Clement Laird Vallandigham

Clement Laird Vallandigham (1820-1871), American politician, was the foremost Peace Democrat during the Civil War. Though he sought to end the conflict and reunite the Union, he unintentionally aided the war effort by becoming a symbol of treasonous activity.

Clement Vallandigham was born in New Lisbon, Ohio, on July 29, 1820. He attended Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pa., and then studied and practiced law. In 1845 he was elected as a Democrat to the Ohio Legislature, where he was a proponent of limited government and noninterference with slavery. Elected to the U.S. Congress in 1856, he became noted for his harsh denunciations of the Republican party's antislavery stance. He strongly backed compromise with the South during the secession crisis of 1860-1861.

When the Southern Democrats left the party in 1861, and with the death of Stephen A. Douglas, Vallandigham became a major Democratic spokesman in Congress. Even after the Civil War erupted, he believed that the Union could be peacefully restored if only the Democrats were returned to power, stopped the war, and promised to uphold states' rights. He bitterly attacked Republican attempts to broaden the war's aims. The Republicans violently assailed him as the leader of the Copperheads—that is, "traitors" conspiring toward a Southern victory.

In 1862 the Republican legislature gerrymandered Vallandigham's district and defeated him for reelection. No longer in Congress, he continued publicly opposing the war. In 1863 he was arrested on orders of Gen. Ambrose Burnside and charged with expressing disloyal sentiments. A military commission quickly tried him and sentenced him to prison. President Lincoln, embarrassed but not wishing to undermine the general's authority, banished Vallandigham to the Confederacy. Protesting his innocence, Vallandigham went to Canada.

In 1863 Ohio Democrats nominated Vallandigham for governor in absentia, calling him a martyr to arbitrary authority unleashed by the unconstitutional and revolutionary war. In the ensuing campaign the Republicans used the treason issue and overwhelmingly defeated Vallandigham. He returned to the United States in 1864 and was instrumental in placing a peace plank in the Democratic national platform in 1864.

After the war Vallandigham returned to law. He attended the National Union Convention in 1866, designed to create an intersectional conservative party of Democrats and Republicans to counter Radical Republican policies. In 1868 he ran again for Congress but was defeated. In 1871 he urged the Democrats to take a new tack, forget war issues, and seek new programs to win popular support. On June 17 he died while demonstrating to a jury in Hamilton, Ohio, how an alleged murder victim had shot himself.

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Further Reading on Clement Laird Vallandigham

A highly sympathetic biography of Vallandigham is by his brother, James L. Vallandigham, A Life of Clement L. Vallandigham (1872). This has been superseded by Frank L. Klement, The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1970). An excellent, authoritative sketch of his life is in Kenneth W. Wheeler, ed., For the Union: Ohio Leaders in the Civil War (1968). Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960), places Vallandigham's actions in their political context.