Yancey in Maryland on slavery and the constitution

The New York Times reports a speech given by William Lowndes Yancey on September 26, 1860.

Hon. WM. L. YANCEY, who is stumping in support of the Breckinridge ticket, spoke yesterday at Easton to a large and enthusiastic audience.

Mr. YANCEY said he would have to ask their indulgence, on account of his broken voice and jaded condition — the former having been injured by his constant efforts in behalf of BRECKINRIDGE. He however asked their attention while he endeavored to reason with them, as one frank and honest man should with another. Appealing to no prejudices or passions, but rather to their higher and better natures, he would discuss the principles on which the Government should be administered, without reference to partisan animosities. The Presidential election, always important, was now of the gravest moment. It was always important to know the policy to be pursued during the succeeding four years. There were always important questions of foreign and internal policy arising; but this contest rose far above all preceding ones. Now, from Maine to Florida, in the North or in the South, there was but one question discussed, and that related to the existence of the Union and the safety of the institution of Slavery.

This was because a great party, bound together by enthusiasm and unity of purpose, proposed through the ballot-box to change the nature of the Government and overthrow the Constitution. The forms through which the Constitution could be legally changed were to be disregarded, and they proposed to triumph by numerical force. They proposed to give us a new Government, based on a different set of principles, and to establish a law higher than the Constitution. The author of the “irrepressible conflict” idea had been put forward as a sectional candidate for the Presidency, and it was proposed to elect him by a sectional vote. That party had a skilled and accomplished leader, WM.H. SEWARD, who tells us that this is a contest between Freedom and Slavery, which must go on till all the States are free or all are slave. Mr. SEWARD called this a contest with Slavery, but he called it a contest with the Constitution.

Yancey, like other fire-eaters, couches his argument in terms of the Constitution, but it is clear that the animating issue of the election is “The safety of the institution of slavery.” The South had threatened secession in the 1830s over the issue of tariffs, which favored Northern industry over Southern agriculture. The move was unsuccessful; it wasn’t possible to arouse the emotional intensity needed to dissolve the union over a purely economic issue. The threat of abolition, with the concomitant fear of insurrection, did what the tariff issue never could.

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