Zeb Vance: North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader

By Gordon B. McKinney | Go to book overview

5 CONGRESSMAN

Less than two years after his political career seemed headed toward destruction, Zeb was elected to the Congress of the United States. An unlikely combination of fortuitous circumstances, tragedy, and dogged determination brought about this result. Throughout the period, the formidable form of Thomas Lanier Clingman towered over Vance and his ambitions. The hostility between the two men grew more public and more heated as both sought to fulfill their ambitions in a small arena. It surfaced openly just after the congressional election of 1855, when Clingman stated that the editors of the SpectatorHyman and Vance—had printed "the meanest, dirtiest, and basest lie." When Vance remonstrated, Clingman announced that he declined "a verbal contest with one whose efforts are characterized only by imbecile scurrility."1 Even controversies that were not remotely political became embroiled in their personal battle. While this was also a period of change in Zeb's private life, he seemed to ignore the private aspects of his existence, choosing instead to center his attention on his own political advancement.

The first major clash between Vance and Clingman began before Vance was defeated in the 1856 state Senate election. Clingman, who was a talented amateur scientist, became involved in a bitter controversy with Elisha Mitchell over the question of who had first discovered the highest mountain in the western counties of North Carolina. According to historian Thomas E. Jeffrey, the contest was a most unequal one. While it seems likely that Mitchell did in fact make the original discovery of the mountain, his recall of the events surrounding the discovery was faulty. Clingman was able to present much more persuasive evidence for his own claim and to dismiss Mitchell's assertions. An enraged Mitchell sought the assistance of Vance to prepare a public reply to Clingman. Vance, who had no scientific training except what he had learned in Mitchell's classroom, sought to secure evidence to sustain Mitchell's claim. Zeb did manage to locate the guide who had led Mitchell into the mountains in 1844, but since the man's testimony supported Clingman, Vance pursued the matter no further.2 Although Vance was undoubtedly motivated to assist his former professor by his intense dislike of Clingman, he also must have felt in debt to

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