With the 1993 publication of The Fire Eaters (LSU Press) Eric H. Walther established himself as one of the leading historians of the most radical sect of southern political leaders of the 1850’s. That earlier study included William L. Yancey who is the subject of his most recent biography. Yancey, along with Robert B. Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and Louis T. Wigfall and others stood out owing to their adherence to secession as a means to securing Southern liberty, honor and ultimately the protection of slavery, and not simply as a way to gain concessions from the North. In drawing these discussions Walther demonstrated that not all Southern radicals could properly be classified as fire-eaters; however, the latter camp did represent the interests of many white
Southerners and their views were met with widespread support. The fire-eaters were a diverse group that did not always agree with one another, but their agreement that the federal government constituted a threat to Southern society suggests that secession was not a conspiracy, but a reflection of a deeply embedded commitment to defend the interests of a slave society.
Walther’s most recent book offers a detailed and sympathetic examination of how William L. Yancey evolved into one of the South’s most vocal fire-eaters of the antebellum period, Confederate senator and commissioner to England. Walther’s Yancey is complex and his personal journey into becoming a radical was anything but pre-determined. In achieving these ends Walther does not shun the categories of psychohistory; in fact, he refers to Yancey’s “search for
order” and a need to find a substitute for his stepfather, the Reverend Nathan Beman, who was both abusive and an ardent abolitionist. “The violence of his youth” writes Walther, “planted the seeds of violent acts later in his life, affairs of honor that won him the respect of many in the South.” (374) Yancey spent his early years in the North and was educated at Williams College before moving to South Carolina where he edited a newspaper and studied law under the direction of Benjamin Perry who argued against John Calhoun’s theory of nullification. Yancey adopted the unionist views of his mentor before moving to Alabama where he was then influenced by his cousin Jesse Beene and Dixon H. Lewis who was one of the leading states’ rights Democrats. In 1841 Yancey was elected t as a congressman.
This drive to maintain order and his fervent defense of his personal values and honor led to both and incident in 1838 where he fatally shot his wife’s uncle and a duel with North Carolina congressman Thomas L. Clingman. Yancey’s outbursts and attacks in congress against some of the more notable northern politicians such as John Q. Adams and Daniel Webster won Yancey much support and influence. However, even with strong statements insupport of the “Alabama Platform” and against the Compromise of 1850, according to Walther, Yancey only moved beyond a need to please political mentors following the death of Calhoun.
Throughout the 1850’s Yancey’s political convictions grew more radical than those of his mentors and became associated with a growing group that viewed the Union only as a means to protecting the interests of white southerners and secession as a viable alternative in case the federal government failed in that
responsibility. In 1859, Yancey urged the calling of a convention by the state of Alabama, in the event of the election of the Republican candidate for president in 1860. At the Democratic convention of 1860, he and other southern extremists withdrew. In March 1861, he was sent by Provisional
President Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s first Commissioner to England and France, seeking recognition. Following his return to Alabama in 1862, Yancey was elected to the Senate of the Confederacy, and served until his death on July 27 1863. Walther shows that although Yancey clashed with President Davis over constitutional principles and the growing power of the Confederate government he remained willing to negotiate for the benefit of the country that he helped bring about. Yancey died at the age of forty-nine due to kidney failure.
Eric H. Walther has succeeded in crafting a sympathetic and analytical biography of Yancey that reveals as much about the society and politics of the Deep South as it does about his own complex and controversial public life.