Yancey the Fire-Eater

William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama William Lowndes Yancey

The New York Times of August 20, 1860 reports that the Breckinridge Democrats are uneasy:

The Seceders have believed that they could either defeat LINCOLN, and by carrying the election into the House secure the Presidency through LANE for four years longer, — or else unite the South for a secession movement in the event of a Republican victory. They begin to fear that there is not the slightest chance of their doing either. They are likely to be in a minority in nearly all the Southern States. BRECKINRIDGE’s chance of getting into the House at all grows less and less, and in the event of LINCOLN’s election, it is becoming every day more and more certain that the Douglas and Bell strength, united as it will be in defence of the Union, will overwhelm them upon their own ground.

The article reports that various Breckinridge supporters are campaigning hard, hoping at least to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where Breckinridge’s vice-presidential nominee Lane is thought to have a chance. Among the fire-eaters out on the stump, one of the most prominent was William Lowndes Yancey, senator from Alabama.

His speech in Memphis is recorded in the Times of August 21, 1860. In it, he proclaims Breckinridge the “regular nominee” of the Democratic party, because Douglas was nominated at a rump convention that had suspended the rule requiring a two-thirds majority for nomination. He contends that Douglas Democrats purposely devised a platform that would force the “cotton states” to secede, by refusing “equal protection to their rights in the Territories” — i.e., by failing to guarantee slavery. He castigates Douglas for opposing admission of Kansas as a state under the Lecompton constitution.

The Lecompton constitution was pushed to approval by the pro-slavery minority in Kansas by the ruse of giving the voters a choice between the constitution “with slavery” or the constitution “without slavery” — the latter option forbidding importation of slaves to Kansas, but protecting ownership of slaves currently there, and their progeny in perpetuity. The anti-slavery majority in Kansas boycotted the vote. Thanks to bipartisan opposition in congress (including that of Douglas), Kansas remained a territory until 1861, when it was admitted under a new constitution as a free state.

Yancey views Douglas’s actions in this matter as “warring on Democracy” (that’s the party, not the concept). Arguing that the Federal government has no power either to introduce or prohibit slavery, Yancey holds that the Republicans, by trying to restrict slavery in the Territories, are the ones acting unconstitutionally.

So why, Yancey asks, is Douglas campaigning so hard? As Yancey says, Douglas has no hope of carrying Tennessee. At most, the Bell or fusion tickets might win some Southern states, splitting their votes and giving Lincoln the presidency. It must be spite:

It is the last desperate throw of a vindictive and desperate statesman, who feels that he has been caught, and if he dies or sinks in the struggle, he will willingly go down, if he can carry the Democracy with him. Vengeance — and vengeance alone — ought to be written as the motto on every Douglas banner that floats to the breeze.

Yancey goes on to deny that he is a disunionist. A letter Yancey wrote in 1858 to his friend James Slaughter had been publicized widely. I reproduce it here:

MONTGOMERY, June 15, 1858.
Your kind favor of the 15th is received.

I hardly agree with you that a general movement can be made that will clear out the Augean stable. If the Democracy were overthrown, it would result in giving place to a greater and hungrier swarm of flies.

The remedy of the South is not in such a process. It is in a diligent organization of her true men for prompt resistance to the next aggression. It must come is the nature of things. No national party can save us; no sectional party can ever do it. But if we could do as our fathers did — organize committees of safety all over the Cotton States (and it is only in them that we can hope for any effective movement) — we shall fire the Southern heart, instruct the Southern mind, give courage to each other, and at the PROPER MOMENT, by one organized concerted action, we can precipitate the Cotton States into a revolution.

The idea has been shadowed, forth in the South by Mr. Ruffin; has been taken up and recommended in The Advertiser (Published at Montgomery, Alabama), under the name of “League of United Southerners,” who, keeping up their old party relations on all other questions, will hold the Southern issue paramount, and will influence parties, legislatures, and statesmen. I have no time to enlarge, but to suggest merely.

In haste, yours, etc.,

The “Slaughter letter” was widely denounced as a call for secession, but Yancey defends it: a) nobody wants to have their private correspondence published and b) what he referred to as “committees of safety” would form a league with benign intentions.

Listen to what I recommend to every slaveholder…The object of this League is, by the use of proper means, to create a sound public opinion in the South on the subject of enforcing the rights of the South in the Union. Among its primary ideas are:
1. No more compromise of those rights, either in party platforms or in national legislation.
2. A full recognition and maintenance of those rights as paramount to the safety of the Federal Administration or the sources of national parties.
3. The elevation to the public councils of the ablest and purest Southern men.

But what happens if they don’t get the “full recognition” of those “rights?” Yancey concludes his Memphis speech with this stirring admonition:

If the temple of our liberty, in process of time, should be taken possession of by those who have no right there; if the temple of liberty be perverted from the place where true constitutional liberty is to be had, and the true worship is to be carried on; if we find there the thieves and hucksters, there is a lesson given us in the name of Jesus Christ. When the temple of the Jews, that had been devoted to the worship of the ever-living God, and had been kept pure and undefiled, built without the sound of the hammer or the noise of the chisel, was taken possession of by a people forgetful of the great truths announced to them from Mount Sinai; when the hucksters, and brokers, and thieves, carried on before the altar their selfish and wicked pursuits, there was a Savior who came, and who, with a whip of scorpions, scourged them and drove them out. I hope to God there will be some man or set of men, whom Providence will rear in our midst, that when the temple fails into hands unworthy of its charge — that there will be some great WASHINGTON arise, who will be able to scourge them from the temple of freedom, even though he be called a traitor, a CATALINE, a rebel, in that glorious process.

So what hands would be “unworthy” to take charge of the temple of liberty?

Abe's Hand
Photo: Ed Siasoco

This entry was posted in Abraham Lincoln, Alabama, John Bell, Secession, Stephen A. Douglas, William Yancey. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Yancey the Fire-Eater

  1. Chris Moore says:

    I’ve tried to point out to friends over the years why I find the Civil War era in American History so interesting. In the vein of “nothing new under the sun”, the political and social parallels with that time and this are striking. The “fire-eaters” and “teabaggers” embody the same strain of political activism. As long as they feel like they’re in the majority, everythings hunky-dorry. (Although, in fact, the “South” by then, was not.) The moment they are threatened with the horrifying thought of becoming the minority, it’s time to overthrow the government.
    Up to the 1860 election, Southern politicians had pretty much controlled the national government and the national debate. (8 of the first 15 Presidents were from Southern states, and many owned slaves.) Once they realized the writing was on the wall, then it was the end of the union as they liked it. See Lincoln’s clever rebuttals of the “right of secession” in his Feb. 11, 1861 Indianapolis speeches. “In their view, the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only a sort of free-love arrangement, to be maintained on what that sect calls passionate attraction.”
    As you pointed out elsewhere, (re: Fox v. MSNBC) this country has engaged in confrontational politics many times before. This basic debate has been going on since Revolutionary times. The question to me centers on the underlying cause. Is this a debate between conservative and liberal thinking? That seems too easy. I think it might be more about economics and/or fear of change or maybe, just plain fear. Once folks feel their pocketbooks or lifestyle threatened they become more vitriolic in their attitudes and speech, whether liberal or conservative. Fear of immigrants, unions, banks, communists, hippies, racial minorities, academics, tree-huggers, corporations, liberals, conservatives… in short the other guy. Anyway, not much really seems to change in American politics. Ain’t it grand?

  2. Agathman says:

    It may be that there is a continuing struggle between the risk-averse and the early adopters, under whatever name. It’s healthy when these two camps balance each other, ensuring that change does come, but that it comes at a measured pace. When the sides quit talking is when things get out of hand.

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