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By Kate Uttinger
What is it about “lost causes” that they attract such blind and earnest sons? Surely, no figure of the American Civil War is as tragic as Clement Laird Vallandigham. He was, at once, pro-Union and anti-war, a friend of the Confederacy and an opponent of slavery. He intensely opposed religious leaders meddling in matters of public policy (e.g. slavery), presaging a debate that, though the issues differ, remains in principle the same.
Copperhead snakes are found throughout the southern and eastern United States. Their heads are distinctively penny-colored, and black swathes of scales down a copperhead’s back camouflage the snake handily in its favorite habitat, dark underbrush. This member of the pit viper family can grow up to three feet long and has a bite roughly one-half the potency of a rattlesnake. Typically, copperheads keep to themselves. Unlike other snakes, which may flee when threatened, a copperheads will hold its ground if it perceives itself to be in danger. And just when a passerby least expects it, the copperhead delivers a poisonous bite.
“Copperhead” was also the derogatory nickname given to Northern Democrats who opposed Abraham Lincoln and his policies during the Civil War. Though the exact origin of this moniker is unknown, some suspect that Republicans thought their Northern colleagues were just like these snakes – sneaky, treasonous creatures lurking in the shadows, waiting for their chance to strike out at the Union. One such famous Copperhead was Clement Laird Vallandigham, an outspoken critic of Lincoln and the war.
Clement Vallandigham was born in 1820 in New Lisbon, Ohio. His father was a Presbyterian minister of the Old School variety; his mother, of Scot-Irish descent. The Vallandighams can trace their roots back to 14th century Flanders and the “Battle of the Golden Spurs.” A few centuries later, another Vallandigham also resisted French oppression. In 1690, after heavy persecution under Louis XIV, Huguenot Michael Van Landeghem and his family sought safety in exile and settled themselves in northern Virginia. The Van Landeghem family, now rendered “Vallandigham,” distinguished themselves as patriots and productive citizens. Clement Vallandigham made a name for himself as an able debater in college, established a productive law practice just after graduation and was elected to the Ohio legislature when he was just 25 years old.
In 1860, Vallandigham labored heavily to elect Stephen Douglas. Both Douglas and Vallandigham were concerned over the divisive sectionalism that was sweeping the nation. Like Douglas, Vallandigham held to the notion of “popular sovereignty” – particularly, that incoming territories and states should decide for themselves how the slavery question should be handled. Douglas refused to see slavery as a moral issue at all, considering it a state issue that should be off-limits to federal meddling.
Vallandigham found slavery morally repugnant but, like other northern Democrats such as Douglas, he felt that the federal government had overstepped its bounds in telling states how to deal with such “domestic matters.” The will of the people, he believed, should dictate the laws of the land, but only within the bounds of the Constitution. This political stance of Vallandigham’s would not only define the Ohioan, but also hound him during the entirety of his political career.
He supported the Kansas territory’s proposed pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution on such grounds (and thereby cast fuel on the fire of the Bleeding Kansas tragedy), and, on the basis of popular sovereignty, Vallandigham thought that Utah should be admitted to the Union although their constitution allowed polygamy. Though he wished that incoming territories, like California, would write anti-slavery laws into their state constitution, slavery, Vallandigham argued, co-existed for a hundred years in America before it became a politically divisive issue.
Vallandigham was particularly concerned that the Democratic Party was splintering over the question of slavery and state’s rights. Getting Douglas elected, he believed, would stem the tide of radical abolitionism and could mend the growing rift between northern and southern states. But the Democratic Party could not come to a consensus. Vallandigham told his fellow legislators that if the Democratic Party is “dissevered [on the question of Douglas's presidency] … the result will be the disruption of the Union, and one of the bloodiest civil wars on record, the magnitude of which no man can estimate.”
A dubious legislator rejoined, “Sit down, Vallandigham, and drink your wine. You are always prophesying!”
A year later, shots rang out at Fort Sumter, and Vallandigham’s prophecy was vindicated.
Vallandigham was a vocal critic of the war and became the face of Peace Democrats. His mantra became, “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.” He gave lengthy speeches decrying the war, its effects on the economy and the expansion of presidential power at the expense of personal liberty and Congressional responsibility. Vallandigham introduced congressional resolutions excoriating Lincoln for “a series of unconstitutional acts” from illegal military arrests to suppressing free speech and free presses to “usurping congressional privileges,” such as “declaring a war, raising an army and navy, establishing a blockade, and suspending the writ of habeas corpus.”
Vallandigham believed the North and South could be reunited without further bloodshed if both worked together, conceding their pet aims in favor of the Union. Vallandigham’s continual calls for peace and reconciliation did not sit well with either Republicans or War Democrats. One Republican critic declared they ought to “hang Vallandigham first and apologize afterward.” Others called him a “hyena who ought to be hunted down and shot,” a “secession toad” and “Jeff Davis’s pimp.”
Vallandigham, however, was not without his supporters. And while those were mostly political, the supporters who lay a much more eternal claim on Vallandigham note his piety and love for the Scriptures and the doctrines of grace as a far more illustrious epithet. This was not always so. Though raised in a minister’s home and constantly surrounded by the gospel, Vallandigham refused to join the visible church for many years. While in college, his friends were astounded at his moral uprightness (he was a champion of temperance, and when his college friends tried to physically restrain him and pour liquor down his mouth for a joke, he pulled a gun on them!).
Among Vallandigham’s papers is a list of Franklin-esque moral rules that he drew up while in college:
Live in habitual communion with God.
Cultivate a grateful spirit.
Cultivate a cheerful spirit.
Cultivate an affectionate spirit.
Let not the attainment of happiness be your direct object.
Cultivate decision of character, moral courage, independence.
Ever staunch and inflexible, Vallandigham lived by these rules, but they were no substitute for the gospel. Though he never missed church services and spoke very highly of ministers, it was not until Vallandigham heard a series of sermons on the doctrine of predestination that his conscience was pricked. Years before, he had lost an infant son and pined away in bitterness at God’s providence. But these sermons, which some in the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton considered too radically Calvinistic, spoke deeply to Vallandigham’s heart and rekindled the gospel truths planted by his parents in his own childhood.
Vallandigham threw himself into the study of Scriptures and into hearing the preached word. In 1855, he became a communicant member of the First Presbyterian Church in Dayton and continued there for some time. But Vallandigham left that fellowship when he felt that the preaching too often crossed the line into politics, something which he believed bred too much schism in the church.
Vallandigham wrote in the following editorial: “When the Pharisees, ‘tempting [the Saviour],’ asked whether it were lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, a question which then divided the Jewish nation, instead of pandering to their partisan feelings and prejudices by arraying himself upon the one side or the other, he commanded them to ‘render unto Caesar the things which were Caesar’s, and to God the things which were God’s.’ It is no part of the duty of the Christian minister, under the cloak of religion, and in the Pharisaical cant of being otherwise recreant to duty, to pronounce his judgment in the pulpit upon the great political questions which distract the generation in which he lives.”
Ministers, argued Vallandigham, “should stay out of politics … and politicians should not interpret Christian doctrine.”
Vallandigham moved around from church to church, until he finally settled in the Lutheran church in Dayton. There, the pastor fondly remembers that Vallandigham “was an excellent theologian as well as a great lawyer and eminent statesman. And was he not the greater as a lawyer and statesman because of his excellence as a theologian?”
The spring of 1863 brought Vallandigham to the political forefront once again. He was stumping to gain the gubernatorial nomination in Ohio and continued his verbal whipping of Lincoln for his wartime policies, all the while pleading for his fellow Democrats to help make a quick end to a war that had already claimed so many lives. And steadily, Vallandigham was making headway. The Confederate Army had been previously racking up military victories, and Lincoln had difficulties finding an able leader for his Union army. Northern morale was sinking, and the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 did little to foster a reunion between the country’s two sections. President Lincoln pulled General Ambrose Burnside from the front (where he suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg) and put him in the backwater of Ohio to squelch the clamoring of Peace Democrats such as Vallandigham.
Burnside, fed up with what he saw as treasonous hate mongering, issued General Order No.38, which effectively stated that any public criticism of the war or the administration was tantamount to treason and those participating in such behavior were to be tried in a military court and stripped of their constitutional right to a civil trial. This infuriated Vallandigham. He believed his right of free speech and the press’s right to engage in civil discourse was seriously infringed in General Order No. 38. Vallandigham wasted no time before publicly denouncing Burnside and his “unlawful” orders during every campaign stop, thus tempting Burnside to make good on his threat.
Some historians speculate that Vallandigham purposely provoked Burnside to arrest him in order to garner political capital and become a martyr for the Peace Democrats’ cause. But Vallandigham’s indignation at Burnside’s order was in keeping with the entire course of his political thought: He abhorred anything and everything that smacked of the infringement of a citizen’s constitutional rights through political tyranny.
On May 5, 1863, under cover of darkness, armed soldiers surrounded the Vallandigham home in Dayton, Ohio. When Vallandigham refused to comply with the soldiers’ orders to give himself up, the soldiers smashed in the back door and stormed up to his room where he, with his wife and child and sister-in-law, was waiting. Standing before the muzzles of a dozen guns, Vallandigham had no choice but to surrender.
The whole thing was an embarrassment for the administration. Burnside’s rash order made a martyr out of Vallandigham. He was denied a writ of habeas corpus, tried in military court and sentenced to two years of confinement in a military brig. All this did was to whip up more popular support for Vallandigham and lend credibility to the claims that Vallandigham had been making all along against Lincoln and his policies.
Knowing that Vallandigham was a political hot potato, Lincoln tried to turn public sentiment against the Democrat. He commuted his sentence to exile behind “enemy lines” where Vallandigham might feel more “welcome,” thus perpetuating the rumor that Vallandigham was a traitor to the Union. So Vallandigham was marched down to Murfreesboro and spent several weeks behind Confederate lines. He was now, like his Huguenot forefather, an exile for conscience’s sake.
Vallandigham was treated honorably in the South, as an exiled prisoner of war, but neither he nor the South saw his removal to Confederate territory as a desirable or long-term solution. Vallandigham requested to be sent on a blockade runner up to Canada, neutral territory where he could perhaps visit his family, carry on his business and continue his gubernatorial campaign from afar. Vallandigham’s request was granted; he lived in Canada as an exile, a “man without a country.”
Vallandigham rocketed to near mythic status when he first entered Canada. Though an exile, he had been vindicated and proved right – that Lincoln and the war were stripping citizens of their rights. By an overwhelming majority, Vallandigham won the Democratic nomination for governor of Ohio while he was in Canada. He seemed to be riding the waves of celebrity on the way toward restoring the Union through his peace platform. He received thousands of visitors every month, so many that he had to secretly rent a hotel room and lock himself in just to rest. But in early July, the tide began to turn against Confederate successes. A tremendous Union victory at Gettysburg dampened the Peace Democrats enthusiasm, and Vallandigham lost his bid for the governorship, while the war raged on. Vallandigham, it seemed, would be a perpetual exile.
Vallandigham’s picture had been widely circulated along the Canadian border. The police were ordered to arrest him if he so much as put the tip of his toe over the border into the Union, but the presidential election of 1864 was just too much of a temptation for him. Another four years of Lincoln could spell as many more years of a war that Vallandigham and others had grown weary of. Vallandigham knew he could still be arrested, but he yearned to have his fingers in the upcoming presidential delegation. The hundreds of visitors that had swarmed him on a weekly basis dwindled down to just a few after his failed bid for the governorship, so there would be a smaller chance that he’d be recognized. He took a gamble on Lincoln’s desire to just be rid of the whole Burnside-Vallandigham embarrassment and made his move.
In June of 1864, Vallandigham left his hotel room under cloak of darkness. Well aware of his previous celebrity and the (albeit, small) danger of being rearrested, he disguised himself in a black moustache and beard and belted a bed pillow around his athletic frame. The disguise worked – he made it safely onto the Canadian train bound for the American side without incident and without being recognized.
But no sooner had Vallandigham disembarked onto his home soil than an officer pulled him aside, crying out, “See here, old fellow, that won’t do, you have got contraband there!”
The officer jabbed his fingers into “Valiant Val’s” gut, and the two men jumped back a bit in surprise: Vallandigham because he’d been caught, the officer because he mistakenly accused a rather rotund, but obviously innocent man of villainy.
“Pardon me,” exclaimed the chagrined officer, “I see I am mistaken, but I have to watch for tricks.”
Breathing a sigh of deep relief, Vallandigham made his way to the Detroit depot to continue on his way to Dayton. Vallandigham’s near miss with the border officers wasn’t his only brush with danger. According to Vallandigham’s brother, he hadn’t been in Detroit for but “ten minutes before he was arrested for violation of a petty municipal regulation.”
The arresting officer, noticing something odd about Vallandigham’s appearance ordered him to step into the light. There the two men stared warily at each other until the police officer said, “Well, you look like an honest man and a gentleman.”
Vallandigham agreed: “Sir, I am an honest man and a gentleman.”
The disguise, it seems, had worked again. With a brief moment of hesitation, the officer told the disguised exile, “Then, it’s all right. You can go.”
Vallandigham made the rest of his journey without incident. He went straight to the caucus meetings without even returning to see his wife and son. He was received with great excitement, and before long had the crowd whipped into a state of dizzying, Democratic fervor. But it was a brief wave that was to run out before too long. Even Lincoln did not want the bother of arresting him again. Vallandigham did help to create a Peace plank on the Democratic platform, but once McClellan gained the Democratic nomination, he repudiated Vallandigham’s work. Lincoln won the 1864 election handily.
Many Democrats now viewed Vallandigham as a political millstone. Vallandigham lost another bid for Congress by a large majority, and financial pressures soon scuttled him back to private life.
It was a difficult return to normalcy, made more so by the instigation of disgruntled Democrats who wanted to counter the influence of Republican Union Leagues, organizations tasked with promoting loyalty to the Union cause. The Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society many thought treasonous (John Wilkes Booth was an alleged member), watered down their platform and reorganized into the Order of the Sons of Liberty, named after Samuel Adam’s Revolutionary group. The idea behind this new organization was to revive a Democratic grassroots effort, pass pertinent political information secretly from group to group without Republican knowledge, and in general, to spur the party faithful into action.
The Sons of Liberty nominated Vallandigham as their Supreme Commander, thus placing him in the crosshairs of potentially another treason trial. Vallandigham assumed responsibility for the group, hoping that he and other Democrats could scare the Republicans into believing that a secret, Democratic group “existed to defend civil rights, secure free elections and advance the party’s welfare.” But after a short time, he grew disgusted with their disorganization and their penchant for silly, Masonic rituals. The Sons of Liberty was merely an organization on paper, and not a very productive one at that. Vallandigham soon returned to more pressing matters: his growing law practice.
It was Christmas Eve, 1870. The war that ripped apart the nation had ceased some five years earlier. A rather large group of rough characters were playing cards and drinking in a Hamilton, Ohio, saloon. An exclusive game of faro began in an upstairs room of the saloon, and a Mr. Thomas Myers made himself at home at the faro table. Suddenly, the door burst open behind Myers and the other card players. Pandemonium ensued. Onlookers report that rocks and boulders were hurtled around the room, sling-shots and pistols fired from nearly every direction. Mr. Myers was killed and all eyes rested on Mr. Thomas McGehan, a one-time enemy of Myers, as the perpetrator. Myers was a well-liked individual, if not a little less than upstanding, and McGehan had long been a thorn in the community’s side. Public sentiment was so bitter against McGehan that the town considered lynching him rather than bringing him to trial.
Vallandigham, retired from political life, took up McGehan’ defense. It was a long and vicious court battle, so tense that the lawyers requested a change of venue so that McGehan could get a fair trial. Vallandigham maintained McGehan’s innocence. His client, he argued, was not armed. How could an unarmed man shoot another man? Vallandigham took it upon himself to provide such startling evidence that the jury must surely acquit his client. But he needed time. He was to present his testimony on Monday, June 20th. Vallandigham returned to his hotel room and made some preparations. He borrowed a scrap of linen cloth from his landlord and fired three shots into it with a revolver at close range. Like a 21st century crime scene investigator, he was looking for gunpowder residue. Satisfied with his experiment, Vallandigham spent the rest of the evening out with fellow lawyers.
As he told them of his plan and showed them the revolver, one of his friends remarked, “Val, there are three shots in your pistol yet. You had better discharge them.”
“What for?” responded Mr. Vallandigham.
“To prevent any accident,” replied the cautious attorney. “You might shoot yourself.”
“No danger of that,” replied Mr. Vallandigham. “I have carried and practiced with pistols too long to be afraid to have a loaded one in my pocket.”
Vallandigham returned to his hotel, determined to try his new experiment. While Vallandigham was out, a parcel had been delivered to the attorney. Coming into his room, the lawyer set his loaded revolver on the table. He opened the package and found the Smith and Wesson revolver that was used in the crime. This he placed next to the gun on the table and stopped for a moment to visit with other lawyers in the hall. Excited and adamant that his solution would prove McGehan’s innocence, Vallandigham persuaded a young attorney to come watch as he proved that the victim had actually shot himself. He picked up a gun from off the table, cocked it, slid it in his pocket and attempted to draw it out, just as Myers might have done that evening in the saloon. But Vallandigham picked up the wrong gun from the table. The experiment to prove McGehan’s innocence proved fatal for Vallandigham.
It took some time for Vallandigham to die. As he lay bleeding, friends, fellow lawyers and clergy surrounded his bed. They urged him to hold on just a little longer, to keep his spirits up as the doctors tried to retrieve the bullet.
With great difficulty, Vallandigham spoke his last coherent words to his comforters: “This may be all right yet. I may, however, be mistaken, but I am a firm believer in that good old Presbyterian doctrine of predestination.”
After a lifetime of fighting for lost causes, Vallandigham’s final public battle would end in victory. MeGehan was acquitted.