William L. Yancey (1814-1863)

William Lowndes Yancey was born in Warren County, Georgia, the son of a South Carolina lawyer of Welsh descent. After his father's death in 1817, his mother remarried and removed to Troy, New York. Yancey attended Williams College for one year in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Yancey studied law at Greenville, South Carolina was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1834. As editor of the Greenville (South Carolina) Mountaineer (1834-35), he ardently opposed nullification.

In 1835 he married a wealthy widowed plantation owner, and in the winter of 1836-1837 removed to her plantation in Alabama, near Cahaba (Dallas county), and edited weekly papers there and in Wetumpka (Elmore county), his summer home. Yancey established a successful law practice and began his political career, serving in both the state assembly and senate. The accidental poisoning of his slaves in 1839 forced him to devote himself entirely to law and journalism; he was now an impassioned advocate of State's Rights and supported Van Buren in the presidential campaign of 1840.

He was elected in 1841 to the state House of Representatives, in which he served for one year; became state senator in 1843, and in 1844 was elected to the national House of Representatives to fill a vacancy, being re-elected in 1845. In Congress his ability and his unusual oratorical gifts at once gained recognition. In 1846, however, he resigned his seat, partly on account of poverty, and partly because of his disgust with the Northern Democrats, whom he accused of sacrificing their principles to their economic interests.

The Wilmot Proviso (1848) provided the opportunity for Yancey to illustrate how far his thinking had changed since his early newspaper days. His entire energy was now devoted to the task of exciting resistance to anti-slavery aggression. He is generally included as one of several southerners referred to as "fire-eaters". In 1848 he secured the adoption by the state Democratic convention of the so-called "Alabama Platform," which called for recognition of the following: (1) Slaveowners had the right to take their property into the territories; (2) Congress had an obligation to protect slaveowner rights everywhere; (3) The territorial legislatures lacked the authority to ban slavery; (4) The Democratic Party should support only proslavery candidates for national office.

This platform was endorsed by the legislatures of Alabama and Georgia and by Democratic state conventions in Florida and Virginia and became a succinct statement of the slaveowner philosophy up to the time of the Civil War. Yancey exceeded the views of many Southern partisans by calling for the resumption of the African slave trade.

In 1848, when the conservative majority in the national Democratic convention in Baltimore refused to incorporate his ideas into the platform, Yancey with one colleague left the convention and wrote an Address to the People of Alabama, defending his course and denouncing the cowardice of his associates.

Naturally, he opposed the Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850, and went so far as openly to advocate secession; but the conservative element was in control of the state.

Disappointment of the South with the results of "Squatter Sovereignty" caused a reaction in his favour, and in 1858 he wrote a letter advocating the appointment of committees of safety, the formation of a League of United Southerners, and the repeal of the laws making the African slave-trade piracy.

In April 1860, Yancey attended the Democratic National Convention in Charleston and worked to include Southern demands in the party platform. His efforts were opposed by the backers of Stephen A. Douglas, and, defeated by a small majority, he again left the hall, followed this time by the delegates of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, and two of the three delegates from Delaware. On the next day the Georgia delegation and a majority of the Arkansas delegation withdrew.

He later attended the Southern Democratic Convention in Baltimore and worked on behalf of its candidate John Cabell Breckinridge, and he made a tour of the country on his behalf.

Following Lincoln's triumph, Yancey he was the guiding spirit in the secession convention in Alabama, drafting the secession ordinance in January 1861. He delivered the address of welcome to Jefferson Davis on his arrival at Montgomery. He refused a place in President Davis's cabinet.

On March 31, 1861, he sailed for Europe as the head of a commission sent to secure recognition of the Confederate government, but returned in 1862 to take a seat in the Confederate Senate, in which he advocated a more vigorous prosecution of the war.

On account of his failing health, he left Richmond early in 1863, and on the July 27 died at his home near Montgomery.