The time for Yancy to shine came in 1859, the year before the Presidential election of 1860. With the birth of the Republican Party, a party of big business and with the main goal to restrain the expansion of slavery thus stopping the expansion of the South’s influence while growing the North’s. Yancey knew that to win and to get the Southern people to abandon the Union he must make them feel worried and uncomfortable yet give them an option. That option would be secession, Southern independence. He first looked to see where his views were the strongest, South Carolina being that place. He headed to Columbia to aide his fellow secessionist comrades and to build on their strength in the state while explaining that slavery must be their main battle cry, at least in South Carolina, not the tariffs. While he saw the tariff issue as important he saw that the slavery issue would be the one that fired up the Palmetto folks. He was being realistic and wise. His end-game tactics were already made at this point.
“If any hope remained to secure southern rights without seceding, southerners had a duty to remain in the Union. ‘I have no such hope,’ he said, but expressed his willingness to work with those who did, under one condition. This was “to indoctrinate all parties in our midst with [southern] constitutional views: (The Fire-Eaters page 72)
-Leader of the moderate/Northern Democrats, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois
He knew that his main party opponent would be Northern Democrat, Steven Douglas. Douglas, if successful could perhaps unite the Democrat at the Charleston convention with another compromise which would leave the South in weaker position and would blow the chance to get the heat he needed for secession.
In Columbia he was making sure he would get the heat he needed to ignite the flame of secession. He made sure to explain that the South was doomed if the Republicans could win a national election. He pointed out correctly that the Republicans were a purely sectional party with zero ties or support in the South. Thus, they had no reason to compromise nor heed concessions if elected. This would in effect make the South helpless. He was heard and his views this time were listened to. His next stop would be in Alabama. There he repeated his logic to the Alabamian statesmen and gave forth a plan of a Southern Confederacy. The confederacy that would finally be free of the insidious and corrupt Yankees and their new Party. “I am now. As I have ever been, ready to seize upon the constitution In which those rights are guaranteed” and “form a new Union under that Constitution” (Page 73). He made it clear that the North tried to violate this right of secession and self-governance then the Southern people would fight like men.
The days leading up to the Charleston Convention were filled with tension. Yancey and other secessionists were very busy, and they knew this convention of 1860 would decide the South’s fate. Their rhetoric was confirmed with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry which was funded by wealthy Northerners. When the Convention finally came on the 28th of April, 1860, Yancey was ready. Instead of just saying what he felt and in effect, in modern slang, “seigeposting”, Yancey held his tongue and instead spoke of the fact this was the North’s last chance to have union and that he was there to save that union; however he and the South would make no more compromises. Thus, he put the Northern Democrats on the offensive, so he could play the sincere Southern unionist and they the sectionalist. This was an excellent move on his part. He made clear the South would get all it wanted this time or leave, saying, “It [Institution of slavery] does not belong to you to put your hands on it. You are aggressors when you injure it. You are not our brothers when you injure us.” His speech was excellent and when he stepped down, he was shown a thunder applause, yet the Northern Democrats voted down his platform, that was his plan though. He walked out of the Convention, this time being followed by many angered Southerners delegates. This was all part of his plan. He knew the arrogant Northern Democrats would never swallow their pride for their alleged god of party unity and he needed to show his fellow Southerners that. They saw that and realized Yancey’s truths. Yancey of course could have gone up theere and shouted like a mad man and excoriated the Northerners and demanded secession now, but he would have been seen as a hostile aggressor and thus lost the support of his Southern kinsmen. Or he could have gone to the opposite extreme and demanded few concessions to the South which the Northern democrats may or may not have granted but then the issue would have been solved and the South happy. Instead he choose tactical self-control and accomplished a win-win situation. There’s a lesson to be learned here.
Yancey’s bolt, of course, had repercussions in the papers and throughout the South. Some which might have overwhelmed other men and made them act in haste or freeze. Yancey kept calm.
“Yancey, however, was guardly optimistic. Reporters observed him ‘smiling as a bridegroom’ when delegates in Charleston voted on the platform. Yancey behavior the reporter added showed that he ‘he was not perplexed by saucy doubts and fears’ at this ‘solemn moment'”. Yancey would decide to back the Southern Democrats candidate, and former Vice President, John C Breckinridge for the Presidency. It was after this when Yancey would hit the campaign trail for 1860. One that was quite inspiring and hilarious, the laughs coming at the expense of Yankees. Yancey would not only travel the South but also the Yankee heartland. He faced down hecklers, New Englanders and even arch-Unionist scalawags like William Parson Brownlow. The Brownlow incident being worth mentioning.
“When unionist leader William ‘Parson’ Brownlow stepped forward and pledged to defend the United States against the likes of Yancey with a bayonet, Yancey offered to grab one as well and ‘plunge mine to the hilt through and through his heart and feel no compunctions for the act, but thank God my country has been freed from such a foe'” (The Fire-Eaters Page 76).
A pity Yancey didn’t do it right then and there and liberate Tennessee from such a brute. Many more interesting tales and quotes come from this crusade by Yancey however telling them all would eat up the article. His campaign run went all the way to Boston to excoriate equality and Republicanism. It came to an end in October in the City of New Orleans to a crowd of 20,000+ where Yancey spoke of secession and a Free and Independent Dixie, free of the North and how the South’s survival hinged on this. After the physically draining yet successful campaign, Yancey headed back to his home in Montgomery to await news of the election. With Lincoln’s victory Yancey realized the time had finally come for secession. South Carolina declared herself the first free independent state and republic on the 20th of December, 1860. With this Alabama followed and convened on January 7th, 1861 to decide on secession. Yancey’s moment had arrived, and he was head and center during the convention. He was met with trepidation by some and distain from others. Yancey pushed forward this time sensing triumph was here and irately told the cautious convention, “Those who shall dare oppose the acquisition of Alabama, when she assumed her independence out of the union, will become traitors-rebels against its authority, and will be dealt with as such.” This backfired as the convention turned to arguing and squabbling, so they had adjourned for the day. This was only a temporary setback though and on the following day they voted for secession and passed their ordinance of secession. Yancey restrained himself and took leadership and with approval from the convention, issued an invitation to the rest of the seceding Southern states to join them in Montgomery to form a new Nation. He even wanted to make an effort of peace with the union and have a blood free secession. He saw good times ahead and his life mission seemed complete. He fully endorsed the Confederacy and watched over its founding in Montgomery and even gave the famous quote on President Davis, “The man and the hour have met.”
Yancey was at the peek of his influence and life; imagine the feelings he must have enjoyed that day he introduced the newly inaugurated President to the crowd in Montgomery and shook hands with the President and thought his mission was over. He was wrong however, because Davis made him an official ambassador on a mission to get recognition from Britain and France, thus securing his mission of Southern Independence. Despite poor health Yancey accepted the task. He did so against the advice of many including Robert Barnwell Rhett who warned him that failure was all he would meet, Yancey brushed them off anyway to realize they were right all along. King Cotton diplomacy failed and a depressed Yancey returned to the Confederacy in March of 1862. He was appointed to the CSA Senate yet found only what he considered corruption. He also came to dislike Davis and blamed him for any defeats the South took. On top of this he found himself in a scuffle in the Confederate Congress with Sen. Benjamin Hill of Georgia which ended with both of them being censured. In July he became severely sick and bed ridden. The news of Confederate defeats didn’t help the dying Yancey. After days of pain from illness he finally passed on July 27th, 1863.
-War picture of ambassador Yancey
I think the story of Yancey is a story of a Southern hero and patriot, though like many men he had his flaws. I surely think he wasn’t to blame for the defeat of the Confederacy and it isn’t fair to really blame him for his inability to get recognition from Britain and France. He wasn’t really qualified in diplomacy and I feel he would certainly have done better to have left public life in 1861 like he had originally decided. Despite all this, he should be a name that all Southerners know and respect. His dedication to the South and her people cannot be doubted and his ability to fight forward and strategize is one we should take note of. William Lowndes Yancey truly was the Prince of Fire-Eaters.