Statue debated in a civil way

LISBON – In 1863, Lisbon native and controversial Civil War opponent Clement Vallandigham was banished by President Lincoln, and 150 years later Village Council is taking some time before deciding whether to do likewise.

Council met in special session Wednesday night to hear from residents and others about its April decision to allow a statue of Vallandigham to be placed in the village square next to the Civil War-era cannon. This was done at the request of the Lisbon Landmark Foundation, a committee of the Lisbon Area Chamber of Commerce, which is raising funds for the statue.

The special meeting, which drew 27 people, was called after council members began receiving some feedback from the community and others opposed to the statute because of Vallandigham’s controversial place in history.

Former councilman and retired teacher John Deichler started things off by telling council members they should have taken the foundation’s request under advisement and done some research before making their decision. He noted one councilman admitted he did not know much about Vallandigham, who opposed the Civil War as an unconstitutional act and favored peace with the Confederacy, even if it meant preserving slavery.

Deichler, who opposes the statue, said if Vallandigham had his way the United States would be divided into two separate nations, which would have resulted in the “continued enslavement” of African-Americans.

“If you’re going to erect a statue of this man, certainly not on a street named Lincoln Way,” he said, adding the statue would dishonor the memories of the Union soldiers buried in the Lisbon Cemetery.

Deichler suggested erecting a statue to a less controversial Lisbon historical figure, such as U.S. Supreme Justice John Clark or Marcus Hanna, who launched and guided the political career of President William McKinley.

Gayle Beck of Lisbon, who has worked in the newspaper business for decades, said she is a fierce defender of free speech, “but that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to memorialize the content of that speech.”

An outspoken critic of President Lincoln and his conduct of the war, Vallandigham was arrested and imprisoned in 1863 after being convicted by a military court of a federal order prohibiting the expression of sympathy for the enemy. This was after he made derogatory comments about Lincoln and his war policies. Lincoln later commuted Vallandigham’s sentence and banished him to the Confederacy.

Beck recalled that Vallandigham once described the conflict as “a war for the freedom of blacks and enslavement of whites,” adding, “I would be embarrassed to have a statue of someone who said that on a village square.”

Former Lisbon resident, the Rev. John Fitch, put it more bluntly. “I think that statue would be an insult” to blacks, he said.

Fitch said Vallandigham was “legally arrested under a proper law in effect during the war,” and that free speech has its limits.

Brooke Brantingham addressed another common view of Vallandigham. “He was a traitor and his actions were traitorous,” she said.

Vallandigham defenders included Dick Rose, who said Vallandigham was a staunch supporter of the Constitution and states rights and was spot-on in his criticism of Lincoln.

“Today, we need more Clement Vallandighams,” he said.

Robert Cheeks agreed, saying Lincoln launched an unconstitutional invasion of the South and people make the mistake of judging him by today’s standards. “I think we have to understand him in the context of his times,” he said.

As for the racist insinuations, Cheeks said Vallandigham was likely a racist judging by modern standard, as was about 90 percent of all Northerners at the time and, to a lesser degree, even Lincoln.

Cheeks said Vallandigham should be remembered for his defense of the Constitution and First Amendment at a time when it was unpopular to do so. “What they did to him was a shame, and a shame to the presidency and the United States,” he said.

Deichler said “states rights” is a loaded term today, “one that has a hidden message, especially to African-Americans.”

Susan Mowery of the Landmark Foundation addressed statements made by some in the crowd that she was pushing for the statue project because she owns the Vallandigham home on West Lincoln Way. The home is for sale, and some at the meeting suggested the statue would help sell the house.

“If someone can tell me how a statue of Clement Vallandigham would help me sell it, I would like for them to let me know,” she said.

Mowery went on to read from a letter composed by her brother describing Vallandigham as a political prisoner.

“In hindsight, it can be said that Clement Vallandigham was on the wrong side of history … (but) on one issue he still stands as a beacon: The right to dissent with government policy during wartime,” she said.

As for the controversy, Mowery pointed out there are statues of other controversial figures, such as George Armstrong Custer, even though he “murdered” hundreds of American Indians.

Mowery also said one of the points of art is to “provoke thought,” and the statue has certainly done that.

Deichler’s wife Carol said the statue would be a monument to stupidity given that Vallandigham accidentally shot himself to death in 1871 while handling a pistol he believed to be loaded during a trial in which he served as defense attorney.

“Do we want a statue to one of the 10 stupidest men in history?” she asked.

Jay Nolte, commander of the local VFW, said his organization has gone on record opposed to the statue, agreeing with a letter to the editor writer who called Vallandigham a Civil War-era Jane Fonda.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Dan Bing said council wanted to take some time to digest all of the comments and do some research of their own before deciding whether to rescind its permission. He said they would take up the issue at their May 28 meeting.

Absent from the meeting was Councilman Jeff Snyder.