Zebulon Vance's sudden reentry into Asheville's political and legal scene in the March 1852 solicitor's race was the prelude to several stormy years for him in both law and politics. Never one to avoid the limelight, Zeb thrust himself into the middle of several controversies and carefully kept his name before the people. His driving ambition led him to commit errors of excess that threatened his position, but his good humor and generally genial disposition helped him to retain the goodwill of most of the people with whom he came in contact. Nevertheless, he made powerful enemies among the elite who worked with considerable vigor to undercut his position. While both friends and relatives found him to be insufferable upon occasion, Vance's personality and public persona were attractive to many yeoman farmers from the mountains, and he began to build a powerful following that would last for the remainder of his life.
Writing to Hattie just three months before their wedding, Zeb offered the following assessment of himself: "To day I am just twenty three years old…. It seems but yesterday when I was a prattling mischievous school urchin, without any serious thought or anything else to indicate the man that was to be—, celebrated only for wickedness and wildness! And now I am in my twenty fourth year, at mature manhood, on the eve of matrimony and the duties and cares of life crowding upon me and driving sleep from my pillow! And what have I done in all this time to make myself admired or respected! Alas, little, very little." There is no doubt that his contemporaries shared the same opinion of the young lawyer-politician. Augustus S. Merrimon wrote a brief character sketch of Vance seven months later that confirmed Vance's own feeling that he had not accomplished enough with his life. Merrimon observed: "I consider him a sprightly man, though not talented. He is not an ordinary man however. He has had some advantages, some of which, he has not improved as he should." Merrimon went on to conjecture that Vance could become a "respectable" but not a "profound" lawyer.1 Clearly, there was little indication early in his career that Zeb would achieve great things.
A scholarly study of lawyers in antebellum Virginia suggests that Zeb's