Clement Vallandigham, U.S. representative and
leading Peace Democrat, was born to Rebecca Laird Vallandigham and Clement
Vallandigham, a Presbyterian minister and schoolteacher. He was educated in the
classics at his fatherís 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 Democrats in the 1840 election. He served as a delegate
to the Democratic county convention the next year, 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, then reelected in 1860. After gerrymandering by the
state legislature, he lost in 1862.
Vallandigham adhered to a Jacksonian philosophy
throughout his political lifeóstatesí 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-constitutional principle 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.
Vallandighamís ardent, persistent criticism of
the Lincoln administration and the war caused one of the major political
controversies of the Civil War. In 1863 Ohioís military governor, General
Ambrose Burnside, issued an order against public expressions of sympathy with
the Confederate enemy. Considering that policy to be a violation of the 1st
Amendmentís protection of free speech, Vallandigham tested it by delivering a
vitriolic speech condemning the military decree and "King" Lincolnís
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 Democratsí 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, but lost overwhelming to the Republican nominee. When he 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,
repudiated the peace plank, but the 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,
statesí 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 House of
Vallandigham returned to 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 his
death bed he reaffirmed his Calvinist belief in predestination.
Sources consulted: American National Biography;
Lincoln, David Herbert Donald; The Oxford Companion to the Supreme
Court of the United States, ed. Kermit Hall.