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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 119

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This is the grave of Clement Vallandigham.

One of the most unknown yet important villains in American history, Vallandigham was born in 1820 in New Lisbon, Ohio and became involved in the Democratic Party as a young man. This was a time before the parties were fully divided on the issue. In the 1840s, you could be a pro-slavery Democrat or an anti-slavery Democrat and still be a Democrat without any real problems. So he became friends with Edwin Stanton, even though Stanton disliked slavery and Vallandigham was a strong supporter. He was elected to the Ohio legislature from Dayton, where he was practicing law, in 1845. As was common during this period, he was in and out of elected office, edited a newspaper for awhile, ran his law practice.

His period of prominence began in 1856. He ran for Congress. He lost but claimed voter fraud. I don’t know what really happened, but the Democratic House eventually seated him–on the next to last day of his term! But he was reelected in 1858 and 1860. He was a supporter of Stephen A. Douglas but thought him soft on slavery. Vallandigham’s primary political positions was a believer that the federal government had no right to supersede state power and that slavery was a noble institution. He fully believed in the right to secede over slavery. As the Civil War began, Vallandigham became the North’s most vociferous hater of Abraham Lincoln. He gave speeches about how the Republican Party was tearing the nation apart. He was a supporter of the Crittenden Compromise, which was to put the nation back together through the North giving the Slave Power everything they wanted. Lincoln, wisely, rejected this entirely.

Vallandigham had his own ideas on how to run the nation. He had a real passion for identifying himself as “a western man.” He believed, as did many during this time, that the “West,” which still often included Ohio, had starkly different interests than either the North or the South. This was never really articulated effectively and there’s a reason it never caught on in any meaningful way. But Vallandigham wanted to divide the country into four sections–North, South, West, and Pacific (to include the new states of Oregon and California and then whatever came after that, which was soon to be Nevada). Each section would have the power to veto all legislation. He wanted to extend a president’s term to 6 years and not allow them to run for reelection, which is what the Confederate constitution did. No one took this seriously, but he gave speech after speech on the House floor about it.

He also became the leading Copperhead in the House, the colorful nickname given for pro-Confederate northerners. He said the Lincoln government was “one of the worst despotisms on Earth,” and compared the president unfavorably to the Russian Czar, widely seen at this time in the U.S. as the prime example of tyrannical dictatorship. He decried the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s government for the Negro, as he put it.

As the United States (the proper name for what is usually called the Union, since the Confederacy were no longer Americans) moved to institute a draft, Vallandigham went off the rails. He gave increasingly hyperbolic speeches about the horrors of the draft and called for open resistance. At this point, he was really testing the patience of the federal government. On September 24, 1862, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and made draft resistance a military crime. He didn’t do this with Vallandigham in mind, who he mostly tried to ignore. But this just made Vallandigham more furious. On May 1, 1863, he gave a speech in Mount Vernon, Ohio (also the home town of Dan Emmett, who wrote “Dixie”) urging people to resist the draft in a war that was no longer about the Union but instead about subjugating the white man to blacks in service of “King Lincoln.” At this point, Ambrose Burnside, exiled to a minor post for being bad as a fighting general, had Vallandigham arrested for violating Lincoln’s order. This did not make the president happy. He didn’t want to prove the point that Democrats were making about his presidency. After his arrest, his supporters burned the Republican paper in Dayton. The loathsome Horatio Seymour and future 1868 Democratic candidate for president gave speeches in New York about Lincoln’s dictatorship.

Vallandigham was tried and found guilty. But Lincoln didn’t want him imprisoned. He wanted him out of his hair. So he exiled him to the Confederacy. Funny thing was the Confederacy thought he was a trouble maker and didn’t want him around either. When he was delivered to Wilmington, North Carolina, Jefferson Davis had him put under armed guard as “an alien enemy.” He stayed in the South only briefly. He ended up in Canada where he ran for the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor from exile. He won that nomination, showing just how far the Democratic Party had gone by that time. He lost the general election though in the fall of 1863 by a wide margin. He then wanted to start an internal revolt of his beloved West, talking to Confederate representatives about fomenting internal rebellion and secession into a new nation consisting of Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. He entered the U.S. secretly to start this plan. But the government knew what he was up to the whole time. He reappeared openly in Ohio society and attended the 1864 Democratic convention. He struggled to support George McClellan, since the ex-general and massive blowhard did not think the U.S. should stop fighting until the Confederacy agreed to rejoin the nation and Vallandigham still totally supported treason in defense of slavery.

Vallandigham’s demise is one of the funniest deaths for any terrible American. He went back to being a lawyer after the war. He ran for office a couple of times, but his day had definitely passed and that sort of near-treason was no longer considered acceptable, even among Ohio Democrats. In 1871, he was defending a client on a murder charge. He said it was impossible for the client to be guilty, for the gun was unloaded. He demonstrated this by putting a gun to his body and pulling the trigger. One problem: the gun was loaded. He gutshot himself. He was 50 years old.

Clement Vallandigham is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.

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