Books: Politician from Dayton was big burr beneath Abe Lincoln’s saddle

Clement Vallandigham was probably the best known politician in our region 160 years ago yet he is relatively unknown today. In 1860 Vallandigham was elected to Congress to represent the Dayton area.

The election of 1860 was fraught. When the Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency the rupture of our national union was imminent. Southern states started seceding. Vallandigham, a Democrat, was harshly critical of every move Lincoln made.

Vallandigham was what was known as a Copperhead, the faction within the Democrats who opposed what became the Civil War. Formerly he had been the editor of the Dayton Daily Empire, the pro-Democrat newspaper.

At that time the Democrats were the only truly national party. The Republicans were a fairly new political entity with virtually no supporters in the southern states. It is easy to forget that Lincoln became our first Republican president.

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In his book “Lincoln’s Northern Nemesis: The War Opposition and Exile of Ohio’s Clement Vallandigham” Martin Gottlieb revisits those turbulent years and shows us how this mostly forgotten firebrand finally crossed a line and was punished for doing so.

The Dayton Daily Empire espoused Copperhead views while the Dayton Journal advocated Republican agendas. That was the way it was in towns of any size. Emotions got charged. A mob burned a newspaper office in Dayton. While firemen were dousing the flames, a rabble rouser began slicing the fire hose; he was shot dead on the spot.

Gottlieb had a long career as a newspaperman, for 27 years he wrote editorials for the Dayton Daily News. Gottlieb spent a year and a half sifting through newspaper archives at the Dayton Metro Library researching Vallandigham’s story.

Vallandigham, a silver-tongued orator, gave one too many speeches. The Republicans managed to defeat him when he ran for re-election to Congress in 1862. Then he gave a speech in which he went too far. The Army arrested him. In the middle of the night a large number of troops marched to his home in Dayton and hauled him out of his bedroom.

Gottlieb writes: ”Vallandigham was not charged with expressing actual sympathy for the enemy. He was not charged with calling upon troops to desert, or upon citizens not to enlist or to resist the draft. He was not charged with calling for any other illegal acts. Nor was he charged with breaking any law.”

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Even so, he had annoyed the wrong people. Following a speedy military trial he got sentenced to prison. Quickly reconsidering the public relations aspects of the situation, they then chose to exile him instead. They took him to Tennessee and dumped him with the Confederate forces. Vallandigham ended up in Canada. When Democrats nominated him to run for Ohio governor he conducted a renegade outsider campaign from Ontario. He lost that one, too.

In a bizarre postscript Gottlieb reveals how Clement Vallandigham died. His shockingly absurd demise came while he was practicing law. It was a baffling conclusion to a dramatic existence.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com

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