William Lowndes Yancey


Initially the greater number of statesman and military leaders of the lost cause wanted neither secession nor war. They preferred to live in peace within the Union. Among the extreme secessionists, however, was William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama.

He was born in his grandfather's home. The Aviary, Warren County, Georgia on August 10 1814, the son of Benjamin Cudworth and Caroline (Bird) Yancey. His father was a midshipman in the colonial navy in the War for Independence and was later an associate of John C. Calhoun in the practice of law at Abbeville, South Carolina.

When William was three his father died, and his mother returned to her father's house. Later she went to live in Hancock County, Georgia, near Mount Zion Academy. There she married Nathan Sidney Smith Beman, head of the academy, who took her and her two children to Troy, New York.

Young Yancey attended the schools of Troy and Williams College but left college before graduating to enter the law office of an old friend of his father's Benjamin F. Perry at Greenville, South Carolina.

Yancey plunged into the nullification controversy as a public speaker and editor of the Greenville Mountaineer. On August 13 1835 he married Sarah Caroline Earle, the daughter of a wealthy planter. They lived for a time on a farm near Greenville but moved to Dallas County, Alabama in the winter of 1836-7. Two years later, while visiting in Greenville, Yancey killed his wife's uncle in self defense and was sentenced to a fine and a year's imprisonment, which was commuted. In Alabama he rented a plantation, and he and a brother bought the "Commercial Advertiser" and the Wetumpka Argus. He then bought a farm but was forced to resume the practice of law when his stock of slaves was almost wiped out by poison.

Yancey rose rapidly in the profession and soon regarded as the leading advocate and most eloquent orator in the state. He was elected to the lower house of the state legislature in 1841, to the upper house in 1843, to the Congress in 1844 and was reelected, serving until his resignation on September 1 1846.

His first debate in Congress with Thomas L. Clingman was so violent that a duel was fought in which neither was injured. He was relieved of all political disabilities arising from fighting the duel by a special act of the Alabama legislature, passed over the governor's veto.

Yancey became the recognized leader of the movement for southern independence. From the time he resigned from Congress until the inauguration of Lincoln, he wielded a powerful influence, he believed in secession, was for a southern republic, and even advocated reopening the African slave trade.

The Alabama Platform of principles written by him in 1848 in answer to the Wilmot proviso was his confession of faith, and he never deviated from it, even when the temptation of the vice-presidency was offered him on the Democratic ticket in 1860. Yancey spent twelve years arousing the South to the impending danger to their institutions. State's rights associations were formed, and a League of United Southerners was organized. By 1860 he dominated Alabama politically, as old-line Whigs and Democrats adhered to the principles expressed in Yancey's platform. The platform presented by Yancey stated that the Constitution is a compact between sovereign states , that citizens are entitled to enter into territories with their personal property intact, and without interference.

When Yancey went to the State Democratic Convention at Montgomery on January 11 1860 the legislature had already appropriated two hundred thousand dollars to arm the state against attack. The issue was not pressed to a conclusion in the Charleston national Democratic convention, and a majority of southern delegates walked out. At an adjourned convention at Baltimore, Douglas adherents completed the destruction begun at Charleston by refusing to seat the Yancey delegation from Alabama. So the Constitutional Democratic Party was organized under Yancey's guidance, and Breckinridge was nominated for the Presidency.

Following Lincoln's election, Yancey directed the proceedings of the Alabama convention and penned the ordinance of secession. In March 1861, he was sent by Provisional President Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy's first Commissioner to England and France, seeking recognition. It was a hopeless situation with which the outspoken, undiplomatic Yancey could not cope, and when Queen Victoria proclaimed English neutrality, his brilliant but futile career came to a climactic close.

He returned to Alabama in 1862, was elected to the Senate of the Confederacy, and served until his death on July 27 1863. When he died, at forty-nine, he was resisting centralized government in the Confederacy as he had fought it in the Union.

William Lowndes Yancey was an independent, dedicated spirit. He paid no homage to power or position, scorned condescending acclaim, and obeyed only the dictates of his own conscience and judgment. He spoke the truth as he saw it.