William Lowndes Yancey: Unionist?

Civil War Historians

Compared with years past I’ve seriously cut down on writing book reviews.  I base my decision, in large part, on the word count that the publication is willing to allow.  Unless I can say something beyond simply summarizing the content of the book it doesn’t seem worth doing.  In addition to the edited collection of essays honoring Emory Thomas, which I just finished, I am also reviewing Eric H. Walther’s new biography, William Lowndes Yancey: The Coming of the Civil War for the journal Louisiana History.  I just started, but I’ve learned a great deal; he is much more complicated than I thought.  Yancey lost his father early on and was raised by his mother and step-father Nathan Beeman who was a minister and abolitionist.  Turns out that his father was incredibly abusive to his mother – going so far as to nail her inside a closet.  Yancey lived in Massachusetts and attended Williams College. 

Between living in New England and his step-father, Yancey developed into an ardent Unionist, which he continued to embrace even after settling back in Greenville, South Carolina following the infamous Tariff Debates.  One of his first public speeches focused on the controversial test oath policy which would require state officials to take an oath of allegiance to disobey federal authorities in the event of another national conflict.  Here is a section from his speech:

Listen, not then, my countrymen, to the voice which whispers, (for as yet, it dares not raise itself above a whisper) that Americans, who have been knit together by so many cords of affection, can no longer be mutual worshipers at the shrine of freedom–no longer can exist together, citizens of the same Republic. . . . And yet, it has become a common thing to hear the Union spoken of as a disagreeable league.  Designing men have, indeed, effectually destroyed, in the minds of but too many in our State, the charm which has, until of late, invested our Federal Union.  But can any one view the course taken by some of the most talented and influential men in our State and country, for the last few years, and not see the evident tendency of their proceedings to be disunion and a Southern Confederacy?

Unlike Calhoun and others who were radicalized by the Tariff Debates it would take time for Yancey to reach their conclusions.  It will be interesting to read on to see exactly how that happened.  As many of you know, by the early 1850′s Yancey had moved to the states’ rights position.  He went on and joined the group that split the Democratic Party in their 1860 national nominating convention, introduced Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, served as the Confederacy’s first diplomatic commissioner to England and France, and finally as senator from Alabama.  He died in 1863. 

I will post additional Yancey nuggets along the way. 

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