THE PRINCE OF FIRE-EATERS: WILLIAM YANCY PART TWO

Soon Yancey fully rejected his unionist past and went as far as calling the men he once castigated, the SC Nullifiers, “the most honorable” men who ever existed. He fully embraced the states’ rights doctrine and condemned a powerful federal branch as a danger to the self-governing states. He also became sick of the idea of “muh unity” and “muh party” and soon resigned his seat in congress despite winning reelection in 45’ and still being popular. He felt too many sacrificed principles as not to rock the boat. Here is where he began his life as a powerful dissenter in Alabama. He sought to keep Alabama away from the national politics and corruption he saw in congress that so disgusted him. He wanted Alabama to stand strong and to keep pure from the grip of a lustful federal government. This might have played a role in why he moved to the capital of his adoptive state, Montgomery.

He rubbed elbows more and more with secessionist leaders like John A. Quitman and John A. Elmore. He helped coauthor the Alabama Platform alongside Mobilian John A. Campbell and Senator Dixon Lewis. A platform which he wanted forced on the Alabama delegates during the national party convention. It was firmly states rights and pro-southern. During the Baltimore Convention it was voted down by the National Democratic Party, much to the anger of Yancey who marched out, foreshadowing his descendants’ actions a 100 years later in 1948. Much like the Alabamians of 1948, Yancey also caught heat from many as a “renegade and traitor to his party”. Yancey responded that it was they who acted as traitors for not taking a stand on his strong Southern platform. Yancey and Elmore decided to take their own destiny and made former Senator Littleton W. Tazewell, a Virginian, the Alabama platform candidate. Yancey had the idea of a new party in mind and the aged Tazewell seemed a good candidate for this blossoming party. Yancey refused to back the Yankee Democrat Lewis Cass. He even wrote Calhoun for advice for his mission. Yancey however had little faith in his party idea, for good reason as many Alabamians wouldn’t abandon their beloved party. When Tazewell refused to be their candidate due to his old age, Yancey’s plans were sunken. He decided to back Southerner Zachary Taylor instead, despite Taylor being a Whig. The good news was that Senator Lewis still had Yancey’s back and told Yancey his plans were doomed to fail despite being admirable.

In 1850 is when Yancey really began to openly push secession as an option, especially if political battles failed. He managed to use John C. Calhoun’s response the year earlier (1849) to the banning of slavery in Columbia to his advantage. In June of 1850 he was among the many secessionists and states righters who attended the Nashville Convention that year to discuss the ongoing sectional battles. No true consensus was met at the Convention, however, Yancey would come to back another famous fire-eater, Barnwell Rhett, of South Carolina. South Carolina would need a new titan statesman too as John C. Calhoun died that year, something which didn’t slip Yancey’s mind who made sure to speak at the official observance of the legendary statesmen passing in Montgomery, which was on the 4th of July 1850. His speech was well done and made pleas of Southern unity to “crush the golden idol of party”. A month after he returned to the Alabama capitol to attend a meeting of Dixians and it was there he and Rhett joined together to head to a meeting in Macon where the two masters of oratory made calls for Southern Independence and to harden themselves for war when and if it come. He then returned to Alabama full of energy and went on the offensive and even more openly called for a Third Party that would solely represent the South. Oddly but perhaps true, while Yancey and his fellow Alabama fire-eaters fully advocated slavery, yet they did worried that if slavery wasn’t allowed to expand to the new territory then the South would become drowned with an over amount of slaves which would harm White laborers. Yancey also fully worried about the effects of a freeing the slaves would have on the South and was on a mission to safeguard the South from whatever the Northern abolitionist had in mind. His tactics for secession were interesting to say the least.

“In prophetic afterthought, Yancey that even if southerners rejected secession, his tactics would ensure success the next time they felt ‘outraged and disregarded.’ Then he stated, ‘we shall…not have again to await the slow progress of the disintegration of those old parties which have heretofore preyed upon the vitals of the South'” (The Fire-Eaters pages 62-63)

He grew a strong dislike for the compromisers made by moderate Democrats and Whigs at the time and felt it was time to throw off the facade of political parties and embrace Southern Nationalism. In 1850 secession was very plausible and there was plenty of support for it. However, the heat died down and Yancey, much to his hopes, realized this to his chagrin.

“By the years end, Unionists had triumphed in Alabama, and South Carolina had balked at seceding alone. Yancey wrote bitterly to his brother that the southern cause had disintegrated in Alabama. Half of those who had once advocated resistance were ‘as much submissionists as the union men.’ He correctly that the upcoming presidential election would ‘kill off all that remains of So. Rightism’ and witness a return to ‘old party color'” (The Fire-Eaters page 63)

Yancey’s disappointment was evident as he disengaged from politics after the election and went back to law. He isolated himself from politics seeing that the moment for secession had passed. He let his battered mind and body heal in the summer of 1851 by heading to the coastal city of Mobile. This didn’t last though. During his break from politics his backers which included his new law partner and younger brother, Benjamin C. Yancey, had tried to increase his power. Benjamin was successfully able to get US Rep. Howell Cobb (D-GA) backing for Yancey. However not much came of this. Yancey would reappear on the political scene in 1856; while on vacation in South Carolina, he found out he was indeed missed. Cheers greeted him there. The returning Yancey had also managed to get a hold of his temper, though it sometimes perked up.

In 1856 he also challenged the Know Nothing Party’s stances; Yancey was pro immigrant, however we should note that at the time these immigrants came to Dixie in small numbers and of one color, White. He felt that since all of America came from immigrants (of European discent) that it was unfair to ban new ones. Personally, I strongly feel like in modern times Yancey would quickly abandon the stance. There was however another important reason to Yancey opposing the Party. In Yancey words “Know-Nothingism proposes to maintain the Union and crush secession, or any resistance to any kind [of] usurpation of power by the Union.” That year he made it clear he’d battle the Know Nothings as he saw them as a direct threat to his mission of a Free Dixie. He also made the rounds in political rallies and went to one supporting the Sumner Canning (’56) and the other supporting Filibusterer William Walker (’58). In 1858 Yancey would be among the many secessionists at the Montgomery Commercial Convention which was also attended by Edmund Ruffin (VA) and Rhett (SC). He had a debate with Roger Pryor of Virginia over the reopening of the slave trade which Yancey advocated for. The elder Virginian Ruffin enjoyed Yancey’s speech and had him in mind for his group, The League of United Southerners. Ruffin approached Yancey and Yancey liked the plan and goals of the group and would open a chapter in Montgomery. It’s here that Yancey truly shows tactical wisdom as he would fully evolve his Alabma chapter. A private letter of his reveals his game plan on secession

“No National Party can save us; no sectional party can do it. But what we could do as our fathers did, organize committees of safety all over the cotton states… we shall fire the Southern heart-instruct the Southern mind – give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton States into revolution.”

“League members would retain associations with their current political parties but work from within them to support southern interests and ‘crush out the mere political tricksters, who now make the slavery question subordinate to the Parties.'” (Pg 73)

-Fellow fire-eater, Edmund Ruffin.

Though he was excited especially with the outbreak of Bloody Kansas, however the heat died down from the 1858 elections, yet Yancey kept his eyes on the ball. He realized the time would come for secession and he just had for the right time. That time was soon coming.

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