The Old South A Political Culture in Crisis
H e knew the right chords to strike. The years of restless, relentless preparation seemed to be over. Bitter clashes with his Yankee preacher stepfather, the disastrous attempts to manage his wife's property in South Carolina, his brief imprisonment for murdering her uncle in a street brawl, his stormy political career in Alabama amid mounting sectional conflict, his dismay over the willingness of fellow Southerners to sacrifice sacred principles for the sake of Union, party, and compromise: all these unpleasant memories could be set aside. In 1858, William Lowndes Yancey believed that the time had at last arrived to "fire the Southern heart -- instruct the Southern mind -- give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action we can precipitate the cotton States into a revolution."1 How many times would his political enemies North and South cite this passage to prove the existence of a secessionist conspiracy?
Much more to the point is how in this famous letter (addressed to his young Georgia friend James S. Slaughter), Yancey presented a blueprint of sorts for a Southern revolution. In words that reverberated among citizens grown increasingly wary of the political process, the Alabama firebrand bluntly asserted: "No National Party can save us; no Sectional Party can do it." What, then, could save the South? The answer lay in the past, in the glorious memories of an eighteenth-century revolution, in the political culture of a younger, more innocent American republic, in a vision of a golden age of political purity and unity. Once Southerners had taken these historical lessons to heart, Yancey believed, they would "organize