Day 449: Deported But Not Departed – The Clem Vallandingham Story

originally published March 24, 2013

Much like economics, I tend to steer widely around politics on this site. For the most part, I find the current state of partisan-led showboating to be uninspiring, unproductive and most importantly, unfunny. Besides, I work full-time, I’m in school full-time, and I’ve got a full-time commitment to lifting up the hearts and spirits of millions of people by writing on this site every day. I can’t spend hours of each week following the nuances of politics in order to provide intelligent, astute observational prose on the subject.

Also, I don’t want to devote a lot of space to spewing my own liberal agenda. There are Republicans (and up in this country, Conservatives) whom I respect, despite the fact that their parties of choice appear to be mired in antiquated and backwards policies. Think about it – there were Republican nutjobs calling for the secession of Texas after Obama’s win last year, many of their media campaigns would have us believe the ‘other guys’ want to quash our rights (or take away all our guns), and their campaign against human rights (gay marriage) has been fierce and unrelenting. But once upon a time, the seating arrangement around the table of common sense was flipped. Here’s the story of a Democrat from back when the Republicans seemed to hold the market on sanity. Meet Clement Vallandingham:

Clem was a Democrat from Ohio, elected out of the law business into the state legislature in 1845. I’m sure the guy held positions on a spectrum of issues, but the one that remains tacked on to his legacy is his staunch opposition to the elimination of slavery. He believed firmly in states’ rights, and felt the feds had no place in telling a state that its people couldn’t do something that was, technically, legal. Like owning other people.

Clem ran for Congress in 1856 and lost. He appealed the election, believing there were illegal votes cast that cost him his seat. The Democratic Party had its own issues to deal with, and Clem was finally granted his Congressional seat on the second-last day of the term. Luckily, he was re-elected in the 1858 and 1860 elections. He became a vocal thrasher of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, declaring them to be belligerent and unfair, and pinning the blame for the Civil War upon the GOP’s insistence that black people are actually people.

He stood firmly against any military bill that would have supported the Union troops, and he became the leader of the Copperhead movement, a group of outspoken Democrats who wanted the war to end, and not with a decisive Union victory. He gave a speech in which he accused “King Lincoln” of wanting to free the slaves by sacrificing the liberty of all Americans.

So here we have a Democrat taking a stand against human rights, erroneously proclaiming the ‘other guys’ want to take away people’s freedom, and speaking supportively of those who want secession. This was the state of politics in the early 1860s.

The problem here was that Abe and his administration weren’t too crazy about influential people making agitating speeches in the middle of a war. The year was 1863; it wasn’t great for morale when an elected leader (actually, Clem didn’t make the cut in the ’62 election, but close enough) was making speeches to undermine the war effort. Lincoln had Congress’s permission to suspend habeas corpus, and Clem got himself arrested.

Protests ensued – Lincoln was trying to keep a semblance of unity in the North, and Clem was proving to be a divisive distraction. In order to sweep the problem under the political rug, he had Clem deported. I’m not sure how often American native citizens get deported nowadays, but Ohio-born Clem found himself transported across enemy lines into the Confederacy.

Clem didn’t take to the relocation, so he hopped on a ship to Canada, where he promptly announced his candidacy for Governor of Ohio. He nabbed the Democratic nomination, and ran his campaign from Windsor, Ontario. John Brough, the pro-Union War Democrat (a subset of the Democratic Party who weren’t big on the Copperhead leadership – the equivalent of today’s moderates), won in a landslide victory.

While in Canada, Clem hooked up with Jacob Thompson, a Confederate government representative. Clem proposed a ‘Northwestern Confederacy’, which they would achieve by overthrowing the governments of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. It never happened, possibly due to logistical difficulties, possibly because the idea was just stupid.

Cloaked in disguise, Clem returned to Ohio in mid-June, less than a month after he’d been expelled from the country. Lincoln knew Clem was back, but he decided not to send out the National Guard after him, mostly because they were busy with the actual war. Clem continued speaking out at Democratic Party events, but his cause – again, making sure slavery didn’t end because Clem was that much of a dick – was lost.

After the war, Clem held on to his anti-equality stance for a while, but eventually threw his support behind the ‘New Departure’ policy, in which the Democratic Party abandoned its Civil War-era positions and focused on upholding the constitution, reforming the civil service, and generally not being assholes to people of any race. He ran for Senate and the House of Representatives and lost both times. It was time to get back to practicing law.

And this brings me to how Clem died.

In 1871, Clem was working in Lebanon, Ohio, defending a man accused of murdering another guy in the heat of a barroom brawl. In order to present to the jury how he believed the events of the fight had unfolded, Clem put an unloaded pistol in his pocket and re-created the scene in a way that exonerated his client.

Except the pistol wasn’t unloaded, it went off, and the bullet flew swiftly into Clem’s innards. The wound was worth it, in that the jury acquitted the defendant, netting Clem a victory. On the flip-side, it killed him.

The lesson here? I suppose using a toy pistol for courtroom reenactments is a good start. But on a larger scale, we can see some hope for the Republican Party, that they may once again turn around and fight on the side of good. That the Tea Party extremists may eventually fade into their own blather, and the level-headed conservatives might help pave the way for an era of sound debate and reason-rooted policy.

Is anybody that optimistic anymore?

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