition to resist the laws of the land.
The peace proposal of France was true; Vallandigham had been requested by Horace Greeley to assist in the peace plan.
During the trial, testimony was given by Union army officers who attended the speech in civilian clothes, that Vallandigham called the president "King Lincoln". He was sentenced to confinement in a military prison "during the continuance of the war" at Fort Warren in Massachusetts.
On May 11, 1863, an application for a writ of habeas corpus was filed in federal court for Vallandigham by former Ohio Senator George E. Pugh. Judge Humphrey H. Leavitt of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Ohio upheld Vallandigham's arrest and military trial as a valid exercise of the President's war powers. Congress had passed an act authorizing the president to suspend habeas corpus on March 3, 1863.
Controversy and protests ensued. On May 16, 1863, there was a meeting at Albany, New York, to protest the arrest of Vallandigham. A letter from Governor Horatio Seymour of New York was read to the crowd. Seymour charged that "military despotism" had been established. Resolutions by the Hon. John V. L. Pruyin were adopted. The resolutions were sent to President Lincoln by Erastus Corning. In response to a public letter issued at the meeting of angry Democrats in Albany, Lincoln's "Letter to Erastus Corning et al." of June 12, 1863, explains his justification for supporting the court-martial's conviction.
In February 1864, the Supreme Court ruled that it had no power to issue a writ of habeas corpus to a military commission (Ex parte Vallandigham, 1 Wallace, 243).
Lincoln, who considered Vallandigham a "wily agitator", was wary of making him a martyr to the Copperhead cause and on May 19, 1863, ordered him sent through the enemy lines to the Confederacy. When he was within Confederate lines, Vallandigham said: "I am a citizen of Ohio, and of the United States. I am here within your lines by force, and against my will. I therefore surrender myself to you as a prisoner of war."
On May 30, 1863, a meeting was held at Military Park in Newark, New Jersey, where a letter was read from New Jersey Governor Joel Parker. Parker's letter condemned the arrest, trial and deportation of Vallandigham, saying they "were arbitrary and illegal acts. The whole proceeding was wrong in principle and dangerous in its tendency." However, the meeting was sparsely attended. The New York World reported on the meeting in Albany. Burnside suppressed publication of the World. On June 1, 1863, another protest meeting was held in Philadelphia.
On June 2, 1863, Vallandigham was sent to Wilmington, North Carolina, by President Davis and was briefly put under guard as an "alien enemy".
President Lincoln wrote the "Birchard Letter" of June 29, 1863, to several Ohio congressmen, offering to revoke Vallandigham's deportation order if they would agree to support certain policies of the Administration.
Vallandigham travelled to Richmond, Virginia, where he met with Robert Ould, a former classmate. He advised Ould that the Confederate army should not invade Pennsylvania, since it would unite the North against the Copperheads in the 1864 presidential election. However, a letter to the editor of The New York Times gave a different version, saying that Vallandigham encouraged the invasion.
Vallandigham then left the Confederacy on a blockade runner to Bermuda, and from there went to Canada. He now declared himself a candidate for Governor of Ohio, and actually won the Democratic nomination in absentia. (Outraged at his treatment by Lincoln, Ohio Democrats by a vote of 411-11 nominated Vallandigham for governor at their June 11 convention.) He managed his campaign from a hotel in Windsor, Ontario, where he received a steady stream of visitors and supporters.
Vallandigham asked the question in his address or letter of July 15, 1863, "To the Democracy of Ohio": "Shall there be free speech, a free press, peaceable assemblages of the people, and a free ballot any longer in Ohio?"
Vallandigham lost the 1863 Ohio gubernatorial election in a landslide to pro-Union War Democrat John Brough by a vote of 288,374 to 187,492, but his activism had left people of Dayton divided between pro- and anti-slavery factions.
While in Canada, Vallandigham met with Jacob Thompson, who was a representative of the Confederate government. He talked to Thompson about plans for forming a Northwestern Confederacy, consisting of the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, by overthrowing their governments. He requested money for weapons from the Confederates. Vallandigham refused to handle the money himself, and it was given to his associate James A. Barrett. Part of the Confederate plan was to liberate Confederate prisoners of war. The intended revolt never materialized.
Vallandigham returned to the United States "under heavy disguise" and publicly appeared at an Ohio convention on June 15, 1864. President Lincoln was informed of his return. On June 24, 1864, Lincoln drafted a letter to Governor Brough and General Heintzelman stating "watch Vallandigham and others closely" and arrest them if needed. However, he did not send the letter, and it appears he decided to do nothing about Vallandigham's return. In late August, Vallandigham openly attended the 1864 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was a District Delegate for Ohio.
The reception by the convention to Vallandigham was mixed. Vallandigham received "vehement applause". At one point Vallandigham's name was called out by the audience and the response was "applause and hisses". There were "cheers and hisses" on another occasion when he spoke.
Vallandigham promoted the "peace plank" of the platform, declaring the war a failure and demanding an immediate end of hostilities. In his acceptance letter, George B. McClellan made peace conditional on the Confederacy being ready for peace and ready to rejoin the Union. McClellan's stance conflicted with the Democratic Party Platform of 1864 which stated that "immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the States, or other peaceable means, to the end that, at the earliest practicable moment, peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal union of the States." Vallandigham supported his party's nomination of McClellan for the presidency but was "highly indignant" when McClellan repudiated the party platform in his letter of acceptance of the nomination. For a time, Vallandigham withdrew from campaigning for McClellan. Vallandigham was included on the Democratic ticket as Secretary of War. The contradiction between the party platform and McClellan's views weakened Democratic efforts to win voters over.
The Knights of the Golden Circle became the Order of American Knights and then evolved into the Sons of Liberty. In late September 1864, the trial of six members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, Harrison H. Dodd, William A. Bowles, Andrew Humphreys, Horace Heffren, and Lambdin P. Milligan began in Indianapolis before a military commission. George E. Pugh testified at the trial as a government witness. Testimony was given that confirmed that Vallandigham was "Supreme Commander" and James A. Barrett was the "Chief of Staff" to Vallandigham. Witnesses testified that a mysterious Mr. Piper had communicated to them on behalf of Vallandigham.According to the testimony of Felix G. Stidger, an undercover federal agent who infiltrated the Knights of the Golden Circle, the plan of Vallandigham was to begin a revolt sometime between November 3 and 17.
Vallandigham refused to join the Knights of the Golden Circle (later renamed the Order of American Knights). Sometime around March 1864, he became the leader of the Sons of Liberty. In April 1865, Vallandigham testified at the conspiracy trial of the American Knights in Cincinnati, Ohio. He admitted to conversing with Jacob Thompson, the Confederate agent in Canada.
In 1867, Vallandigham continued his stance against African-American suffrage and equality. However, his views later changed with the New Departure policy.
Vallandigham returned to Ohio, lost his campaigns for the Senate against Judge Allen G. Thurman and the House of Representatives against Robert C. Schenck on an anti-Reconstruction platform, and then resumed his law practice.
In 1871 Vallandigham won the Ohio Democrats over to the "New Departure" policy that would essentially neglect to mention the Civil War, "thus burying out of sight all that is of the dead past, namely, the right of secession, slavery, inequality before the law, and political inequality; and further, now that reconstruction is complete, and representation within the Union restored", but also affirmed "the Democratic party pledges itself to the full, faithful, and absolute execution and enforcement of the Constitution as it now is, so as to secure equal rights to all persons under it, without distinction of race, color, or condition." It also called for civil service reform and a progressive income tax (Items 10 & 12). It was against the "Ku-Klux Bill" (Item 17). "New Departure" was endorsed by Salmon P. Chase, a former Lincoln cabinet member and Chief Justice of the United States.
Vallandigham died in 1871 in Lebanon, Ohio, at the age of 50, after accidentally shooting himself in the abdomen with a pistol. He was representing a defendant, Thomas McGehan, in a murder case for killing a man in a barroom brawl in Hamilton, Ohio. Vallandigham attempted to prove the victim, Tom Myers, had in fact accidentally shot himself while drawing his pistol from a pocket while rising from a kneeling position. As Vallandigham conferred with fellow defense attorneys in his hotel room at the Lebanon House, today's Golden Lamb Inn, he showed them how he would demonstrate this to the jury. Selecting a pistol he believed to be unloaded, he put it in his pocket and enacted the events as they might have happened, snagging the loaded gun on his clothing and unintentionally causing it to discharge into his belly. Although he was fatally wounded, Vallandigham's demonstration proved his point, and the defendant, Thomas McGehan, was acquitted and released from custody (to be shot to death four years later in his saloon). Surgeons probed for the pistol ball, thought to have lodged in the vicinity of Vallandigham's bladder, but were unable to locate it, and Vallandigham died the next day of peritonitis. His last words expressed his faith in "that good old Presbyterian doctrine of predestination". Survived by his wife, Louisa Anna (McMahon) Vallandigham, and his son Charles Vallandigham, he was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio.
Vallandigham was eulogized by James W. Wall, a former senator from New Jersey, who mentioned recently meeting with him about "New Departure". Wall had been imprisoned during the Civil War by Union authorities.
John A. McMahon, Vallandigham's nephew, was also a U.S. representative from Ohio.
Vallandigham's deportation to the Confederacy prompted Edward Everett Hale to write "The Man Without a Country". This short story, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1863, was widely republished. In 1898, Hale made the assertion that Vallandigham stated "he did not want to belong to the United States".
In Ward Moore's alternate history novel Bring the Jubilee, the Confederacy wins the Battle of Gettysburg, wins its independence and imposes a humiliating peace on the United States. Vallandigham wins the election of 1864, and the electorate turns sharply against the Republicans, held responsible for the disaster. Vallandigham's Presidency is haunted by economic crisis and high inflation, due to the reparations imposed by the victorious Confederacy. The US would be permanently crippled by the post-war crisis and left a backward country, and future generations would hold Vallandigham partially responsible.