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Clement L. Vallandigham: A Victim of Lincoln's Regime

We observe many modern instances of government overreach. A look at Abe Lincoln’s regime will echo much of what we now witness – Clement Laird Vallandigham’s case is an example. [Denied free speech & habeas corpus rights.]

Vallandigham, born in 1820 in New Lisbon, Ohio, was educated at New Lisbon Academy and Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He built a respected law practice and became a popular political speaker. In 1845, he became the youngest member of the Ohio State legislature. He respected Southern character and honor and took pride in his Stafford, Virginia lineage.

A States’ Rights Democrat, Vallandigham denounced the Radical Republicans and opposed the 1857 Tariff. In a February 24, 1859, address to the House of Representatives he stated the legislation “was peculiarly a manufacturer’s tariff and a highly protective tariff too…He then referred to the manner in which the interests of his constituents and the farmers, especially the wool-growers of Ohio, had been disregarded in the Act of 1857.” Ironically, the 1857 agreement gave some relief to the South and angered the Northern industrialists who lobbied for higher tariffs.

Vallandigham continued to make enemies. On February 3, 1862, he criticized the Lincoln Administration‘s Legal Tender Act, noting the creation of a fiat money system (greenbacks backed by nothing) as a risky means of financing the war on the South. He predicted this Act would result in…”… high prices, extravagant speculation, enormous sudden fortunes, immense fictitious wealth, general insanity. These belong to all inordinate and excessive paper issues.”

“Peace Democrat” Vallandigham served as U.S. Representative from Ohio, part of a military district that included Indiana and Illinois and “commanded” by Union General Ambrose Burnside. Vallandigham, troubled by the Lincoln Administration’s ruse of claiming the goal of the war had suddenly changed from union preservation to slavery destruction, recognized military failure as a source of this deception.

On April 13, 1863, Burnside issued General Order Number 38, which stated that free speech would not be tolerated if it were in defense of the South.

Burnside felt Lincoln‘s September 24, 1862, suspension of habeas corpus gave him authority to issue the order.

On May 1, 1863, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, Vallandigham described the Union war as “wicked, cruel, and unnecessary”…and a “war for the purpose of crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism.” He called for Lincoln‘s removal from office. Unknown to Vallandigham, Burnside sent two captains, dressed as civilians, to listen to his criticism of “King Lincoln“ and public denunciation of Burnside’s order. In retaliation, officers broke into Vallandigham’s house at 2:00 A.M. on May 5th. He was arrested and charged with violation of Burnside’s General Order Number 38, by expressing opinions that weakened government war efforts and discouraged military enlistments. Military commissions are not designed to handle civilians and the regular civilian courts were in operation, yet Vallandigham was placed before a military tribunal. Trying a civilian in a military court generally means the verdict has been predetermined. Lincoln favored the use of military courts for civilians in such circumstances.

In confinement, Vallandigham wrote: “I am here in a military bastille for no other offense than my political opinions … I am a Democrat – for the Constitution, for law, for Union, for liberty – this is my only crime.”

Vallandigham was tried in Cincinnati and convicted of being disloyal to the U.S. and sympathetic to the Confederacy. He was sentenced to two years at the military prison in Fort Warren, located at the entrance of Boston Harbor. George Pugh, Vallandigham’s attorney, appealed the verdict to Federal Judge Humphrey Leavitt based on the lack of jurisdiction of a military tribunal combined with denial of free speech and habeas corpus rights. Leavitt would not budge and the verdict was left intact.

The treatment of Vallandigham drew criticism from multiple sources, including some who opposed his Jeffersonian worldview. Disapproval came from: The Dayton Journal, The New York Herald, The Detroit Free Press,

New York Evening Post, the Chicago Times, The Allentown Democrat, Erastus Corning, New York Governor Horatio Seymour, and many others. Although some extreme nationalists supported his arrest, there was intense backlash among those who believed in constitutional government.

Lincoln sought to minimize political fallout and had Vallandigham “banished” to the South. Ultimately making his way back to Ohio, Vallandigham’s incessant peace efforts eventually backfired; as the South became more depleted and Union victory was in sight, majority sentiment in the North was to crush the Southern self-government movement.

Post war, Vallandigham became a supporter of rights for all and, as a member of the Liberal Republican Party, advocated full rights for Blacks. In 1871 he died of an accidental gunshot wound during a murder case. His legacy factored into Unitarian Minister Edward Everett Hale’s short story, The Man Without a Country.


Rev. James Laird Vallandigham, A Life of Clement L. Vallandigham:

T. J. DiLorenzo, “The Real Reason Why Lincoln Imprisoned and Deported a Democratic Congressman,”

“Civil War Tested Lincoln’s Tolerance for Free Speech,” First Amendment Center, February 11, 2009:

“Clement L. Vallandigham,”National Park Service Quick Facts:

Edgar J. McManus and Tara Helfman, Liberty and Union: A Constitutional History of the United States, Concise Edition.


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