Prologue: Yancey’s Rage

By the middle of the 1850s, William Lowndes Yancey and fellow secessionists had suffered through two decades as a cornered minority. During this exasperating time, Yancey perhaps dreamed that he would someday help prod half the South out of the Union. But the stymied Alabama extremist probably never imagined that he would surrender to a reluctant secessionist, when secession remained only half accomplished.

Yancey’s abdication occurred in Montgomery, Alabama, provisional capital of the Southern Confederacy. The capitulation transpired on February 17, 1861, eve of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as president of the halfformed nation. Yancey introduced Davis, who had opposed secession as late as December 1860, by declaring that “the man and the hour have met.” The extremist thereby bet his revolution on a National Democratic Party moderate. Such opponents of extremism had long kept revolutionaries at bay in the South.1

Mainstream politicians’ leverage inside the South began with their leverage inside the nation’s majority party. For a quarter century, the Democratic Party’s southern establishment in Washington had secured many proslavery protections. With the Union featuring minority bulwarks, why gamble on disunion?

And why doubly gamble on reckless leaders? Revolutionary hotheads had long been called “fire-eaters.” With their fiery rhetoric, they sought to incinerate the Union, whatever the risks. The less agitated southern majority craved cooler rulers, especially during nervous revolutionary times. Even in South Carolina, the most disunionist state, cautious revolutionaries had to drive an outraged Robert Barnwell Rhett into the shadows before uneasy squires would dare disunion.

Yancey, unlike Rhett, scored a revolutionary coup before succumbing to less revolutionary leaders. The subtle Alabamian, unlike the inflexible South Carolinian, saw how to turn mainstream Democrats’ middle ground into extremist terrain. At the National Democratic Party’s 1860 convention, Yancey used one of Jefferson Davis’s watered-down proslavery crusades to strain the party past the breaking point, realizing that Davis’s compromised southern extremism might be too uncompromising for northern moderates to swallow. So too, in February 1861, Yancey prayed that President-elect Davis, reluctant rebel, could lure hesitant Southerners into revolution. With such leery revolutionaries directing the revolution, Rhett answered, fire-eaters “will only have changed masters.”2

But in early 1861, Yancey knew that fire-eaters could not master the revolution. South Carolina’s initial strike had provoked only the southernmost slaveholding states into rebellion. This so-called Lower South included South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Only in these seven secessionist states did cotton reign as king, slaves comprise almost half the population, and enslaved blacks outnumber free blacks more than fifty to one.

Twice as many white Southerners resided in the less torrid, less enslaved, less secessionist Upper South, comprised of Border South and Middle South tiers of states. When Yancey conceded the disunion revolution to Davis, two weeks before Abraham Lincoln’s March 4 inauguration as president of the United States, the Middle South shunned the Lower South’s republic, and the Border South had even less use for the revolution. The borderland tier of southern states, located closest to the North, included Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Here, the relatively few slaveholders almost never grew cotton. Here, seven of eight residents were white, while one of five blacks was free. Here, Yankee-style cities, immigrants, and industries were far more important than in the Lower South.

THE THREE SOUTHS AND THE BORDER NORTH, 1860

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The four states of the Middle South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) lay between Lower and Border Souths. These Middle South states contained aspects of the colliding southern cultures above and below them. Middle South fence sitters might rally behind a Lower South moderate such as Jefferson Davis. But the Middle South shunned extremists, even an ultra like Yancey who sometimes found judiciousness useful.

Yancey looked more like a judicious moderate than a fanatical extremist.3 Small in height, he was large in girth and fat of face. His half-closed eyes gave him a drowsy appearance. Under his double chin, his bow ties flopped in puffy ribbons. Over his slumped posture, his suits crumpled in disarray. Since inflamed nerves tormented his ribs and spine, he hardly moved as he spoke. Because he had no front teeth, his soft voice barely sounded distinct. How could such a motionless drawler arouse the sleepy to fury?

Because both Yancey’s legend and his vocabulary screamed that Yankees’ libels demanded stinging retorts. According to the perhaps apocryphal legend, Yancey began storming at northern insulters as an undergraduate. He then allegedly hurled a pickle barrel through a window at Williams College. The Massachusetts college supposedly disciplined the southern native, whose aunt called him a youth of “wild notions, who never could rest in one place two months at a time.”4

The wild youth belied his genial façade again, a few years later, when he gunned down his wife’s uncle after an obscure affront. Still later, Yancey would end his career sprawled on the floor of the Southern Confederacy’s Senate, blood spurting from his face, after a fellow senator slit him with a jagged ink container. Whether he insulted or suffered insult, whether pickle barrels or inkwells or bullets augmented wounding words, Yancey, the fireeaters’ most apparently becalmed orator and sometimes most disciplined tactician, always verged on reckless rage.

Northern abolitionists especially enraged the Alabamian. The South’s selfproclaimed paternalists, according to abolitionist sneers, presided not over Christian hearths but over anti-Christian sewers. Slaveholders supposedly gutted black families by selling children from parents and parents from each other. The tyrants also allegedly trashed family life, white and black, by raping their female property.

American Slavery as It Is, Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses dwelled on these abominations. In this best-selling American book (beside the Bible) until Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the American Antislavery Society called slaveholders “as dead to their slaves’ domestic” agony as if serviles “were cattle.” In planters’ houses, testified a Connecticut visitor, “I could distinguish the family resemblance in the slaves who waited upon the table.” Female slaves commonly “have white children,” and “little or nothing is ever said about it.” According to another Connecticut traveler, slaves “lived in a state of promiscuous concubinage.” Their “master said he took pains to breed from his best stock—the whiter the progeny, the higher they could sell for house servants.” A borderite added that “brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, are torn asunder.” In every “neighborhood, … village or road,” one observes “the sad procession of manacled outcasts, whose mournful countenances tell that they are exiled by force from ALL THAT THEIR HEARTS HOLD DEAR.”5

By charging that slaveholders broke domestic hearts, abolitionists assaulted the slavocracy where it claimed to be most virtuous. Southerners entitled slavery the Domestic Institution. The title asserted that slaveholding patriarchs treated all lesser humans, whether children or wives or slaves, as esteemed family members. Yankee capitalists, according to slaveholders’ familial logic, had no familial compulsion about firing their employees or divorcing their wives. And now these antifamilial hypocrites cursed Southerners as family breakers!

As William L. Yancey grew up, he closely observed a hypocrite who severed a family. Yancey’s father died when the lad was three years old. The proud, penniless Yancey clan faced a bleak future. But soon had appeared the ancient South Carolina family’s self-proclaimed savior. The Reverend Mr. Nathan Beman, a migrant from the North, taught at Mt. Zion Academy in Georgia. This zealot married the widowed Mrs. Yancey when William was seven.

Beman scorned one possession of his new family. The preacher sold the ex–Mrs. Yancey’s three slaves, a mother and two infants. The black family brought $700. A year later, Beman moved his white family to Troy, New York. There, Yancey’s stepfather demanded that the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church resolve that “selling … a human being as property, is in the sight of God, a heinous sin.”6

Yancey recalled more than the moralist who pocketed $700 for indulging in heinous sin. Up in Troy, after Yancey’s mother defended slavery as morally decent, Beman banned her allegedly indecent opinion from his presence. He possibly beat her physically. He assuredly abused her verbally and sometimes nailed her in her room. She still called the Domestic Institution virtuous. Beman responded that her reconciliation of “the pure system of Jesus Christ” with “the abomination of slavery” was “a complete failure.”7Beman sent the Christian failure down to the barbarous South, for a year and a half of reconsideration.

The exiled wife sought to bury “the hatchet” by “dividing the blame equally between us.” I would be “a fool or a knave,” Beman answered, to admit “any part of the blame.” Instead, “all our difficulties have commenced with yourself.” His “sole object has been to save your reputation and [the] character and standing of my family, in a Christian community.” Since Satan had forever blinded her to virtue, this “once beloved but fallen woman … must stay at the South and keep quiet,” so “that the disgrace and turmoil occasioned by your conduct may die away.”8

When Mrs. Beman instead came back to Troy, her spouse barred her at the door. Yancey’s mother spent the rest of her life wandering between other people’s homes, ever battling Beman to see their daughter. As she eked out a miserable subsistence, her condemner spent part of his pulpit time castigating slave sellers who smashed black homes.

To reemphasize his self-proclaimed moral ascendancy, Nathan Beman savored a pulpit that made him seem taller; and he was a huge man, with a tough square face, a stern expression, and spectacles that magnified his frowning eyes.9 When accused of sinning by selling his wife’s three slaves, he dismissed the insinuation. He had merely swept the unchristian filth from his Christian home.

Had he then been wrong to sweep his wife from her home? Of course not, he thundered. “I shall never keep house” with a servant of Lucifer “a day while life lasts.”10 Could the South reconcile white democracy and black slavery? Of course not, Beman snarled. That “brotherhood” resembled “an alliance between Jerusalem and Sodom,” or “a friendly league between an archangel and Lucifer,” or “the consummation of nuptials … between heaven and hell.” The slaveholders’ “loathsome… political hypocrisy” would make “Benedict Arnold … blush” and “would lead Judas Iscariot to cast down thirty pieces of silver and go hang himself.”11

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William Lowndes Yancey (left), looking like the opposite of a ferocious southern fire-eater, and his stepfather, Nathan Beman (right), looking just like an imperious northern critic. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (Yancey) and the Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York (Beman).

Not for a hundred pieces of gold could William Lowndes Yancey tolerate such slurs from such frauds. Whenever righteous Yankees heaped ridicule on Southerners, Yancey poured contempt right back. No American egalitarian could abide a critic’s better-than-thou posture. Nor could a slaveholder tolerate being labeled as scum. That epitaph only fit slaves.

With whites being called morally filthier than slaves, Yancey the orator, that stationary drawler, needed no gestures, no screams to play on Southerners’ prickly rectitude. In the South and in the North too, this genial fanatic softly demanded that Southerners must be treated as Yankees’ equal. “Do not destroy our self respect; do not overtax our manliness,” Yancey warned citizens of Syracuse, New York (under 100 miles from Beman in Troy). Do not “walk in a field and tread on a caterpillar,” he cautioned Boston abolitionists, or “the poor creature will turn on your boot and try to sting you.”12

By insisting that Southerners turn on stinging moral enslavers, disunionists had long hoped to escape from confinement at the edge of southern politics. For years, Yancey had prayed that Southerners’ fury at Yankee maligners would someday defeat the compromising Jefferson Davises, propel uncompromising revolutionaries to power, fuse one South out of many subregions and classes, and burn the Nathan Bemans in a firestorm of revenge. But the prewar question always remained, whether in mid-1854 or in early 1861: Could most Southerners’ hatred of northern critics overcome their love of Union, their dread of disunion, their divisions from each other, and their distrust of the fire-eaters?

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