The Most Unpopular Man In The North”

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By far the most fertile ground for Vallandigham’s opposition to the Lincoln administration was the vital issue of freedom and civil liberty. The Constitution’s requirements concerning both the fundamental procedures of government and the protection of individual rights were being rapidly and sweepingly subordinated to the exigencies of war. In the ten weeks between the outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter and the convening of Congress on July 4, Lincoln expanded the Army and Navy without authorization of Congress; applied unappropriated funds of the Treasury to their support; and levied a blockade without the prior declaration of war by Congress contemplated by the Constitution. Above all, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in various parts of the country and caused the arrest and military detention of individuals “who were represented to him” as persons engaging in or contemplating “treasonable practices.” “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted,” asked Lincoln in justifying his extraordinary actions, “and the Government itself to go to pieces lest that one be violated … ?”

The Lincoln government, in short, had an authoritarian side, and Vallandigham was its most tireless and articulate critic. He flayed the President for not assembling Congress, and for capriciously overlooking the fact that the Constitution empowers Congress, and Congress alone, to raise and support armies. Yet the President, without prior legislative sanction, had created his own army—a course which if pursued by an English sovereign within the last two centuries, Vallandigham noted, would have resulted in the loss of his head. In his unsparing attacks upon the administration, however, he seemed to make no allowance whatever for the gravity of the nation’s peril and the need for drastic and immediate action.

Vallandigham’s concerns were by no means limited to the floor of the House of Representatives, for he was heavily engaged in politics at home. In Ohio, as in many another state of the West and East, there were in reality two Democratic parties. The War Democrats advocated vigorous prosecution of the war to restore the Federal Union at the earliest possible moment. Opposed to them were the Peace Democrats—or the Copperheads, as they were called by their detractors—who included Vallandigham, his fellow Ohio congressmen George H. Pendleton and Samuel S. Cox, former Governor Thomas Hart Seymour of Connecticut, and Fernando Wood, the charming but ruthless mayor of New York City. Even in Copperhead circles, Vallandigham was considered an extremist.

Vallandigham was essentially a sectional politician whose doctrines were a compound of local interest and local circumstance. In Ohio, he was the hero of the poor farmer, who, typically, had emigrated from the South, tilled substandard soil, owned a shabby homestead, and was apt to be illiterate. In Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, and other Ohio cities, Vallandigham was a favorite of the recent Irish and German immigrants, and particularly of the unskilled laborers among them. Farmers and workingmen feared that the freeing of the Negro would unloose a great flood of cheap labor that would engulf the West and drive them out of their meager employments. To these people who dreaded the changes that the war might bring, his constant electioneering slogan, “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was,” had special point. To Vallandigham, righteous New England abolitionists and greedy, high-tariff eastern capitalists were responsible for the nation’s misery. Next to the West, his sympathies lay with the South. He was impressed with the prowess of her arms, and as the war proceeded, he expressed repeatedly in his speeches unconcealed satisfaction in her victories and grave doubts concerning the ability of Union armies ultimately to prevail.

The year 1862 subjected Vallandigham to the crucial test of re-election. The prospects for victory, as he and his most ardent followers recognized, were exceedingly poor. His congressional district had been recently gerrymandered by the newly constituted Union party (or what Vallandigham called the “no party”), an amalgam of the Republicans and the War Democrats, which now controlled the Ohio legislature. The gerrymander had added to his district a new county, Warren, one of the state’s abolitionist strongholds.

Despite the bleak prospects, Vallandigham campaigned hard. He crisscrossed his district, speaking at country picnics and on city street corners. His vehement oratory and showmanship enormously intrigued the crowds.

For all this effort, the returns on election day showed conclusively that the gerrymander had served its purpose. Vallandigham went down to defeat. Although he carried the original counties of his district by a larger vote than ever before, he lost heavily in the gerrymandered county, Warren. But Vallandigham’s setback resulted in no noticeable diminution of his political stock. The gerrymander had added a new dimension to his martyrdom, and in one Copperhead county after another, resolutions were adopted urging his nomination for governor in the 1863 election.