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The Case of Clement Vallandigham

The Case of Clement Vallandigham

Clement Vallandigham was a lawyer and politician who was arrested after the speech delivered at Mount Vernon Ohio on the 1st of May, 1863. In the speech, Vallandigham called the government and President Lincoln tyrants and usurpers of power. He encouraged people to fight for their rights guaranteed by the Constitution; thus, his speeches and behavior appeared very patriotic to many people, but there was also an opposite point of view. The Vallandigham’s speech violated Burnside’s General Order Number 38, which stated that “all persons…who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country will be tried as spies or traitors and if convinced will suffer death” (262). Vallandigham insisted that he was innocent and that his arrest was purely political. The question raised in the essay is whether Vallandigham committed something that would help the enemies of the country or whether he was treated unfairly and the real reason for his arrest was his political career.

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According to Wheeler and Becker, Vallandigham made the speech that resulted in his arrest and all other speeches during a very controversial and restless epoch in the American history. Many people believed that the rights declared in the Constitution were violated and the Union was coming to an end. The Civil War dictated its laws and rules, which were not very popular among the population. Many people who lived in the North of the country supported Democrats because they were against the war. President Lincoln understood that military failures were one of the reasons for the public dissatisfaction. According to Wheeler and Becker, he wrote: “I need success more than I need sympathy” meaning the war (268). President Lincoln also understood the danger of the popularity of Democrats combined with the public tensions and anti-war movement during the period of the war. Vallandigham did not consider the war a reason to stop his political career. On the contrary, he was going to make everything possible to achieve the victory of Democrats. He designed a plan according to which he would intentionally violate the Burnside’s General Order Number 38 and become a martyr in the eyes of the public, which would make the image of Democrats more positive and would provoke the public discontent with the government and President Lincoln. The question is whether Vallandigham’s actions were unacceptable during the war or was his arrest nothing else but a political persecution.

The main evidence available to the historian and presented by Wheeler and Becker are the transcriptions of Vallandigham’s speeches and the testimony of the people who were listening to them. Wheeler and Becker also use Lincoln’s replies to the pro-Vallandigham resolutions. Historians might also investigate the articles about the case of Vallandigham in the press of that period. The main method that historians can use to deal with the evidence is the method of thorough analysis. It is possible to compare various speeches of Vallandigham, Lincoln’s replies and the testimony of the witnesses in order to make conclusions about the causes of Vallandigham’s arrest.

The case of Vallandigham is not simple and univocal, but if I was a member of the military court that heard Vallandigham’s case, I would say that his is guilty but would vote for the more lenient sentence than for the spies and traitors, according to the Burnside’s General Order Number 38. This essay will explain the reasons for such a decision.

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To begin with, the rules of a war time are different from the ones that must be obeyed during a period of peace. War requires preserving order and discipline in the country because if the state is fighting with the external enemy, the internal problems and tensions are especially dangerous. Nevertheless, too rigorous rules during the war and the excessive centralization of the power might also result in revolts, revolution and chaos, especially if a war is long, unsuccessful and negatively affects the state standards of living. Internal conflicts during the war might lead to the situation when this state would be conquered by an enemy. However, this does not mean that the essential human rights should be violated due to a war. Although the line between authoritarianism and the maintaining of the social order during a war could be very dim, a talented politician has to see it. Being a member of the military court that heard Vallandigham’s case, I would say that his speeches undermined the authority of the government and encouraged people to oppose it, which was dangerous during the war. The only way to displace the government is elections, but this complicated procedure requires peace. Of course, civilians are allowed to express their opinion about the situation in the state, but Vallandigham was not only a civilian, but also a politician. His main goal was to make the Democratic party the leading party in the country. He referred to the Constitution, prosperity, and human rights only in the connection with the party he represented: “And finally, the restoration of the concord, good feeling and prosperity of former ears, demands that the democratic Party shall be maintained and made victorious” (282). I believe that if Vallandigham was a real patriot, he would try to give some advice to the government and the President and cooperate with them for the sake of the state. Nevertheless, Vallandigham could not be considered a spy or a traitor, even though his actions could help the enemies of the state. For this reason, I would not sentence him to death, according to Burnside’s General Order Number 38. Besides, too strict verdict for Vallandigham might lead to the public discontent. I would agree with the reply of President Lincoln: “The military arrests and detentions, which have been made, including those of Mr. V. which are not different in principle from the others, have been for prevention, and not for punishment – as injunctions to stay injury, as proceedings to keep the peace…” (298). It is important to take into account that Vallandigham was a good speaker; in his speeches, he often called the government tyrants and President Lincoln “King Lincoln”, which often appeared to be a hyperbole.
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Obviously, the arrest of Villandigham was connected with his political career. He was a popular public figure, as well as the member of Democratic Party, which was supported by a large amount of people that seemed dangerous to the government of that time. However, it is also important to keep in mind that Vallandigham violated the rules intentionally, so the reason for his arrest was also political. For a proper patriot, personal ambitions and political games must not be of more importance than peace and the safety of the state.

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Summing up, if I was a member of the military court that heard Vallandigham’s case, I would vote to find him guilty because he exceeded the level of freedom of speech acceptable during a war. His speeches against the government and the President were more than just criticism; combined with other internal factors, they could lead to the dangerous situation inside the country. Vallandigham valued his political career and his personal ambition more than the prosperity of the country. Nevertheless, the verdict for him should not have been too strict because he intentionally planned a speech that would lead to his arrest in order to achieve his personal goals, such as the displacement of the government. Vallandigham was not a spy; neither was he a traitor, but such actions must not be tolerated. The Lincoln’s point of view, who said that Vallandigham was arrested not for punishment but for prevention of possible unrests and for preserving peace inside the state, was very rational.

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