February 4, 2023

Lawyer who mistakenly shot himself dead in court to prove a case

On this date, Clement Vallandigham, a Representative who was eventually convicted of treason, was born in Ohio.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Vallandigham eventually became a prominent lawyer in a thriving practice in Dayton. A believer in states’ rights, low tariffs, and slavery, Vallandigham was an ardent Democrat and his passion for the party sustained him through a long series of electoral losses.

In his third attempt to win a Dayton-area seat in the House, Vallandigham lost by 19 votes in 1856. On the second-to-last day of the 35th Congress (1857–1859), he successfully contested the election of his opponent, Lewis Campbell. For the 36th Congress (1859–1861) he won the first of two very narrow elections. Losing re-election in 1862, Vallandigham focused his attentions on protesting the Civil War.

His motto “the Constitution as it was; the Union as it is,” demonstrated his ardent support for the federal union coupled with his vehement opposition to the extraordinary powers President Abraham Lincoln assumed during the conflict.

A prominent leader of the anti-war “Peace Democrats” (or Copperheads), Vallandigham was arrested on May 5, 1863, and charged with “publicly expressing…his sympathies with those in arms against the Government of the United States.” Upon his conviction, the Lincoln.

administration banished him to the Confederacy. After less than a year, he escaped to Canada and, despite his exile, the Ohio Democratic Party nominated him for governor in demonstration of its support. In 1864, Vallandigham secretly returned to Ohio and, after the war, began campaigning for office on his “New Departure” plan for rehabilitating the South in opposition to GOP-backed Reconstruction.

Failing to win election to the House in 1868, Vallandigham returned to his law practice. On June 17, 1871, the prominent defense lawyer attempted to prove a client innocent of murder, arguing that the victim had shot himself.

Demonstrating this possibility before the court with a gun he thought was unloaded, Vallandigham accidentally shot himself. He died of his wound twelve hours later.

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