William Lowndes Yancey

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William Lowndes Yancey

U.S. congressman William Lowndes Yancey (1814-1863) was known for his unexcelled oratorical abilities as a spokesman of Southern interests.

William Yancey was born in Warren County, Ga., on Aug. 10, 1814, the son of an attorney who died in 1817. A few years later Yancey's mother married a clergyman, and the family moved to Troy, N.Y. Yancey attended Williams College, but left in 1833 without graduating and entered the law office of a strong unionist in Greenville, S.C.

Yancey became editor of the Greenville Mountaineer, a unionist paper. In 1837 he moved to Alabama, bought a sizeable plantation, and purchased two newspapers. Between 1836 and 1840 Yancey moved from ardent unionism to an equally zealous states'-rights position. He was elected to the Alabama Legislature in 1841 and 1843. Twice elected to the U.S. Congress, he served from 1844 until 1846, when he resigned out of disgust at party politics. A powerful speaker, he was occasionally intemperate in his oratory, resulting in a number of duels.

In 1848 Yancey devised resolutions that were adopted by the Alabama Democratic Convention, announcing the extreme demand that slavery be permitted into the territories and be protected by Federal law. He worked to arouse the South to realize the dangers of abolition and to promote concerted action among Southern states. He believed that Southern unity could come only with the disintegration of existing parties and the submergence of partisan hatreds in the face of a common threat. Yancey encouraged the formation of local Southern rights associations and agitated to reopen the African slave trade to spread slavery's blessings to poor white Southerners. Preaching the notion of secession more convincingly than any contemporary, he was later called the "orator of secession."

At the national Democratic convention in 1860, Yancey delivered his finest statement of the Southern position. The Southern delegates' subsequent withdrawal split the Democratic party and assured the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. Yancey became the spokesman of the Constitutional Democratic party.

After Lincoln's election Yancey dominated the Alabama secessionist convention and drafted the ordinance of secession. In March 1861 he went to England and France as a commissioner from the Confederate States of America. His mission was ineffective, perhaps because of his passionate defense of slavery, which both countries hated. Upon his return in 1862, he was elected to the Confederate Senate. In 1863, in a noisy debate, Benjamin H. Hill, a senator from Georgia, threw an inkstand at Yancey, hitting him in the face and splattering blood and ink. On July 27 Yancey died near Montgomery, Ala., and Hill's enemies falsely accused him of having indirectly caused Yancey's death.

Further Reading

There has been little recent work on Yancey. John W. DuBose, The Life and Times of William Lowndes Yancey (2 vols., 1892; repr. 1942), is a well-researched study striving for objectivity, but occasionally the author's pro-Southern bias shows. Also useful is Austin L. Venable, The Role of William Yancey in the Secession Movement (1945). □

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William Lowndes Yancey, 1814–63, American leader of secession, b. Warren co., Ga. Admitted (1834) to the bar in Greenville, S.C., he soon moved to Alabama. There he became an outstanding lawyer, was elected to the state house of representatives (1841) and the state senate (1843), and served in Congress (1844–46). In response to the Wilmot Proviso, Yancey wrote (1848) the Alabama Platform, which demanded of Congress the positive protection of slavery in the territories. Yancey's doctrine was adopted by several Southern states under his militant leadership and soon became the creed of the whole South. As extreme a "fire-eater" as William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, he even advocated the reopening of the African slave trade. After the Compromise of 1850 he retired into the background, but the events of 1860 once more brought him to the fore. At the national convention of the Democratic party in Charleston, he expressed the Southern demands in one of his greatest speeches, and when the Northern delegates, led by Stephen A. Douglas, refused to accept the "Yancey platform," practically all his Southern colleagues followed him out of the convention. Yancey wrote the Alabama ordinance of secession. After the organization of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, then only provisional president, sent Yancey, a potential rival for the permanent office, to Europe as a Confederate commissioner. Failing to secure recognition from England and France, he returned in 1862, was elected to the Confederate senate, and served there until his death.

See biography by J. W. DuBose (1892).