Vance, Zebulon

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Zebulon Vance

Born May 13, 1830
Buncombe County, North Carolina

Died April 15, 1894
Washington, D.C.

Politician and lawyer

"I do not, altogether, share the general alarm that pervades the Southern mind. The taunts, the gibes, the sneers and the vulgar triumphs of ignoble spirits, which so annoy and mortify, were to be expected.… Happily it is not in the nature of man always to hate; and the reign of the bad passions is short-lived."

Zebulon Vance was an important political force for North Carolina for over thirty years. He attempted to ease the growing unrest between North and South in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861–65). He was a Confederate military leader during the war, but he had key differences with Confederate leaders over their policy of forced conscription (mandatory military service for all young men) and their harsh treatment of deserters (those who leave military service without permission). Following the war, Vance was a voice for reconciliation. As the Reconstruction era (1865–77) was ending, Vance served as governor of North Carolina and helped ensure the state was strong economically. From 1880 to 1894, he was a U.S. senator, promoting local self-government, individual liberty (freedom), and national unity.

Family tradition of service

Zebulon Baird Vance was born in Buncombe County, North Carolina, on May 13, 1830. He was one of eight children of David Vance, a farmer and merchant, and Mira Margaret Baird. His grandfather served in the American Revolution (1775–83), fighting in several key battles, including the Battle of Brandywine Creek and the battle at Germantown, both in 1777 in Pennsylvania. He was one of about eleven thousand men who barely survived a frigid winter at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania under General George Washington (1732–1799). Vance's father was a captain during the War of (1812–15), and his uncle, Robert Brank Vance (1793–1827), was a congressman from North Carolina during the mid-1820s. Vance's older brother, also named Robert Brank Vance (1828–1899), became a brigadier general in the Confederate army and served in the U.S. Congress and the North Carolina House of Representatives. The Vance family lived in a large, two-story log home in a fertile farming valley.

Vance attended local schools until he was twelve, and then went on to Washington College in eastern Tennessee. He returned home at fourteen in 1844 upon the death of his father to help his large family.

When he was twenty-one, Vance began studying law at the University of North Carolina. He received his license to practice at the county court in 1852 and settled in Asheville, North Carolina. Having an easy conversational manner and a sincere interest in the lives of small farmers of the area, Vance was quickly elected county solicitor (a lawyer who represents a county). His easygoing manner, wit, and eloquence contributed to his success in engaging jurors and winning his cases.

In 1853, Vance married Harriet Espy. They would have four sons. Vance was having success as a lawyer, but soon after marriage he began pursuing his interest in politics.

Attempts to overcome conflicts

The 1850s was a dynamic and controversial period of American politics. The Whig Party, which had existed for two decades, dissolved when most members joined the newly formed Republican Party in 1854. Other members joined the short-lived American Party, including Vance. The Republican Party was Northern-based and antislavery. The Democratic Party wanted states to decide the issue of slavery for themselves. Vance believed both parties were consumed with self interest. He ran and was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1854 as a member of the American Party.

As the major parties became more at odds, Vance was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1858 and again in 1860. At the age of twenty-eight in 1858, he was the youngest congressman. Vance supported attempts by President James Buchanan (1791–1868; served 1857–61) to secure the Union, trying to keep in check those who wanted federal legislation to stop the spread of slavery or to abolish it, and battling against growing sentiment for secession (withdrawal) by Southern states. In the presidential election of 1860, Vance supported the Constitutional Union Party candidate, John Bell (1797–1869), a U.S. senator from Tennessee. Vance was a popular speaker in North Carolina for the Bell campaign. Among those who hoped to avoid secession, Vance called for a state constitutional convention that he hoped would keep North Carolina and other states from seceding while demanding that Northern states either support the rights of states or submit legislation for a binding vote.

Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) as president in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. North Carolina seceded during the spring of 1861, after military actions had begun and the Civil War had started. Congress was adjourned at the time. When it returned to session, Vance no longer had a seat, since the state he represented had left the Union. When President Lincoln responded to a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter by calling for troops to defend the Union against aggression, Vance reversed his opposition to secession.

Military leader

Back in Asheville, Vance organized a company of "Rough and Ready Guards" and was elected its captain. Two weeks later, a North Carolina state convention, called by the legislature, adopted an ordinance of secession on May 20, 1861. During the summer of 1861, Vance and his company patrolled the North Carolina coast. In August, he was elected colonel of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina Regiment and led it successfully in battles in Virginia, including the Seven Days' battle near Richmond, Virginia.

In 1862, Vance was nominated as a candidate for governor of North Carolina. Despite insisting he would continue the Confederate war effort, Vance was portrayed as being loyal to the Union by his more hard-line, clearly secessionist opponent. Nevertheless, Vance won in a landslide and pledged in his inaugural address to pursue a vigorous war policy.

Vance's Thoughts on the War

The following is a section from a speech entitled The Duties of Defeat, delivered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on June 7, 1866, excerpted from the Documenting the American South Web site. Vance gave his thoughts on the Civil War, and the future of the South.

During the course of the recent war it was often a subject of remark that each side was grievously deceived in its estimate of the other. And especially was it a favorite opinion at the North, that we of the South were not capable of sustaining for a protracted period the rigors of war. It was said that our climate, and more especially the system of slavery, had unmanned us, and sunk us into effeminacy [unmanliness], and rendered us totally unfit to grapple with the hardier and more robust races of the North.—How they were undeceived by four years of the most desperate strife against overwhelming numbers and resources, it is the province of history to tell. Nor need we fear to let them write that history; for a denial of the full and glorious import of our deeds would be a confession of their own shame and inferiority. It will be our duty now, in better ways, and under happier auspices, still further to undeceive them, by the vigor and energy with which we shall clear away the wreck of our fallen fortunes, adapt ourselves to circumstances under changed institutions and new systems of labor, and the rapidity with which we shall travel in those ways which lead to the rebuilding and adorning a State. Nor will it admit of a doubt that the same courage, constancy and skill, which led our slender battalions through so many pitched fields of glory, will, when directed into the peaceful channels of national prosperity and quickened by the sharp lessons of adversity, be sufficient to place the Southern States of the American Union side by side with the richest and the mightiest.…

With regard to current political events and speculations of the future, of which we are permitted to be only quiet, though deeply interested spectators, I do not, altogether, share the general alarm that pervades the Southern mind. The taunts, the gibes, the sneers and the vulgar triumphs of ignoble spirits, which so annoy and mortify, were to be expected. Their brief day will soon pass. They were born of the license of victory, and will endure no longer than the excitements of the occasion serve to render good men ungenerous. Happily it is not in the nature of man always to hate; and the reign of the bad passions is short-lived. It is hardly possible that hatred will long continue between two communities brought into daily, familiar intercourse [discussion], when the subjects of contention have been removed, and when mutual interests and common associations invite to good will.

Still, Vance was soon at odds with the Confederate leadership. He battled against the Confederate policy of forced conscription and military policies that included imprisoning alleged Union sympathizers without formal charges and trying them by military tribunal (where military officers serve as judges) instead of trial by jury. Vance did not interfere with the conscription policy.

Vance again disagreed with the Confederate leadership in regard to thousands of men who left the army and hid in the North Carolina mountains. Confederate authorities considered these men deserters who had to either rejoin their unit or face prison. Vance considered them absentees. By proclamation, he offered to pardon North Carolina soldiers if they returned to their regiments.

Vance helped equip the North Carolina military by trading cotton for military supplies from Europe and organizing a fleet of steamers to guard ships bringing the supplies to North Carolina ports. But by the summer of 1863, the tide of battle had turned in favor of the North and sentiment began building for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Vance favored a continuation of war, however, and campaigned vigorously, winning another landslide election in spite of a strong sentiment for peace among voters.

Union momentum continued in the war, and in April 1865 the Civil War was effectively over with the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see Confederate Leaders entry). On May 2, 1865, Vance surrendered in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was directed to join his family in Statesville, North Carolina, and await further orders.

On his thirty-fifth birthday, Vance learned that he was under arrest by the order of President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69; see entry), who succeeded to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. Vance was sent to Washington, imprisoned, and held for two months before being paroled (set free, but with restrictions). He was never told why he was arrested or released.

Reconstructing his life

Vance returned to his family in the state capital of Charlotte and resumed practicing law. Drawing on his reputation as an engaging speaker, he went on lecture tours. President Johnson offered pardons for former members of the Confederacy provided they filled out an application that included renouncing their past activities. Vance's application for a pardon was granted on March 11, 1867.

In 1870, Vance was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he was not allowed to serve. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, included a provision against former members of the Confederacy that made it illegal for them to serve in the federal legislature or executive branch unless the "disability" was removed by a vote of two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. After trying unsuccessfully for two years, Vance gave up his certificate of election (an official document that names a person certified by a state authority as having won a position by election). Reflecting the political climate of the times, Congress removed Vance's disabilities after he surrendered his certificate of election. Vance ran again for Congress in 1872, but was defeated.

In 1876, Democrats in North Carolina were determined to replace the state's Republican leadership and their support for Reconstruction policies. They turned to Vance as their gubernatorial nominee, and he won a close election against Thomas Settle (1831–1888).

The Fourteenth Amendment Disables Vance

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1868, reflected the harsh Reconstruction policies pursued by congressmen called the "Radical Republicans." Unlike the policies proposed by President Abraham Lincoln and continued by his successor, Andrew Johnson, Radical Republicans wanted to punish Southern states that had seceded from the Union and those people who had been loyal to the Confederacy. Article 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment made it difficult for former members of the Confederacy to hold federal office. Zebulon Vance was elected to Congress in 1870, but was not allowed to serve because of Article 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. That the article served the political purposes of Radical Republicans became evident when Vance officially surrendered his elected seat. Congress then moved quickly to authorize him to serve, but it was too late for Vance.

[Article] 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

North Carolina quickly prospered under Vance's leadership. He revived construction of railroads. The new and repaired train lines helped stimulate agriculture and industry by transporting supplies into farms and factories and then transporting goods out to market. Vance supported improvements to public education and he restructured the state's finances to quickly pay off debts. By the time the Reconstruction era ended in 1877, North Carolina was experiencing solid growth.

Back in the Senate

Vance served only two of the four years of his gubernatorial term. In 1878, his wife, Harriet, died. The following year, Vance won election to the U.S. Senate. This time, he was not barred from his Senate seat. In 1880, he married Florence Steele Martin. At the time, Vance was only fifty years old. Reelected to the Senate in 1885 and in 1891, Vance proved to be a uniting force in a Congress still hampered by divisiveness between North and South. By the mid-1880s, the divisiveness began to ease. During his Senate terms, Vance chaired several committees and was famed as a debater who was both eloquent and fair.

Vance's final term was impaired by health problems. He had an eye removed in 1891 and never fully recovered. After an extended period of winter rest in Florida in 1894, he returned to work in the Senate at the beginning of April, but died at his home in Washington, D.C., two weeks later. Funeral services were held in the chamber of the U.S. Senate. Vance's body was then returned to North Carolina, and he was buried in Asheville.

For More Information


McKinney, Gordon B. Zeb Vance: North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Shirley, Franklin Ray. Zebulon Vance: Tarheel Spokesman. Charlotte, NC: McNally and Loftin, 1962.

Tucker, Glenn. Zeb Vance: Champion of Personal Freedom. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

Web Sites

"The Duties of Defeat: An Address Delivered before the Two Literary Societies of the University of North Carolina, June 7th, 1866, by Ex-Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance." University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries: Documenting the American South. (accessed on July 30, 2004).

"Vance Birthplace." North Carolina Historic Sites. (accessed on July 30, 2004).

"Zebulon Baird Vance." Know Southern History. (accessed on July 30, 2004).

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