Clement Vallandigham – the Golden Circle and Fighting Civil Rights

On this date in 1863 the quixotic Clement Vallandigham is soundly defeated in the Ohio governor’s race. As leader of the Copperheads, anti-war Democrats often sympathetic to the Confederacy, Vallandigham had been a two-term congressman before secession. And yet, this is just one example of the villainy perpetrated by this pompous f*ck-weasel.

Vallandigham was born July 29, 1820, in New Lisbon, Ohio, to Clement and Rebecca Laird Vallandigham. His father, a Presbyterian minister, educated his son at home, and despite being a man of the cloth, failed to imbue even an ounce of decency in his f*ck-weasel of a son. To wit: in 1841, Vallandigham had a dispute with the college president at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania; he was “honorably dismissed,” but he never received a degree.

Undaunted, Vallandigham borrowed $500 from future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, himself an obstreperous ass, to take a home-study law course and open a sketchy practice. Vallandigham was elected to the Ohio state legislature in 1845, where he voted against the repeal of the “Black Laws,” codes gutting the civil rights of free African Americans. In 1851, Vallandigham sought the Democratic nomination to be Ohio’s lieutenant governor, but the party declined to nominate him.

Vallandigham ran for Congress in 1856, and after a narrow defeat he screeched of foul play. He appealed to the Committee of Elections of the House of Representatives, claiming that illegal votes had been cast; the House eventually agreed, if only to shut him up, and Vallandigham was seated on the next to last day of the term.

Serving in the U.S. House from 1857–63, he was adamant against the principles and policies of the newly formed Republican Party, particularly as they related to the slavery issue. Of Southern ancestry, he idealized the ostensibly genteel way of life, and assumed leadership of the faction of Midwest Democrats, called Copperheads, who opposed the prosecution of the war against the South. Vallandigham was quite public in his embrace of “state’s rights” and secession; privately, he became commander of the secret, antiwar Knights of the Golden Circle, a proto-version of the KKK.

In 1863 he made vitriolic speeches in Ohio against the war and the government, having lost his re-election bid, and consequently grew to be one of the most suspected and hated men in the North. Soon enough, Vallandigham was tried and convicted in a military court under Order No. 58, which prohibited “expressing treasonable sympathy.” After initial imprisonment, Lincoln commuted his sentence to banishment behind Confederate lines.

Herein lie yet more oddities of the lesson. Idling away in a Confederacy now ravaged by war, the faux-attorney and knight errant soon grew bored with the South, as it appeared not to match his idealized impressions. He fled north to Windsor, Canada, from where he ran an ill-fated Ohio gubernatorial effort in exile. Beaten soundly, he illegally slithered back to Ohio, and continued to agitate to little effect.

Some years after the war, during the jury trial of a client accused of murder, Vallandigham was demonstrating his theory of the victim’s fatal self-inflicted belly-wound when he discharged a loaded pistol into his own gall bladder, sustaining a fatal self-inflicted belly-wound. Being, for his entire life, what one of our retired Oakland County jurists would call “a perfect asshole,” Vallandigham’s demise seems a perfect fit.

And here endeth the lesson.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.