October 10, 1860: Yancey speaks at Cooper Union

William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama

William Lowndes Yancey, the fire-eating secessionist, speaks in New York.

The New York Times ran an editorial the day of his speech:

Information Wanted.

It is announced that Mr. WM.L. YANCEY is to address the public on the political issues of the day, this evening, at the Cooper Institute. We do not know that the announcement is authentic, but we have been assured that it is.

What Mr. YANCEY’s special object may be in so doing, we have no means of knowing. Whether he intends to fortify the faith of speculators for a fall in stocks, and to encourage the hopes of political alarmists, — or to clear himself from the suspicion of being a Disunionist, we are not aware.

We cannot, however, forget the part he has played hitherto in political affairs. We cannot forget his organization of the Southern League, nor his advice to a colleague, that he should remain in the Democratic ranks for the purpose of so shaking its action that, “when the proper opportunity should arise, they might precipitate the Cotton States into revolution.” Nor can we forget the part he has recently taken in the disruption of the Democratic Party, and the advocacy of the Breckinridge ticket in the Southern States. And all these recollections lead us to watch his proceedings with a good deal of interest.

We are a little curious to know whether he will advocate fusion here, or urge his friends to vote the regular Breckinridge ticket. If he does the latter, we shall be warranted in inferring that he regards the election of LINCOLN by the people as affording a favorable opportunity for his “revolution.” If he urges fusion, for the purpose of defeating LINCOLN, we shall infer that he considers a Presidential canvass in the House of Representatives as affording much the best chance.

There is one point on which his friends here will insist on having from him an explicit answer. Does he believe that the election of Lincoln, in advance of any act of injustice or aggression, would constitute a sufficient cause for secession? As a frank man he cannot well refuse to declare himself on this point, — nor can he fail to recognize its importance. He will speak here to a large commercial community, which has everything at stake on the preservation of the Union. Many of them are seeking to save it by defeating LINCOLN; — others aim at the same result by preventing the election from going to the House of Representatives. But all are for the Union. And all will insist, after the election is over, and whatever may be the result, upon upholding the Constitution and maintaining the Confederacy inviolate. And they will all want to know whether Mr. YANCEY is for or against them on this point of transcendent importance. We hope he will find it convenient to be perfectly explicit in regard to it.

Yancey’s speech was quite long, and is transcribed in its entirety in theNew York Times. He was known for his eloquence as much as for his dedication to Southern independence. Some excerpts: He started out dealing with hecklers. He then went on to deny being for disunion, and proceeded into a long exposition of the historical and constitutional roots of slavery:

The South was the owner of four millions of slaves. Where did she get them? She inherited them from the men of the Revolution — from the men who effected the Revolution by a sacrifice of life, and on exhibition of courage and patriotism, which a world had rarely seen, and who, when they had established the liberties of their country, provided in the Constitution that they had framed for the increase and the protection of slaves as property. He (Mr. YANCEY) had heard announced from high quarters that there was an “irrepressible conflict” — that there was a law which declared that all those Slave States should be destroyed — the “higher law.” True, there was an irrepressible conflict, between these teachings and the men who had propounded that law and the doctrines of the law that had been framed by our forefathers, and the principles of the Constitution which they left us. Every man, from whatever section of the Union must stand by the side of that contract and maintain it, or else be recreant in his loyalty to the Constitution.

He went on to repudiate Douglas’ Norfolk Doctrine, arguing that the federal government had no right to use force to keep a state from seceding:

Suppose Georgia left the Union. She did not injure the North by doing so. And suppose the U.S. Army and Navy were sent against her and she were conquered — what then was Georgia? Was she a free and equal State with a standing army within her borders to keep her, a conquered province, in the Union? What, in that case, was the Union? A military despotism.

The moment that Congress passed a law that provided for the marching of an army to coerce a sovereign State into submission, it inaugurated a military government, with a standing army, and the taxes for its support and the evils attendant.

But this was the time, this New-York the place, and this almost the hour to decide, that a sovereign State should not be put to such straits. Now, as wise men, they should decide that they would not place themselves in opposition where they would have to support the Government by the bayonet, but that they would support it by the ballot-box. Now, it was for them to decide that the civilization and industry of the North and South should march side by side, and that the sword should not be thrown into the scale of the North, as the sword of Brennus was thrown in when the fate of Rome trembled in the balance.

Give the Southerners Slavery, and they would give the North all her rights.

After Yancey concluded, some resolutions were passed endorsing the fusion ticket. The questions posed by the Times editorial had been answered: he did endorse fusion, but he didn’t repudiate secession. And, as usual, the preservation of slavery was the essential goal of the South.

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