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William Lowndes Yancey, [from the Moutgomery, Ala., daily Advertiser, April 15, 1893.]

The sincere and Unfaltering Advocate of Southern rights.

His eventful career as sketched by Hon. Anthony W. Dillard.

No man in the South contributed so much as did William L. Yancey towards working up the people of the South to the determination to secede from the Union, in order to withdraw slavery from the possible unfriendly action of the United States. Mr. Yancey, during this time, enjoyed none of the prestige of official position—he was the editor of a newspaper, and, therefore, able to scatter his opinions on the wings of the wind; he was a private citizen, a lawyer engaged in practicing his profession, and was in quite moderate circumstances in regard to fortune. Nor was his location in Montgomery of a character to draw to him the leading men of the South, nor to afford peculiar facilities for the propagation of his opinions. Montgomery was not at all a political centre, to which politicians flocked for consultation and comparison of opinions. Nor was it a Pharos, whence political light was flashed out over the South, with electric speed.

Mr. Yancey had held few public offices, having served two sessions in the State Legislature and one term in Congress, in the forties, and he had never afterwards seemed solicitous to hold public offices—certainly, he took no open and active steps to obtain a nomination for any position, nor gave his friends encouragement to press his name. But it must not be inferred from what has been stated, that he was, in the smallest degree, a disappointed and soured office-seeker.

Nor was Mr. Yancey politically strong and popular in Alabama. The nullification battle in 1832 had divided the Alabama Democracy into Jackson Democrats and Calhoun Democrats. The former being [152] the strongest, numerically, had not only dominated the party, but had ostracised the adherents of Calhoun, without resorting to a public excommunication of them. In 1832, Mr. Yancey, scarcely more than adolescent, had edited a Jackson newspaper in South Carolina and manfully opposed the nullification doctrines of Calhoun and Hayne, although he never wavered in his adherence to the right of a State to secede from the Union. When he removed to Alabama, he became identified in his new home with the Calhoun wing of the Democracy, many of the members of which were originally from South Carolina, and had been there personally known to him.

In 1848, Mr. Yancey was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention at Baltimore, and strongly denounced the sentiments and views of General Cass's ‘Nicholson letter,’ as well as the platform adopted by the Convention, and endeavored to substitute therefor some resolutions draughted by him, and adopted by the State Democratic Convention of Alabama in the January previous to the meeting of the Baltimore Convention. He refused to support General Cass for the Presidency, and gave his support to George M. Troup, of Georgia, and John A. Quitman, of Mississippi, who had been nominated by the more ultra Southern Democrats. This line of conduct on the part of Mr. Yancey, naturally gave great offence to the Jackson Democrats, and led to his abstaining from all participation in Democratic primaries and conventions for a considerable time, though he declined to unite with the Whig party. In 1856, he warmly supported Mr. Buchanan as Democratic elector for the State at large, canvassed the State, making a speech in every county, in consequence of which he regained his standing in the Democratic party.

In 1858, Mr. Yancey commenced, with insistence, the war on the territorial views avowed by Judge Stephen A. Douglass, and demanded that so long as a territory remained in a state of pupilage, Congress should itself pass all laws necessary for the protection of slavery in such territory, in case the territorial legislature failed to do so. He contended that non-action on the part of the territorial legislature, on the subject of slavery would amount to leaving it in an unprotected condition, which would, practically, exclude it from the new territories then opening up. Mr. Yancey proclaimed himself to be in favor of re-opening the African slave trade, with the view of so cheapening the price of slaves as that every white man in the South could purchase one or more slaves, at an insignificant cost, [153] and thereby be relieved from having to perform manual labor himself. It was also in the year 1858, that Mr. Yancey unfolded in his ‘Slaughter letter,’ the program of operations, which being subsequently pursued, ‘precipitated the Cotton States into revolution’ in the early part of the year 1861. The legislatures in over half the slave States, were induced in 1858-9 to pass a solemn resolution to the effect, that the election of a Republican to the presidency would amount to a virtual dissolution of the Union, and would be a declaration of a war of extermination against slavery, which would warrant and render necessary the withdrawal of such State from the Union. These resolutions made it the duty of the Governor, within a specified time after the election of a Republican to the presidency, to issue his proclamation for the election of delegates to a State convention, to make arrangement for the secession of the State from the Union. Observe, all these matters were arranged and resolved upon long before Mr. Lincoln was even nominated — the train was laid with great care, before a Republican was chosen president, and after Mr. Lincoln was elected, nothing was required but to fire this train — a comparatively easy matter, as the event showed.

But for John Brown's insane attack upon Harper's Ferry, it is very questionable whether any of the Southern States could have been screwed up and egged on to seceding, purely because of the election of Mr. Lincoln. They would have waited for some overt attack to be made on slavery, which would not have happened during Mr. Lincoln's term, as he would have conformed to and respected the platform upon which he had been elected, which exactly coincided with his individual opinions quoad the constitutional competency of the general government to interfere with slavery in the States where it already existed. The Chicago platform expressly denied the existence of any such right under the Constitution.

But the raid of John Brown on Virginia soil, with the avowed intent and purpose of exciting the slaves to insurrection, made a profound impression on the Southern people. They interpreted it as an indication of the feeling and temper of the Republican party towards slavery, and as a foreshadowing of what would occur, whenever the Federal government should pass into the charge of the Republican party.

The Southern people can only be judged fairly, by looking at matters as they appeared, when viewed from their standpoint; their [154] apprehensions and forebodings, whether well or ill grounded, were sincerely felt and entertained. There was no hostility, or disloyalty entertained to the Union per se, by the Southern people—this fact ought never to be lost sight of.

In all of the Gulf States, with the exception of Louisiana, the State Democratic conventions had instructed their delegates to withdraw from the Charleston Convention in default of the insertion of a clause in the platform pledging Federal protection to slavery in the territories by appropriate legislation. The battle was thus transferred to the floor of the Charleston convention. Mr. Yancey was himself a delegate, and opened the campaign two days in advance of the day fixed for the meeting of the National Convention. The plan was to induce the delegates from all the Southern States, and failing in that, to get as many as possible, to secede from the convention, and in pursuance of this plan meetings of Southern delegates, exclusively, were held on the Friday and Saturday nights preceding the National Convention. This writer was present at these meetings, not from sympathy, however, but as a spectator of the play. Mr. Yancey declined to speak, declaring he desired to hear the other delegates express their sentiments. A delegate from Virginia observed that the absence of even a single delegate from the North at these meetings had an ominous look to him; it seemed to prefigure the disruption both of the Democracy and the Union. The National Convention of the party would convene within forty-eight hours—it was intended for friendly conference—for consultation, for a comparison of opinions, in the spirit of brotherhood, with the view of harmonizing differences. He had no doubt an adjustment could be reached by mutual concessions-at any rate, it ought to be tried. He declined to take any part in these meetings of Southern delegates exclusively, or to be bound by its action.

The speeches made in these meetings were violent and inflammatory, abounding in denunciations of the Northern Democrats as timeservers and shufflers, and representing the Republicans as being determined to wipe out slavery, even if they had to resort to servile insurrection. I remember that John Milton, a delegate from Florida (he was chosen Governor in 1862, but died in 1864), said, ‘His plan was for Southern men to take the Constitution in one hand and a musket in the other, and to march to Fanueil Hall in Boston, demand their constitutional rights, and if they were not granted, to go to [155] work at once with their muskets and never stop till their constitutional rights were granted to them.’ His speech was applauded to the echo.

When the National Convention met on the following Monday the delegates from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina had come to an agreement to withdraw if the platform did not embrace the clause respecting slavery demanded by the South.

There was a most bitter opposition to the nomination of Judge Douglass. President Buchanan encouraged and supported this opposition by personal and official influence. John Slidell was not a delegate to the convention, still, he was personally present in Charleston for the purpose of working the wires to defeat Douglass, an art in which natural cunning and long practice had made him very proficient. The selection of Caleb Cushing for president of the convention was a serious blow to Douglass. There was a bitter fight between the rival delegations from New York-one headed by Fernando Wood the other by Dean Richmond, but the latter were admitted to seats. Ultra Southern delegates supported Wood.

When the Committee on Resolutions made their report, there was a majority and a minority report, and this was the signal for battle. George E. Pugh, ex-Governor Paine of Ohio, C. L. Vallandigham and Congressman Richardson of Illinois, were the leading speakers for the majority report. The speeches of Pugh and Vallandigham were able, eloquent and impressive. W. L. Yancey was, practically, the only speaker for the minority report. He was listened to by an audience of 5,000 with undivided and breathless attention—literally speaking, one could have heard a pin fall, so profound was the stillness. He indulged in no invectives against the Northern Democrats; not the faintest expression that could be tortured into hostility to the Union fell from his lips—but his speech was impassioned, eloquent and impressive. No man was freer from bombast, sophomoric declamation and pompous rhetoric than Mr. Yancey. He never was at a loss for a word, and the proper word always came. Mr. Yancey was a born orator, and had no equal in the South before a popular audience. His voice was sweet and round, his articulation very clear and distinct—every word could be heard—and both his looks and manner were impressive and captivating. It was a treat to hear him relate an anecdote in his speeches. [156]

When the platform was finally disposed of by the adoption of the majority report, the scene that ensued was mournfully dramatic. The chairman of the delegation from Alabama arose read his protest against the platform and announced the withdrawal of the delegation. As it retired there was applause from the delegates who were soon to withdraw. The Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and South Carolina delegations read protests and withdrew in succession from the convention. Then scattering delegates from other Southern States withdrew, sometimes leaving only one or two delegates in their seats.

The scene was a sad and portentous one to me. To my mind it was the prelude to the ‘bloody sweat and agony’ of the war that followed not many months afterward. The writer had determined to disobey instructions and to retain his seat in the convention and vote for Douglass, but when he mentioned the matter to his particular friend, ex-Governor Winston, older and more experienced than this writer, he insisted I should also retire in order not to injure his political prospects, to which I consented against my own judgment.

The breach was never closed. Two Presidential tickets were placed in the field—Douglass and Johnson, and Breckinridge and Lane. The Whigs also nominated a ticket.

It was perfectly clear that, with the opposition to Mr. Lincoln divided among three candidates, he was certain to carry nearly every non-slaveholding State, and to be elected, and this state of things drew to him the floating vote composed of men whose only aim is to vote for the winning ticket.

Mr. Yancey supported Breckinridge and Lane with enthusiasm, speaking in most of the Northern cities, and in nearly every Southern State. The election of Mr. Lincoln was followed by the putting into execution in the Southern States of the pre-arranged programs. State conventions were called, and elections ordered for delegates. Alabama passed the ordinance of secession January 11th, 1861—just a few days after South Carolina had led off. Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas pretty soon followed. They agreed to form a provisional government with Montgomery as the capital. The forts and arms were seized in these seceded States wherever they were able to get possession of them. They apprehended no resistance or coercion from President Buchanan, and were anxious to get possession of the forts and arsenals with their contents, and to [157] organize a government prior to the induction of Mr. Lincoln into office. Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia seceded in the spring of 1861.

Mr. Yancey never believed secession would be followed by war. Peaceable secession was the cuckoo song. It was the universal belief in the South that there would be no war. Here and there, Southern men were encountered, who predicted war, but they were branded as ‘submissionists,’ and suspected of disloyalty to the South. This disbelief as to war was shared by Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, and the result was, hardly any preparations for war was made before the inauguration of Lincoln in the purchase of cannon, muskets, lead, powder, ships, etc. A large proportion of the cotton crop grown in 1860, was still on hand in the South, which could have been shipped to Europe, and used in the purchase of arms and ammunitions. But none apprehended war, and so preparations were scant.

While Mr. Yancey contributed more than any other individual to launch secession, he cut no great figure afterward. In the Alabama State convention, he was defeated as a delegate to the provisional congress, through a combination of the friends of other aspirants. There was a great jealousy of Mr. Yancey, on account of his superior eloquence and his influence in bringing about secession, and this ignoble feeling manifested itself in attempts to retire him to private life. Jefferson Davis appointed him one of the commissioners to England to negotiate a treaty recognizing the Confederate States, but seeing this could not be accomplished, he returned by way of Mexico, and made his way overland to Montgomery. On his return, he was much disheartened by the aspect of affairs. In the winter of 1862-1862, he was elected a senator in the Confederate Senate, and took his seat. My impression is he somewhat antagonized Jefferson Davis' administration—he thought militaryism was too much over-slaughing the civil authority in the South—at least he expressed himself in that way in a letter written to this writer in the spring of 1864, from Richmond. In the then situation of the South, the military authority needed to be strengthened. A Danton was needed to procure a decree for a levy en masse in the South—for placing negroes in the army, and for converting the South into a camp. A cold, stern, unyielding dictatorship was required, but Jefferson Davis was not the man for such a dictator. Clearly, Mr. Yancey was [158] wrong in deprecating the predominence of militaryism over the civil authority. The South should have been converted into a camp.

Mr. Yancey died prior to the close of the war, and it was thought, from the effects of a blow on the head from an ink stand hurled at him by Ben Hill, of Georgia, in the Confederate Senate chamber in retaliation for something Yancey had uttered in a speech. He lived long enough to realize that secession was a failure, and this was gall and wormwood to him.

I have remarked the prevalent belief among the Southern people, that secession would not be followed by war, and that Mr. Yancey shared such belief. But for the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter, in April, 1861, the probability is there would never have been a war, and but for the war, the Southern people would have sickened of secession, undone all the secession work, and returned to the Union, as the prodigal returned to his father's house. As to the firing on Fort Sumter, ex-United States Senator Jere Clemens stated in a public letter, that he was in the office of the Secretary of War, in Montgomery, two days before fire was opened on Fort Sumter, when Mr. Gilchrist, of Lowndes county, Alabama, a very hot-headed secessionist, came into the office and censured General L. P. Walker, the Secretary of War, for not having precipitated a war, declaring the people were already beginning to repent of secession, and would be back in the Union at the end of a year, unless the breach was made wider by an act of war, and urged him to order fire to be opened on Fort Sumter without delay. Whether this statement be true or false, the firing on Fort Sumter appeared at the time to have been without any adequate provocation, and to have been the outcome of a hasty and ill-advised resolution. It opened the war. It fired the heart of the North, as it never was fired before, enthusiastic patriotism flashed forth with amazing spontaneity—men, who had opposed the election of Mr. Lincoln—men, who were opposed to the coercion of the seceding States were indignant at the firing on the flag of the United States and eager for putting down the rebellion by force of arms. The South begun the war by opening fire on Fort Sumter at a time when she should have used every effort within her power to postpone the appeal to the sword. That was the deliberate and matured opinion of Mr. Yancey, notwithstanding he was regarded as a hot-spur, void of rationality and prudence. The late Colonel A. G. Horn, who was secretary of the Alabama State Convention which [159] passed the ordinance of secession, and of which Mr. Yancey was a member, informed me that towards the close of its session Mr. Yancey delivered a speech in secret session, of two hours duration, in which he contrasted the available resources of the United States and the Confederate States for war, and insisted that the latter should avoid war as long as possible, since war would be disastrous to them, in their then unprepared condition. Should the United States march an invading army into the South, with the intention of conquering the South, that step would have the effect of completely harmonizing and uniting the Southern people in every Southern State into a compact mass, and it would likewise sow fatal divisions in the people of the United States, inasmuch as the Democrats and Whigs of the North, reinforced by a large proportion of capitalists and merchants, would boldly denounce such a step. The final success of the Confederacy depended on the studious avoidance of war with the United States, and in leaving the United States to become the aggressor by invading Southern homes and firesides, in case she must have a war.

Of the purity and unselfishness of Mr. Yancey's motives, there can be but one opinion by such as knew him. No thought of self-aggrandizement ever entered into his thoughts. He never was an office-seeker. He led the secession movement. Many others advocated it in order to win popularity; others espoused it from a craven fear of popular wrath. Yancey in 1858 regarded secession not only as inevitable, but felt it was his duty to prepare the Southern people for taking the plunge. The result attests the truth of the saying that ‘Man proposes, but God disposes,’ since the very step taken to perpetuate slavery led to its extinction.

Out of the 600 delegates in the Charleston Convention of 1860, thirty-one years ago, not more than a dozen are left on the stage of life.

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