Clement Laird Vallandigham was born in New Lisbon, Ohio and educated at Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. He studied law privately, was admitted to the bar in Ohio in 1842 and set up a practice in Dayton. Attracted to politics, Vallandigham was elected to the state legislature in 1845. In 1847, he became owner and editor of the Dayton Empire, which advanced Democratic Party causes.
In 1858, on his fourth attempt, Vallandigham was elected to Congress where he styled himself a Jacksonian Democrat. He was an outspoken advocate of states’ rights and, while personally opposed to slavery, believed that the federal government had no power to regulate the institution. When the fighting erupted in 1861, Vallandigham became openly critical of Abraham Lincoln’s conduct of the war.
Vallandigham joined with Fernando Wood, mayor of New York City, and other like-minded individuals to establish the Peace Democrats, a faction that espoused a negotiated end to the fighting and recognition of an independent Confederacy if necessary. His views on the war were not popular with Ohio voters and he lost a bid for re-election in 1862.
Undeterred, Vallandigham continued his public criticism of the war effort. In May 1863, he was arrested for violating General Ambrose Burnside’s General Order No. 38, which subjected persons expressing sympathy for the enemy to possible imprisonment. Vallandigham’s conviction by a military tribunal was upheld by President Lincoln, but the prison term was put aside and the war critic was banished to the Confederacy.
Vallandigham remained only a short time in the South before heading to Canada by way of Bermuda. He reentered the United States in disguise from Windsor, Ontario, in June 1864. When learning of his return, Federal officials ignored him.
In the postwar period, Vallandigham was an opponent of Radical Reconstruction and failed in another bid to return to Congress. He died in 1871 from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound while handling a revolver, an exhibit in a murder trial.
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