I think that nowadays our people fail to see and understand true statesmanship; it’s not hard to see why when there are very little true statesmen left. However, in the Antebellum South we were blessed with many great statesmen and Southern Nationalists, one of the greatest being a legendary man from Alabama named William Lowndes Yancey, a fire eater among fire-eaters.
Born in 1814 in Georgia’s Warren county alongside the famous Ogeechee River, baby Yancey’s life began. His parents were both from South Carolina but his life began off on a sad note, albeit common for the time, as his father, Benjamin, died from Yellow Fever only after a couple years after his birth. The young Yancey was then sent to a Presbyterian school by his widowed mother, Caroline, one ran by Reverend Nathan Sidney Beman, a New England Yankee. It wasn’t long before Beman became Yancey’s new stepfather, he married Yancey’s mom in 1821. The couple moved to New York two years later where Beman would become heavily involved in the rising abolitionist movement of the day. Moreover, throughout the 1830s he would be an active member, even bumping paths with Charles Finney who was a ring leader of various equalitarian reform movements at the time. Beman’s marriage to Yancey’s mother, Caroline, was heading into an abyss. The two spouses were known to argue constantly and even considered a divorce, something extremely taboo for the time, as it should be now. Both parents were abusive and foul to their children not to mention one another. The two eventually would decide to separate in 1835.
Despite Beman’s flaws, which disgusted young Yancey, he did send his step son to Williams College in 1830, right in the heart of Yankeedom, Massachusetts. Young teenage Yancey did pretty well at Williams and even got on the debating team and got awards for oratory. He learned very well under William’s President Edward Dorr Griffin how to hone his speaking skills too. Despite all this however he would withdraw in 1833. It should be noted that he might have left due to a school prank. Regardless, Yancey decided to head back to the South, his homeland. A place he had yearned to return to, away from the disorder and vice of Yankeedom.
-Rev. Beman, Yancey’s Stepfather
He relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, and began to study law where he stayed on his uncle’s plantation. During this time, we should note that it was the beginning of the famous Nullification Crisis and Yancey was located in the hotbed of Nullification. Young Yancey however sided with Unionists, as his family in the state were strong Unionists. His law mentor and father figure, Benjamin Perry, was a leading federalist of his area. South Carolina itself was alight with controversy and debate over the question of loyalty and federal powers. Nineteen-year-old Yancy wasn’t one to sit out such an exciting show and controversy.
Yancey would even give a speech to some citizens on the 4th of July that year (1834). In his speech he would spew pure Unionism and fully question the need for secession and his distaste for the leading Nullifier John C Calhoun. In the fall of that year he became an editor in a local Unionist paper, where he would fully show his mastery using the pin and also calling out Calhoun. Yancey would however begin a new path when he married Sarah Caroline Earle in 1835. The marriage would be a fruitful and loving one which produced five children to which Yancey treated lovingly and carefully, fearing becoming the hypocrite that Beeman was. Yancey was first and foremost a paternalist who sought to do his duties as a father and husband. He wanted his children to have what he lacked, a stable and happy home. In his marriage to Sarah he also received a massive dowry of 35 slaves which immediately upped his social class. This increase in wealth allowed the newly married man to move westward to Alabama the next year. It was here that Yancey would ultimately change his political outlook.
Once in Alabama, Yancey had a home built however while he stayed with his uncle, Jesse Beene. This is important to know because Uncle Beene would become a new mentor-like figure to Yancey who was still a young man and Beene was a leading secessionist in his state of Alabama. While many of the man’s character had shown by now, it was in 1838, while in Greenville visiting, that another of his well-known characteristics first showed. His temper. In Greenville while listening to a political debate, Yancey threw an insult at one of the speakers. A teenage boy heard and took offense and the two traded blows yet parted peacefully, the man he hit was also a cousin of his wife. This might have heated the situation as the young man’s aged father, Dr Robinson, the young teen being Elias Earle, headed to Greenville armed and in a hot rage at Yancey. When the two men met, Yancey tried to calm the enraged father but he was up for no debate and through the accusation of calling Yancey a “liar”, which was a no-no in an antebellum South, this all led to a scuffle and an infuriated Yancey got the upper hand, firing on his wife’s uncle and then caning and finally stabbing the man until he was pulled off. This didn’t end up well as Robinson died that night. He was jailed and charged for manslaughter. Luckily this was the Antebellum South Carolina and unlike the limp wristed legal system today, he was only sentenced a year in prison for the death of Robinson.
I have to smile at the fact that you could get off with a year in prison for slaying a man to defend one’s honor, perhaps such a system today would benefit our milquetoast society of cowards. Yancey fully saw himself in the right and wrote from prison in his newspaper that “Reared with the spirit of a man in my bosom—and taught to preserve inviolate my honor—my character, and my person, I have acted as such a spirit dictated.” Aw, if only our society valued this style of honor code. Yancey did and was soon pardoned despite his relatively small sentence. He returned to Alabama but only was welcomed by the Panic of 1837. A Panic which caused him a loss of cash from his cotton production. On top of this, in 1839 his slaves were accidently poisoned in a feud. Many died, and the few survivors were too sickly to do any sort of work. Yancey’s planation style life seemed to be going under so in 1840 he sold many of his slaves and left to move to Wetumpka, Alabama, where he could better run a paper (Argus), he previously bought. According to historian Eric C. Walter it was in this time frame that Yancey started really developing a more states’ rights outlook and even became “fond” of Senator John C. Calhoun. The crash of ’37, in Yancey’s mind, was caused by bankers. He further grew disgruntled with abolitionist interference and trouble-making that was increasingly growing at the time. In 1840 he would become involved in the Presidential campaign that year, advocating for the reelection of Democratic President Martin Van Buren.
“Yancey told his readers [in his newspaper Southern Crisis] that a Whig administration would reenact alien and sedition laws, pass a higher protective tariff, recharter the national bank, tax southerners for northern internal improvements, tamper with slavery and obliterate constitutional restraints on power, ‘making the president a King in all but name’ and transforming Washington into ‘the center of a vast, consolidated domain.'” (The Fire Eaters page 53)
Yancey, who was previously a Whig, seemed to be growing strictly as sectional partisan compared to his earlier calls for Nationalism. He certainly was no fan of the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, mainly because of his federalist and abolitionist ties/support. He even labeled Harrison a coward and a wannabe dictator who would seek to create a standing army to force laws on the nation. This all led to Yancey getting a seat in the Alabama General Assembly. At this point Yancey was a Jacksonian reformer who put forth his support for local reforms, while still being a firm slavery defender. However, he still wasn’t a secessionist. In 1844 Yancey was made to fill a vacant seat in the House, giving the 30-year-old a voice in national politics. A voice that was loud and aided with a quick tongue with a talent for oratory. There he was among the many young Southern statesmen who sought leadership from the veteran Senator Calhoun. These Southern men were advocating pro-expansion and their main debate of the day was over Texas. He was quick to condemn and tongue lash anyone in congress, especially if they were from Dixie, who seemed weak on the Texas question. Yancey’s dedication to the South seemed to truly harden here, the seeds always were planted but among like-minded statesmen and under the bearded and caped Calhoun, his Southern Nationalism began to spring upwards.
“Every year, Yancey said, southerners lost strength in congress because of ‘the fatal Missouri compromise.’ Scheming New Englanders were in the vanguard of a general northern effort to circumscribe the growth and power of the slave states. The enormity of this sectional conflict was so great that it demanded the united action of all southerners, regardless of party divisions.” (Fire-Eaters page 55)
Yancey wasn’t wrong. However, some thought his words were quite belligerent, one being Thomas Clingman, a Whig politician of North Carolina. Yancey of course held back no words for Clingman who he saw as weak on the Texas question. Yancey inferred to Clingman as weak and a traitor while lambasting him in congress stating the North Carolinian “had given a stab to the intuitions of his own land and wears the garb of its enemy.” Clingman demanded Yancey back his words and manhood and challenged Yancey to a duel. Yancey, never dodging a fight, with one man already dead by his hands, accepted. They did face each other but luckily both men missed and felt their honors were both vindicated and left in peace.
Yancey’s temper flamed in congress and became almost legendary, sometimes causing him trouble and occasionally, though usually only to fellow Southerners, he would apologize if he felt he was out of his place or went too far. He never would sacrifice his honor as a man in doing so though. The road ahead of Yancey was bright given his newfound career and passion. His views would change as politics changed, molding a new man out of him; a fire-eater.