William Lowndes Yancey

A review of William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War. by Eric H. Walther. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

William Lowndes Yancey was described as the Patrick Henry of the Confederacy.  Eric Walther’s biography of follows the evolution of a staunch unionist to the orator of secession.  Yancey was the son of a Navy war hero.  The death of Yancey’s father, and the remarriage of his cantankerous mother to a New England preacher had a profound impact on young William.  The young Yancey grew to hate his step-father and the New England society that spawned him, a hatred that spurred Yancey’s politics for the rest of his life.  Yancey was educated in New England, but moved back to the South, and gradually shifted from being a staunch nationalist to become the pre-eminent orator of secession.  By the late 1840s, Yancey came to believe that the interests of the South lay outside of the Union, and he agitated for secession from that point.  He tried, unsuccessfully, to split the Democratic party in 1848, succeeded in splitting the party in 1860 and then the Union in 1861.  Having succeeded in bringing about the division of the Union, he served the Confederacy as an ambassador in England, and then in the Confederate Senate.  He died in 1863, having lived long enough to see his Confederacy in deep trouble after the twin disasters of Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Walther’s telling of the story is intimate and thorough.  Walther notes the dangers of what he calls “psychohistory.” The text of the biography engages in a bit of psychohistory, but does not overdo it.  Yancey, Walther shows, craved public approval, and went to extremes to gain it.  Yancey’s rhetoric, however, was often over the top. At a meeting in Tennessee, he threatened to bayonet a “Parson” William Brownlow as Brownlow listened.  Walther notes Yancey’s penchant for violence. This was not mere talk. As a young man, Yancey had been convicted of manslaughter.  Before secession, Yancey argued forcefully for a strict construction of Federal government powers.  After secession however, Yancey endorsed, in a measured fashion, a large expansion of Confederate government powers.  In the end, this book provides a balanced, critical but fair picture of the man.

The only noticeable shortfall in the book is a lack of texts of Yancey’s speeches.  The man was allegedly a great orator, but Walther gives only brief excerpts.  The complete text of a few quintessential Yancey speeches in an appendix would have been a welcome addition to an otherwise excellent biography of a complicated man and influential orator. A couple of examples will illustrate the power of Yancey’s rhetoric. In September of 1860, Yancey undertook a speaking tour of the northern states, trying to convince them not to elect a Republican president. In Washington, D. C., Yancey spoke at length on the problems facing the country and the Richmond Enquirer, (September 25, 1860, p. 2, col. 4-6) presented the text of Yancey’s speech. He defined the issue facing the country.

My friends, there is one issue before you, and to all sensible men but one issue, and but two sides of that issue. The slavery question is but one of the symbols of that issue; the commercial question is but one of the symbols of that issue; the Union question is but one of those symbols; the only issue before this country in this canvas is the integrity and the safety of the Constitution.  …   He is a true Union man who intends to stand by that Constitution with all its checks and balances.  He is a disunion man who means to destroy one single letter of that sacred instrument.  … Majorities need no protection save their own power.  … But how is it with the South?  How is it with the minority of the country – the minority states of the Government?  …   Minorities, gentlemen, are the true friends of our Constitution because that Constitution is their shield and their protection against the unchecked and unlicensed will of the majority. Hence it is that my section of the South stands by that Constitution.  … you hear much said there about the Constitution; about its strict construction; about the rigid enforcement of its checks, and its balances in favor of these minorities, because to them it is a thing of life and death.

On this occasion, Yancey spoke to his fellow countrymen of the danger that a Republican president represented for the South. The Union had never had a Republican president before, so southerners feared how Lincoln might act.

Suppose that party gets into power; suppose another John Brown raid takes place in a frontier state; suppose Sharpe’s rifles and pikes and bowie knives, and all the other instruments of warfare are brought to bear upon an inoffensive, peaceful and unfortunate people, and that Lincoln or Seward is in the presidential chair, where will then be a force of United States marines to check that band?  Suppose that is the case – that the frontiers of the country will be lighted up by flames of midnight arson; as it is in Texas; that towns are burned; that the peace of our families is disturbed; that poison is found secreted throughout the whole country and immense quantities; that men are found to prowling about in our land distributing that poison in order that it may be placed in our springs and our wells; with arms and ammunition placed in the hands of this semi-barbarous people, what will be our fate?  Where will be the United States Marshals to interfere?  Where will be the dread of this General Government that exists under this present administration? Where will be the fear of the United States army to intimidate or prevent such movements?  Why, gentlemen, if Texas is now in flames, and the peace of Virginia is invaded now under this [Democratic] administration, and under the present aspect of affairs, tell me what it will be when a “higher law” government reigns in the city of Washington?  Where then will be our peace, where will be our safety, when these people are instigated to insurrection[?]

Yancey reminded his listeners that northerners had supported John Brown and Republican governors in Iowa and Ohio had protected Brown’s followers who escaped Harper’s Ferry.

If John Brown commits a raid on that state while in the peace of God, and while in the peace of the country, under the peace of the Constitution that is supposed to protect it – if he comes with pike, with musket and bayonet and cannon; if he slaughter an inoffensive people; if his myrmidons are scattered all over our country, where it is supposed rests this institution which is so unpalatable, inciting our slaves to midnight arson, to midnight murder, to midnight insurrection against the sparsely scattered white people; if the brotherhood of this nation shall be broken up and the Constitution be ignored; if the protection that is due from every citizen to every other citizen shall be no longer afforded; if, in the place of it, a wild and bloodthirsty spirit – not of avenge, for we have done no wrong to be revenged – but a bloodthirsty spirit of assassination, of murder, of wrong, takes its place, and we find scattered throughout all our borders these people, and we find the midnight skies lighted up by the fires of our dwellings, and the wells from which we hourly drink poisoned by strychnine; and our wives and our children, when we are away at our business, are found murdered by our hearthstones, my answer, my friend, is in these words: what would you do?

For Yancey, to ask the question was to answer it. If a Republican won the White House, southerners would have to seek their safety out of the Union. Adding examples of Yancey’s rhetoric would have improved Walther’s book, but the biography is a solid and worthy contribution to the literature on the coming of the war.

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