William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War

William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War

William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War

William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War


In the first comprehensive biography of William Lowndes Yancey (1814-63), one of the leading secessionists of the Old South, Eric H. Walther examines the personality and political life of the uncompromising fire-eater.

Born in Georgia but raised in the North by a fiercely abolitionist stepfather and an emotionally unstable mother, Yancey grew up believing that abolitionists were cruel, meddling, and hypocritical. His personal journey led him through a series of mentors who transformed his political views, and upon moving to frontier Alabama in his twenties, Yancey's penchant for rhetorical and physical violence was soon channeled into a crusade to protect slaveholders' rights.

Yancey defied Northern Democrats at their national nominating convention in 1860, rending the party and setting the stage for secession after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Selected to introduce Jefferson Davis in Montgomery as the president-elect of the Confederacy, Yancey also served the Confederacy as a diplomat and a senator before his death in 1863, just short of his forty-ninth birthday.

More than a portrait of an influential political figure before and during the Civil War, this study also presents a nuanced look at the roots of Southern honor, violence, and understandings of manhood as they developed in the nineteenth century.


William Lowndes Yancey ranks among the leading secessionists of the old South. Contemporaries knew him as one of the greatest public speakers in the country. One historian compared Yancey to Adolf Hitler for his ability to sway crowds through oratory. in his times and since, Yancey has been considered the arch-secessionist of the South—a “fire-eater,” in the language of his day. Through most of his life, Yancey was unalterably opposed to political compromise in any form or fashion. Often rash and reckless in both speech and actions, Yancey killed a relative in a street fight before entering Congress, where his first major speech resulted in a duel. He spent over a decade striving toward disunion and the creation of a slaveholding republic. He led the secession movement in his adopted state of Alabama, and nationally through his association with other fire-eaters. By the late 1850s and especially in 1860, Yancey riveted the attention of the national media. His bold insistence in 1860 that the Democratic Party support the expansion of slavery into the national territories resulted in the rendering of that party into northern and southern sections, each with their own candidates. This helped ensure the election of Abraham Lincoln, which in turn served as the catalyst for secession. During that election season, Yancey launched an unprecedented speaking tour of much of the country, defending the expansion of slavery and promising northerners that all slaves were happy and content—unless northerners interfered with them. By helping other slave states to break the compact of the Union, William L. Yancey helped to propel the country into civil war. Early in 1861, Yancey had the honor of welcoming President-elect Jefferson Davis to the new Confederate capital. Yancey then served his president as the leading Confederate diplomat to Great Britain and France, where he surprised critics through his tact and effectiveness. By the time of his election to the Confederate Senate in 1862, Yancey balanced his concerns for the liberties of white Confederates with the obvious need to stand by his president and create a strong wartime government.

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