President Abraham Lincoln had banished former Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham to the South for delivering 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 exiled Copperhead an “alien enemy” and send him to Wilmington, North Carolina, under guard.
On June 2, Vallandigham met with an advisor to Davis and told him that the call for peace in the North was increasing, and if the Confederate armies could just stave off defeat for one more year, the Democrats would “sweep the Lincoln dynasty out of political existence” in the 1864 elections. Vallandigham also warned Davis’s advisor to keep the war in the South, because any kind of Confederate invasion of the North would spark a new wave of war fever that would silence those clamoring for peace. By this time, it had already been decided that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would invade the North.
Vallandigham continued to enjoy 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. He feared that sheltering the Ohioan would discredit the northern peace movement, which the Confederacy actively supported. Davis told Vallandigham to either reject the gubernatorial 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.
Protests of Lincoln’s handling of the Vallandigham affair continued. Erastus Corning, head of the New York Central Railroad, led a delegation of New York Democrats in 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 agreeing that the writ of habeas corpus was “the great means through which the guarantees of personal liberty are conserved,” it was only meant to function in peacetime. Lincoln asserted that the Constitution allowed for the writ’s suspension “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.”
The Union League printed 50,000 copies and distributed them entitled Truth from an Honest Man: The Letter of the President. The Loyal Publication Society printed and distributed 500,000 copies, with many politicians using it for their campaigns. Nearly 10 million people ultimately read this letter, which proved vastly popular among Republicans and other champions of the war effort.
Lincoln next turned to address complaints from Matthew Birchard, the leading delegate to the Ohio Democratic Convention that nominated Vallandigham for governor. Birchard and allies had come to Washington to protest Vallandigham’s banishment. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln considered allowing Vallandigham return to the North, “but for the effect it might have in relaxing army discipline, and disgusting the patriotic sentiment and feeling of the country, which holds V. in abhorrence.”
The president was urged to write a letter to the Birchard party by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a former Ohio governor who was familiar with the state’s politics. Lincoln presented a draft to his cabinet on June 28, and Welles wrote, “Save giving too much notoriety and consequence to a graceless traitor who loves notoriety and office, and making the factious party men who are using him for the meanest purposes that could influence men in such a crisis conspicuous, the letter is well enough, and well-conceived.”
Unlike Lincoln’s letter to the New Yorkers, this letter to the Ohioans 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 posed three key questions: 1) Is there “now a rebellion in the United States?” 2) Would the Ohioans pledge to oppose anything that “will tend to hinder the increase or favor the decrease or lessen the efficiency of the army and navy?” 3) Would the Ohioans pledge to do all in their power to support “the effort to suppress the rebellion?” If the Ohioans answered no to any of these questions, they would look disloyal. And if they answered yes to them all, it would undermine their support for Vallandigham.
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.
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