June 11, 1863 – Exiled Copperhead Clement L. Vallandigham was nominated to run for governor of Ohio, and President Abraham Lincoln issued a response to those protesting his abuse of civil liberties.
Lincoln had banished Vallandigham to the South last month after Vallandigham had delivered incendiary speeches condemning the administration’s war policies and encouraging others to oppose the war effort. After Federal authorities escorted Vallandigham to Tennessee, President Jefferson Davis directed Confederate officials to consider the former Ohio congressman an “alien enemy” and send him to Wilmington, North Carolina.
In the North, Vallandigham continued enjoying widespread support for his opposition to the war, as more and more people joined the Copperheads in calling for negotiating a peace with the Confederacy. Delegates to the Ohio Democratic convention nominated Vallandigham for governor, despite his banishment, by a vote of 411 to 11.
Davis wanted nothing to do with Vallandigham, then under guard at Wilmington. He feared that sheltering Vallandigham would discredit the northern peace movement, which the Confederacy actively supported. Davis told Vallandigham to either reject the nomination or leave the South. Vallandigham chose the latter, and in mid-June, Confederates shipped him to Bermuda. He was later sent to Canada, where he ran for governor while in exile.
Meanwhile, protests of Lincoln’s handling of the Vallandigham affair continued. A delegation of New York Democrats led by Erastus Corning had adopted resolutions condemning the military suppression of civil liberties. Lincoln drafted a response and read it to his cabinet before sending it to the New Yorkers. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles remarked, “It has vigor and ability and with some corrections will be a strong paper.” Lincoln sent the letter and had a copy printed in the New York Tribune, titled, “Letter to Erastus Corning, et al.”
Lincoln began by praising the delegation for their “eminently patriotic” vow to uphold the Union and support the administration’s prosecution of the war as long as it remained within constitutional boundaries. While Lincoln conceded that military arrests of civilians would be unconstitutional in peacetime, he noted that the Constitution allowed for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus “in cases of Rebellion or Invasion,” when “the public Safety may require it.”
The president argued that “public Safety” required the suspension because the country indeed faced a “clear, flagrant, and gigantic” rebellion. According to Lincoln, this “giant rebellion” had stretched into the northern states, where “under cover of ‘liberty of speech,’ ‘liberty of the press,’ and ‘Habeas corpus,’ (the rebels) hoped to keep on foot amongst us a most efficient corps of spies, informers, suppliers, and aiders and abettors of their cause.”
This brought the war to the home front, and this required military intervention because civil courts were “utterly incompetent” to address such subversion. Lincoln explained that being “Thoroughly imbued with a reverence for the guaranteed rights of individuals,” he had been “slow to adopt the strong measures” such as military suppression, and he guessed that a time would come “when I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”
Lincoln rejected the argument that Vallandigham had been arrested “for no other reason than words addressed to a public meeting.” He wrote that Vallandigham had been arrested “because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops (and) to encourage desertions… He was damaging the army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends.” The president then posed a rhetorical question to prove his point:
“Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?… I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.”
Lincoln disagreed with the New Yorkers’ resolution that military suppression during war would lead to limits on personal freedoms in peace. He wrote that he could no more accept this premise “than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life.”
Nearly 10 million people ultimately read this letter, which proved vastly popular among Republicans and other champions of the war effort. The Loyal Publication Society printed and distributed 500,000 copies, with many politicians using it for their campaigns.
Lincoln followed up this letter with one to Matthew Birchard, leading delegate to the Ohio Democratic Convention that nominated Vallandigham for governor. This was a response to Birchard and others coming to Washington to protest Vallandigham’s banishment. Lincoln wrote this letter at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a former Ohio governor who was familiar with the state’s politics.
Unlike Lincoln’s first letter, this one was much more scathing. He accused Vallandigham of being responsible “personally, in a greater degree than… any other one man” for desertions, draft evasions, and terrorism against Unionists. Nominating him for governor encouraged “desertion, resistance to the draft and the like.”
Lincoln pledged to revoke Vallandigham’s banishment if each Ohio delegate pledged to “do all he can to have the officers, soldiers, and seamen of the army and navy… paid, fed, clad, and otherwise well provided and supported.” The delegates called such an ultimatum a “sacrifice of their dignity and self-respect,” and refused. Vallandigham’s banishment continued, as did military arrests in the northern states.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 290, 294; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9361-419; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 304, 308; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 524-25; Historical Times Encyclopedia Of The Civil War (2010, retrieved 6/4/2012); Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 361, 364-65; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 598; Porter, George Henry, Ohio Politics During the Civil War Period (New York: 1911), p. 167; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 775; Vallandigham, James L., A Life of Clement L. Vallandigham (Baltimore, MD: Turnbull Brothers, 1872), p. 293-95; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q263