The Most Unpopular Man In The North”

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The Lincoln administration, whose agents had deftly infiltrated the higher echelons of the Sons of Liberty, was fully informed of events in Chicago. On the basis of these reports, the administration conceivably might have rearrested Vallandigham. But it did not. Nevertheless, certain arrests of lesser-known participants were made, and when the accused were brought to trial before a military commission nearly a year after the Chicago convention, Vallandigham was a voluntary defense witness, but disclaimed personal knowledge of the plot.

Felix G. Stidger, a resourceful federal agent who infiltrated the Sons of Liberty with such success that he became grand secretary of the order in the state of Kentucky, minimized Vallandigham’s part in the Chicago conspiracy. Although Stidger did not corroborate Vallandigham’s claim of ignorance, he carefully excluded the Copperhead from his list of the malefactors. “Vallandigham,” Stidger wrote of the plot to seize arsenals and release prisoners, “took no active part in any of this work; and even his suggestions and advice were overruled by the Active Working Head of the Order, Harrison H. Dodd, of Indianapolis.”

Was Vallandigham a misguided zealot or an opportunistic politician who turned to treason to further his own career? The evidence of several crucial episodes—in the Confederacy, in Canada, at Chicago—on which the question turns, is admittedly conflicting. But imperfect evidence cannot rescue Vallandigham from the most damaging weakness of his position: the repeated necessity for explaining his involvement in occurrences that smell of treason. The fact that one situation after another, whether in Ohio, in the South, in Canada, or in other places, has to be excused or justified withers confidence in him. Good men do not consort repeatedly with the enemy and his agents of subversion. They do not accept his money, even indirectly. Nor do they retain the leadership of organizations whose controlling elements practice treason.

If phases of Vallandigham’s undercover enterprises are obscure, his visible activities, represented by his speeches, are not. Steadily, month in and month out, the guarded but all-too-transparent incitement to revolt, to secede, or otherwise to resist federal authority falls from his lips into the willing ears of his followers. No government can well tolerate such conduct if it is to survive, least of all if it is locked in civil war.

When the Civil War ended, Vallandigham labored to restore his party’s badly lagging national fortunes by revising its policy positions in light of the new realities. The original scene of his not-inconsiderable enterprise was the Democratic convention of Montgomery County which assembled at Dayton on May 18, 1871; there a series of resolutions, drafted under Vallandigham’s leadership, and known as “The New Departure,” were adopted. Among other things, they called for a general amnesty for the vanquished South, curtailment of the Ku Klux Klan, a merit system for the civil service, and a tax structure based upon wealth rather than population. Vallandigham’s resolutions were received with general approbation in the West and East. The New York Sun, in an opinion typical of the eastern press, now placed Vallandigham “among the most conspicuous political leaders of the day.” The New Departure was indeed giving the Democratic party a new start by releasing it, at long last, from the old war issues to which it had so tenaciously and so unprofitably clung. Vallandigham was the first Democrat of the postwar years to come forward with a program that faced the formidable new problems of the day, attracted national support, and restored his party to serious contention in presidential and congressional elections.

It was during his promotion of the New Departure that Vallandigham was engaged as defense attorney for a Thomas McGehan, accused of murder in a fatal saloon brawl in Hamilton, Ohio. In the course of demonstrating with a loaded revolver his theory that the slain man had shot himself, Vallandigham accidentally pulled the trigger. There was a sudden crack and flash. Reeling toward a wall and exclaiming, “My God, I’ve shot myself,” Vallandigham fell, mortally wounded. (Happily, his unstinting dedication to the case contributed to McGehan’s subsequent acquittal.)

Vallandigham lingered briefly, and died on June 17, 1871, at the age of fifty-one. Sometime after his passing, his fellow warrior of Copperhead days, George Pendleton, expressed a thought that must have struck Vallandigham in his anguish. “I thank God,” said Pendleton, “he has lived long enough to see that Time, the Avenger in whom he had such unwavering faith, has commenced his work, and that many who had maligned him most were beginning to see their error and to do him justice.”