Unless the presidential election generated two shocks, not even a Keitt-Memminger alliance could push disunionists to triumph in 1860. First, the National Democratic Party had to be severed. Then, a Northern Republican had to be elected.
If the National Democratic Party endured despite a Republican triumph, too many Southerners would consider disunion premature. They would insist that slaveholders could soon again use the Democratic Party to rule the Union. But if the Democracy shattered and Republicans ascended, South Carolina’s secession might be unstoppable, particularly in ancient Charleston, mecca of William Porcher Miles, Christopher Memminger, and Unionscorning gentlemen. And where should the Democracy’s delegates be headed, to decide the party’s fate in its April 1860 convention, but to forbidding old Charleston itself.
On Charleston’s eerie stage, one of the strangest, most significant, least understood presecession dramas transpired. The National Democratic Convention’s most divisive issue apparently had no immediate practical consequence. The party’s triumphant dividers wielded far less than a southern majority of delegates. The most important subsequent disunionists sat out the event in their own hometown. Charleston’s passive revolutionary spectators even missed the genius of the puzzling revolutionary hero who most rescued them from their aloofness. These oddities, plus the Union’s last major party’s crash, earns the tale of William Lowndes Yancey and the demise of the Democracy the most prominent place in the southern story of the 1860 election.
At the National Democracy’s convention, opening in Charleston on April 23, 1860, Southerners differed over how totally Stephen A. Douglas had to be destroyed. Would killing the Little Giant’s presidential nomination suffice? Most southern delegates, particularly from the Upper South, would settle for that execution. Or must Douglas’s position on Popular Sovereignty in national territories also be decimated? The disunionists’ William L. Yancey crusaded for that annihilation. When Yancey began his crusade, months before the convention, he had few delegates’ support. But the Alabamian wielded a canny position on Popular Sovereignty, capable of summoning at least Lower South Democrats to shatter the Democracy, if the party clung to Douglas’s territorial abstractions.
– 1 –
Popular Sovereignty’s advocates had always naively proclaimed that their abstraction would prevent national confrontations. If each local territory’s voters decided for themselves whether to legalize slavery, the national government supposedly would never need to face the explosive issue. National conflict commenced, however, over when the populace could decide. Southerners urged that settlers could abolish slavery only when a territory became a state. Northerners countered that territorial pioneers could always bar the institution.
Then in Lecompton times, disputes over when turned into controversies over how. Southerners insisted that a settlers’ constitutional convention, at the moment of statehood, could make the definitive decision. Northerners exclaimed that only a popular referendum, after the convention’s decision, could issue the final decree.
Before this collision over how all but destroyed the Buchanan administration, the so-called Dred Scott decision all but destroyed any territorial abolition. The U.S. Supreme Court decree barred Congress from emancipating territorial slaves. Since Congress, the sole source of a territorial legislature’s powers, could not delegate unconstitutional authority, the Court’s decision also arguably banned territorial governments from abolishing slavery.
At Freeport, Illinois, during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Abraham Lincoln asked Stephen A. Douglas if the Democracy’s Popular Sovereignty solution could survive the Court’s seeming death sentence. Wouldn’t a settlers’ decision be a mockery, Lincoln inquired, if a northern majority of settlers could not decide for emancipation? Douglas answered that no territorial majority needed to enact emancipation. A territorial legislature could abolish slavery by doing nothing. Unless such local police laws as fugitive slave edicts protected slaveholders’ property, Southerners would take their slaves elsewhere.
This inspired answer, Douglas’s so-called Freeport Doctrine, demonstrated the Illinois senator’s perception of a pivotal southern social truth. However absolute a master’s sway might seem inside his gates, undeterred enemies outside his fence could cripple his dominion. If no territorial fugitive laws prohibited hostile neighbors from urging slaves to escape, slavery could become too risky an investment. Then few slaveholding capitalists would migrate from protected slave states to unprotected national territories.
With the plausibility of his Freeport Doctrine, Douglas helped thrust back (barely) Lincoln’s 1858 bid for his U.S. Senate seat. But with his Freeport answer, Douglas also deterred (overwhelmingly) Southern Democrats from backing his 1860 presidential candidacy. During the Lecompton Controversy, Douglas’s stand against enslaved Kansas had almost fatally alienated Southern Democrats. His Freeport Doctrine completed the alienation. Since territorial majorities indeed could emancipate by doing nothing to protect slaveholders, Douglas became, in most southern eyes, as much an abolitionist as Lincoln, but more despicably disguised.
Douglas’s most detestable hypocrisy, to the southern eye, came in his claim not to care whether a locality voted slavery up or down. Of course the Yankee faker cares, slaveholders exclaimed. Of course he knows that more numerous Northerners will win any race to any territory. So his salesmanship for Popular Sovereignty epitomized Yankee peddlers, selling phony satin as purest silk. Or to use Southerners’ favorite image of the faker, Douglas was like Cuffee, only pretending to love his master.
A well-publicized Douglas pose hinted at a charlatan. The Little Giant loved to sprawl in his senatorial chair, with his stubby legs twitching on his desk, his gigantic head bobbing on his massive chest, and his stumpy fingers drumming affectionately on his North Carolina neighbor’s knee. I don’t have a care in the world, his body language seemed to say, or any ambitions to recline beyond this chamber, or a speck of dislike for you capital southern fellas.1 All this from a mover and shaker who ached to be president, from an alleged conniver who had supposedly cheated slaveholders out of Kansas, and from a purported neutral who affected not to realize that no police laws to deter fugitives meant no slaveholder expansion.
In December 1859, in retaliation for the supposed hypocrite’s Lecompton and Freeport provocations, Southerners stripped Douglas of his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on the Territories. Southern Democrats also vowed to kill at least the Little Giant’s presidential candidacy and perhaps his version of Popular Sovereignty at the Democracy’s April 1860 national convention in Charleston. Under Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine, explained Henry Wise, fanatics could persuade slaves to run away and point out the route to freedom. Then in a single night, all a neighborhood’s slaves could disappear. “Talk of underground railroads to run off slaves! Talk of incendiary publications to incite free-soil agitators!—I tell you,” Wise emphasized, “no device in all the armory of fanaticism” is “half so subtle, half as effective,” and half as “prompt to evil as this same Territorial—Douglasite—Squatter—Sovereignty slave trap.”2
– 2 –
To escape Douglas’s no-protection trap, Southerners insisted that all forms of territorial property must receive specially targeted legal protection. Ownership of land required laws against trespass. Ownership of livestock required laws about fencing. Ownership of humans required laws against inciting slaves or aiding fugitives.
To secure territorial protection equivalent to horse owners’ or landowners’, if a territorial government refused to pass a protective slave code, slaveholders eyed a congressional slave code. Congress could provide territorial fugitive slave laws, territorial laws deterring antislavery talk, territorial laws that supplied gallows for abolitionists—and before any settlers came. With that previously guaranteed federal protection, slaveholders might risk slave property in new territories, including in genial Caribbean climes.
A U.S. territory way southward in the Caribbean might seem automatically destined to receive a southern majority of settlers. But the most successful proslavery filibusterer in Central America, William Walker, led a majority of northern migrants. Walker’s belated proslavery laws never stabilized Nicaragua sufficiently for an American planter to chance a slave in those tropics. Future Caribbean slaveholders would need prompter protection before territorial acquisitions.
If the doctrine of congressional protection should “be abandoned,” T. J. Semmes warned a Caribbean-crazed New Orleans mass meeting, we must “bury all hopes” and “stifle all aspirations for expansion.” Semmes, Louisiana’s attorney general, predicted that, unless Congress enacted a preexistent territorial slave code, “no sooner would Central America or Mexico be annexed than emigrant aid societies” would fill America’s new tropical territories with the “more redundant and more mobile population of the North.” Migrating Yankees “would incite the mongrel half breeds to exclude slaves.” Then slavery in the surrounded South, “like a ‘scorpion encircled by fire, would sting itself to death.’”3
At first glance, the congressional protection of territorial slavery seemed, as Semmes phrased it, the South’s “only effectual barrier” against a free soil circle of fire. Yet on second thought, Southerners noticed impracticalities in this proposed practicality. Local communities might not allow proslavery laws to be enforced. Furthermore, northern congressional majorities might not write adequate proslavery laws.
“What more could the wildest abolitionist ask,” inquired South Carolina’s ever quotable William Henry Trescot, than “to be given the legal right to legislate for the negro” in Congress? If hostile Yankees devised national slave codes, blacks might receive “the power to testify” before potentially hostile local juries. Local magistrates might receive authority to determine whether a master clearly owned a slave, before the property could be sold. Blacks might be awarded “certain privileges as to time, food and dress, all perfectly consistent with his slavery” and “utterly” subversive of “the master’s authority.”
Yet “if I carry my negro into a new territory and I lick him and he knocks me down or walks off,” what can I do without a local law? “A congressional slave code for the territories,” Trescot conceded, is “a logical consequence of the Dred Scott decision.” But when the “circumstances of real life are so multitudinous, so complex,” a practical statesman who moves “from theory to theory” commits “scholastic folly.”4
Trescot’s scholasticism ignored the practical impact of bowing the neck before northern theory. If territorial legislatures, per Douglas’s invitation, protected every form of property except property in humans, slaveholders would be branded as peculiarly sinful. A surrender to that defamation would make a slaveholder suspect in his own cringing eyes. After the coward submitted, he would never possess the spirit to expand slavery or to stop its Upper South erosion. Then a demoralized Lower South would slowly become an isolated, despised corner of America, loaded with the Upper South’s blacks and without an outlet.
The practical threat of ex-Whigs’ revenge also barred Lower South Democrats’ theoretical surrender to Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine abstractions. In 1850–54, Lower South Whigs had been tried and convicted of disloyalty to slavery if they remained in National Whiggery, after Northern Whigs voted against the Fugitive Slave Law. Ever since, these politicians without a national party (and thus without any restraints on their sectional fury) had been scheming to convict Southern Democrats of the same treason to slavery. If Southern Democrats remained allied with Northern Democrats who brandished the potentially abolitionizing Freeport Doctrine, ex-Whigs might be handed their first triumphant campaign theme in almost a decade.
The Democratic Party “has long vaunted itself as the only reliable party for the South,” scoffed the ex-Whigs’ Benjamin H. Hill, lately almost elected Georgia’s governor. “Everybody who refused to act” with the Democracy “has been denounced as untrue and the ally of Abolitionism.” But to submit to Douglas is “dangerous, since honest men may be seduced to travel” down his disguised abolitionist path. His doctrine that we have a right to take slaves to a territory “and hold them there if we can” packs “the same venom” and antislavery punch as “the doctrine of Seward and the Republicans.” A Southern Democrat, if loyal to the South, will see through Douglas’s pose. Trueblue Southerners will insist that Northern Democrats affirm that the national government has “the duty of guarding and protecting the owner in his rights” in the national territories.5
That orthodox dogma of any patriotic southern party, conceded the Democrats’ New Orleans Delta, must be defended. True, “at the present moment,” this “abstract question” has “no real value.” But what is “not practical today is likely to become practicable tomorrow. To yield the abstract principle now would be to yield its practicable application hereafter.”6 Yet how could Southern Democrats secure their claim at least to future congressional protection (and thus secure political protection right now against ex-Whigs’ counterattack) without alienating Northern Democrats?
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The problem especially tormented Jefferson Davis, now U.S. senator from Mississippi and lately U.S. secretary of war. No one else in the South’s cozy Washington National Democratic establishment took more pride in the Democracy’s proslavery laws. None more enjoyed James Buchanan’s and Franklin Pierce’s chummy White House parties. None more appreciated Douglas’s help with the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. None more sorrowed that the Illinoisan’s late Lecompton and Freeport decisions would preclude a Douglas presidency. None more prayed that the National Democracy, in its post-Douglas phase, would once again cause South and nation to flourish. None better understood that unless the party remained pledged to almost all of Popular Sovereignty, Northern Democrats could be National Democrats no longer.
Davis knew that to save their national political party, his northern friends would have to sacrifice their beloved Douglas. He could not also ask them to sacrifice all of their beloved Popular Sovereignty. But his northern friends might qualify the Freeport Doctrine a necessary (in the South) smidgeon, if he reassured them that the South demanded no immediate congressional slave code.
Davis first spread the reassurance in a notorious speech in Portland, Maine, on September 11, 1858, fifteen days after Douglas spoke at Freeport. Davis conceded that an antislavery territorial legislature could abolish slavery by doing nothing. If the inhabitants of any territory refused to pass laws protecting slaveholders, “the insecurity would be so great that … slavery would not go in.” Douglas could not have said it better.7
Angry Mississippi slaveholders swiftly asked whether their senator lay entwined in Douglas’s Freeport Doctrine bed. Not at all, Davis protested to the Mississippi legislature in November 1858. “The difference between us is…wide,” for I only conceded that “all property requires protection,” or it can not be “held.” Douglas sees no governmental obligation to protect. But I know that a hostile community’s power to free a slave generates not “a right to destroy but an obligation to protect.”8
So who had the obligation to protect, and when? Davis left those questions unanswered in his guarded retreat before Mississippi’s suspicious legislature. But he provided an answer in July 1859, when speaking to Mississippi Democrats’ state convention. Davis there declared that courtscould prevent a hostile community from robbing a slaveholder. Thus our “right to protection does not necessarily involve the enactment of additional laws.” Maybe someday, if courts fail a slaveholder, we may need congressional protection. We must now claim our right to national protective laws in that possible future contingency. But as for Northern Democrats’ fear that we now demand a national slave code, “you know it to be utterly unfounded and… absurd.”9
The absurdity, replied Davis’s arch critic among Mississippi Democrats, lies in the senator’s reputation as slavery’s champion. Albert Gallatin Brown, Mississippi’s less prominent U.S. senator, regarded Davis with the outrage of a plebeian who feels that a bluestocking treats him as scum. True, Brown had never been a plebeian. His father had owned eighteen slaves. The son amassed greater riches. But Davis’s nemesis came from a relatively scantily enslaved area of frontier Mississippi. Brown could tolerate the big shots, if they did not “play ‘big man me and little man you’ all the time with me.”10
Brown thought Davis played the big shot by barely deigning to notice him when they met in Washington. Davis’s snobbery led Brown to dwell on pre-Washington days. He never forgot the difference then between Davis “sitting in an easy chair in Washington, getting his 8,000 a year and drinking champagne,” and me “riding through the pine woods with the heat at 90° … and drinking rot gut.”11 The resentful Brown meant to show those sippers of champagne who really championed slavery. With that kind of enemy, slaveholders could well think, who needs friends? But the hatefully unfriendly Albert Gallatin Brown remained a painful burr under Jefferson Davis’s lavish saddle, and never more so than in Davis’s tormented 1859–60 period.
In these years, excruciating pain in Davis’s eye matched the anguish of trying to be true to the National Democracy, and to the Union, and to slaveholder constituents too. The sufferer’s face, an observer noticed, has the look “of a corpse,” with its “haggard, sunken, weary eye,” its “ghostly white, hollow, bitterly puckered cheek,” its “thin, white, wrinkled lips clasped close upon the teeth in anguish,” all ending with its graying, wispy attempt at a beard.12 Albert Gallatin Brown, in contrast, sported a square, tough, unwrinkled face. His eyes glared with hate. His thick beard hinted at an excess of testosterone. It was as if an aging aesthete writhed before an overpowering bully.13
Davis’s tremulous position on protecting territorial slavery provided the bully’s target. Where Davis thought Congress might have to provide future protective laws, if present courts provided inadequate protection, Brown demanded congressional protection “now, do it at once,” for slaveholders in Kansas and in all future territories. On January 18, 1860, Brown proposed a senatorial resolution that future bills “for the organization of a new territory” must require “the new Territorial legislature to enact adequate and sufficient laws for the protection of all kinds of property.” After a territorial government’s “refusal to do so,” Congress must “pass such laws.”14
Against that unconditional call for congressional protection now, unconditionally indigestible for Northern Democrats, Davis called for conditional future protection, hopefully palatable to Yankee allies. In a resolution that he first presented to the Senate on February 2, 1860, then modified on March 1, Davis wrote that “if experience should at any time prove that the judiciary and executive authority do not possess means to ensure adequate protection” for slaveholders, and “if the Territorial government shall fail or refuse to provide the necessary remedies,” Congress must “supply such deficiency.”15
Where Brown demanded immediate relief in a troubled present and said nothing about the intervention of courts, Davis sought only the right to seek relief if future court interventions failed. Where Brown demanded that Northern Democrats now rip Popular Sovereignty to shreds, Davis asked the South’s best northern friends to concede that Congress might have to temper local decision someday, if localities defied courts. Chose ye between us, screamed Brown and whispered Davis, to fellow U.S. Senators and to slaveholders throughout the Lower South.
Mississippi’s two estranged U.S. senators, the suffering Jefferson Davis (left), who outmaneuvered the bullying Albert Gallatin Brown (right) on proslavery territorial abstractions—and thereby ironically put his moderate version of the lethal abstraction into William L. Yancey’s revolutionary hands. Courtesy of the National Archives (Davis) and the Library of Congress (Brown).
The southern response turned Brown into a powerless bully. Only one senator sided with Brown’s demand for an immediate congressional slave code. All other Southern Democrats favored Davis’s wish for congressional protection, only if and when later necessary. In late May 1860, the Senate passed Davis’s resolutions, while at the same time declaring his abstraction about the future irrelevant to present conditions. Through it all, the South’s best disunionist strategist watched, and waited, and saw his way. Yancey would adopt Jefferson Davis’s attempts at a party-saving sidestep around the Freeport Doctrine. He would then use the purported moderation to rule or ruin Davis’s cherished party at its Charleston national convention.
– 4 –
To other southern extremists in Charleston, and especially to those from South Carolina, Yancey’s adoption of Davis’s compromised language and dismissal of Brown’s uncompromising vocabulary represented the Alabama ultra at his most irresponsible. Posterity thinks of the fire-eaters as a single group, unified in hatred of southern compromising. That homogenization once again deceptively jams the many Souths into one mold. Yancey’s determination to shatter the counterproductively rigid South Carolina mold drove much of the story of the Democracy’s collapse in Charleston.
Almost all Americans, North and South, shared South Carolinians’ distrust of Yancey. The Alabamian seemed such a serene charmer, yet so capable of murderous rages; such a marvelous orator, yet so difficult to hear; such a virile crusader, yet so bent over by neuralgia. Although the champion of uncompromising secessionism, he was such a compromising National Democrat. Although an adept party schemer, manipulating toward his own U.S. governmental offices, he was such a disparager of the U.S. government and of its dominant national party. Who was this baffling saboteur, anyway?
South Carolinians found the question especially unanswerable. The state’s reactionary aristocratic republicans had had such high hopes for Yancey. He had so often undercut those expectations. The hopes began with this mysterious extremist’s name. Benjamin Yancey, father of the secessionist and the first famous Yancey, had rivaled his officemate, John C. Calhoun, as a South Carolina comer. Then Benjamin Yancey had succumbed to the lowcountry’s curse, malaria, at age thirty-four.
The lowcountry’s victim had borrowed a famous lowcountry name for his son. William Lowndes, coastal squires’ revered congressman after the War of 1812, had personified their incorruptible patriarchal ideal. Lowndes famously stood for undeviating principle. He loathed participation in political parties, especially to seek personal gain. He never asked voters what he could do for them. He always decided what to do for his lessers. Although ruling on the eve of the era of mass party politics, he remained a throwback to the disappearing age when patriarchs presumed that only wealthy gentlemen could guard republican virtue.
As national two-party politics descended on every southern area except South Carolina, that eccentric state’s isolated patriarchs saw national party partisanship elsewhere in the South as slavery’s executioner. Southern spoilsmen in national parties, hungry for national patronage, would make no demands or empty demands for slavery’s protection. They would anesthetize rather than awaken their gullible constituents to slavery’s needs. The riffraff instead needed guardians who wished nothing from politics except preservation of their flock. Where a two-party mobocracy would put the section to sleep, antiparty aristocrats would sound a continuous alarm.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, many young South Carolina sports, rich in these attitudes but poor in purse, headed out west to replenish their aristocratic resources. The exodus helped spread South Carolinians’ contempt for Yankees and for the Union to the Southwest. But the exiles filled many an empty purse at the expense of much of the aristocratic contempt. Ex–South Carolinians flocked inside mass politics. They courted the voters. They compromised their South Carolina extremism for the moderate good of the National Democracy (and for their own immoderate ambitions).
South Carolinians hoped that William Lowndes Yancey would throw the South Carolina antitype at this disgusting southern type. If Benjamin Yancey’s son could replicate the saintly Lowndes out in the brawling Southwest, the exile could make up for all the departing South Carolinians who had deserted their mother state and her contempt for mobocracy. Where other ex–South Carolinians had succumbed to white men’s egalitarianism and to the National Democracy, William Lowndes Yancey might rally the newest South for a new southern nation, based on the older South’s oligarchic wisdom.
Expectations for a second coming of William Lowndes, out where the moral wilderness most needed a saint, swelled when William Lowndes Yancey starred in two supreme secessionist incidents. In 1848, the ex–South Carolinian helped write (perhaps largely wrote) the Alabama Democratic Party’s so-called Alabama Platform. This southwestern document, for once full of South Carolina attitude, demanded that national presidential candidates affirm that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could abolish slavery in a U.S. territory. When the National Democratic Convention of 1848 rejected this uncompromising ultimatum, Yancey seceded from the conclave. Only one southern delegate followed. No matter, from the South Carolina extremist perspective. Yancey kept the holy flame burning in unholy parts of the South.16
Yancey equally starred, ten years later, in a second notorious secessionist moment. In 1858, in partnership with Virginia’s greatest secessionist, Edmund Ruffin, Yancey organized the League of United Southerners. The league, Yancey wrote James S. Slaughter, stood outside all parties, for “no National Party can save us.” Only “Committees of Safety all over the cotton States (and it is only in them that we can hope for any effective movement)” could “fire the Southern heart—instruct the Southern mind—[and] give courage to each other.” Then, “at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton States into a revolution.”17
The League of United Southerners, like every other pre-1860 southern revolutionary effort, soon floundered. South Carolinians still admired Yancey’s lonely stand. Only those above the National Democracy’s corruptions, coastal extremists continued to think, could attain the South’s delivery. Only the Lower South and never the Upper South, as the Slaughter Letter proclaimed, could deliver a southern nation.
However, South Carolinians also remembered that Yancey’s Lowndes-like purity had leaked even before he deserted to Alabama. In 1834, William Lowndes’s namesake had studied law under the upcountry’s unionist zealot, Benjamin F. Perry. There had been a laying on of hands, and the hands had not been the extremists’. Before 1834 had half expired, Perry’s precocious student had taken over Perry’s favorite newspaper, the Greenville Mountaineer, dedicated to establishing the Nullifiers’ folly. In Yancey’s debut as fiery orator, he had derided John C. Calhoun’s theory as the “loathsome offspring of failed Ambition.”18
In 1843, in another departure from South Carolina grace angrily noted in that state, Yancey campaigned for a seat in the Alabama State Senate by declaring war against old-fashioned republicanism. The departed South Carolinian denounced a legislative representation based on amounts of wealth rather than on number of voters. The “monstrous inequality” handed “the whole power of the State” to a slaveholding minority—exactly where South Carolina patriarchs believed power should be handed!19
South Carolinians could discount these declensions from South Carolina orthodoxy as mere youthful indiscretion, after Yancey’s mature purism in the 1848 Alabama Platform and in the 1858 Slaughter Letter. But Yancey’s return to the Democratic Party in 1855 could not be discounted. Nor could Yancey’s hunger for a post in James Buchanan’s cabinet or inside the U.S. Senate be admired. Nor could the Alabamian’s adoption of Jefferson Davis’s compromised position on congressional protection be abided.
But unlike South Carolina reactionaries, Yancey had abandoned the counterproductive politics of uncompromising extremism. Back in 1848, after only one Southern Democrat had joined Yancey’s exodus from the party’s national convention, the lonely ultra had rejected Dixon H. Lewis’s conciliatory advice. Lewis, an Alabama U.S. senator and tight with Calhoun, had warned that “several of the most respectable men in the State … are now all Democrats.” If you “cut” yourself off from “these gentleman, … how powerless” you will become, he said; I doubt if you “could carry a Single County in the State.”20
When Yancey returned to the Democracy seven years later, he embraced Lewis’s strategy for pushing Lower South Democrats in South Carolina’s direction. He would become Alabama Democrats’ partisan. He would press his extremist views no further than the outer edge of their moderate views. He would then cajole, flatter, and prod moderates toward demanding that Northern Democrats accept this watered-down extremism. His tempered ultimatums would test whether Northern Democrats would provide reasonable slaveholder security. Sooner or later, Northern Democrats would probably flunk the tests. Then enraged Lower South testers would follow Yancey out of the Democracy and later out of the Union.
I now “endeavor to be entirely conciliatory,” Yancey wrote in 1856. “While this detracts from the brilliancy and the spice, … it gains the ears of the opposition and opens the way to their hearts.”21 Yancey explained his new conciliatory extremism more fully in perhaps his greatest public address, given in Columbia, South Carolina, nine months before the Charleston National Democratic Party convention. “Can we have any hope,” Yancey asked folk devoid of hope, of “doing justice to ourselves in the Union?” I have “no such hope, but I am determined to act with those who have such hope, as long, and only as long, as it may be reasonably indulged. Not so much with any expectation that the South will obtain justice in the Union, as with the hope that by thus acting within a reasonable time,” we will unify “our people in going out of the Union.”22
Never again (until Lincoln’s election) did Yancey declare the Union hopeless. He would favor disunion, he insisted, only if and when Northern Democrats failed Lower South Democrats’ measured tests. He expected that Northerners would eventually refuse to allow national policy to be based on southern tempered ultimatums. But Lower South moderates would see for themselves, after they deployed insistences that Northerners act in a reasonably proslavery manner.
Yancey saw a refusal to issue reasonable proslavery insistences as the root of southern affliction. He denied that any “natural” flow of population and expansion had caused the South to fall behind the North. Instead, Southerners’ unnatural acceptance of Yankee abstractions had cursed the South to an unnecessarily small share of American land and people. Early nineteenthcentury Northerners had considered slavery wrong. Many Southerners had concurred. Thus the federal government had barred the slaveholders from receiving more Africans and banned them from nine-tenths of the Missouri Controversy terrain. If instead slaveholders, because believing in slavery’s permanent good, had demanded that an entering African match every entering European and that every territorial acre be as open to Southerners as to Northerners, slaveholder power would have equaled Yankee power.
The South’s acceptance of enfeebling abstractions persisted, Yancey warned. “There is no denying that there is a large emancipating interest in Virginia and Kentucky and Maryland and Missouri.”23 Elsewhere, compromising southern politicians, harboring compromised proslavery beliefs, deployed compromising action against enervating drifts. So the Kansas-Nebraska Act yielded no enslaved state of Kansas, the Fugitive Slave Law yielded few returned fugitives, and Manifest Destiny yielded no Caribbean terrain. Until Southerners insisted that their abstract good demanded real protection against ceaseless trends, they would be silent traitors to their abstraction, to its requirements, and to its staying power.
Yancey saw hope that the Lower South—and only the Lower South—could become conscious of slavery’s necessities. Most Lower South citizens already called slavery right. They only had to learn to insist on a moderate version of their rights. Yancey’s least favorite southern opponents (and the historians that he would most ridicule) answered that a culture should insist on explosive abstractions only when an important and immediate practical gain would result. In 1860, for the first time in many years, no slaveholder lived in any U.S. territory that lacked protection for slavery. What a time to risk a great party and a great nation, over a “mere” theory about protecting a nonexistent investment in a nonexistent place!
Yancey, like many southwestern Democrats, sometimes answered that today’s invisible territorial slaves would be highly visible in tomorrow’s territories, if slaveholders in future U.S. Caribbean territories enjoyed prearranged national protection. But Yancey seldom dwelled on future Caribbean practicalities. He instead usually emphasized that allegedly “mere” abstractions determined the course of history.
Personal experience taught this reality, for “mere” abstractions demolished his nuclear family. Yancey’s stepfather psychologically brutalized Yancey’s mother before sending her packing, after she would not concede her native South’s abstract depravity. The abstraction that slavery is wrong had no practical consequences? Tell it to my rejected mother, one can almost hear an outraged son muttering.
Southern outrage about outside critics’ insulting abstractions, akin to his own fury against his stepfather, gave Yancey his most practical weapon to reverse southern history. Many citizens, at least in the Lower South, would charge against northern notions that Congress must not protect so depraved an institution, so long as an ultra’s demand for protection remained moderate, reasonable. A failure to issue reasonable demands would surrender to the flow of history. That would mean, Yancey believed, the further drain of slavery out of the Border South, further empty national solutions to the problem, and further endless compromises for the sake of the National Democracy (and its southern spoilsmen). But issuance of reasonable demands would force the Northern Democracy to yield real concessions or to suffer a split party (the indispensable step toward a split Union). Either way, insistence on the right abstractions would shove history in the right direction, toward protection of slavery’s “merely” abstract blessings.
Abraham Lincoln espoused the same premises about the power of abstractions while seeking exactly the opposite historical direction. In his 1858 debate with Douglas, Lincoln assaulted the Little Giant for refusing to base public policy on the abstraction that slavery was wrong. To teach citizens not to care whether slavery was voted up or down, emphasized Lincoln, was to prepare public opinion for continued national drift toward domination by an expansive Slave Power. Yancey saw an opposite drift of antebellum history, toward a caged and apologetic slavocracy. Both Yancey and Lincoln would reverse their perceived historical drifts by teaching their publics to care—passionately care—about basing all governmental action on the rightness or wrongness of slavery.24
To watch Abraham Lincoln’s subtle oratorical gambits in his confrontation with Douglas, as to watch William L. Yancey’s clever ploys at the Democracy’s 1860 conventions, is to observe manipulative genius at the service of profound understandings of how abstruse principles can change a democracy’s history. Only extraordinary tacticians could spin historical movements around as if on a dime—a dime’s worth “merely” of abstractions. Yancey correctly saw that most Southerners did not want (desperately did not want) to destroy the Union, just as most Southern Democrats did not want (desperately did not want) to savage the party. Their moderation could lead to inertia, compromise, evasion, erosion (and to offices for the moderate). To wrench them toward what they did not want, to put history on a disunionist course they deplored, one had to rally just enough of them, in just enough Lower South spots, to stand and deliver for an abstraction that they did covet, expressed in a temperate, measured way.
As William L. Yancey summed up the philosophy that guided his “merely” abstract strategy, “this government is largely influenced by public opinion.” We would suffer from “the height of political folly and weakness” if we “lay silently by and permit public opinion to be formed against us upon any question, however abstract at present.” But we reach for glory when we realize that all great “rules for the future conduct and guidance … of government or individuals are but abstractions, which in the course of events, become practical.” At the Democratic National Convention of 1860, Yancey meant to demand that when Northern Democrats asserted “wrong rules and principles,” at least Lower South delegates must insist that slavery is right, that the protection of territorial slavery is right, and that Northern Democrats must pass a reasonable test that slavery’s blessing would be protected.25
The constant insistence that all tests be reasonable showed how far Yancey had left South Carolina behind. The ex–South Carolinian had learned, during those years in the political wilderness, that on matters of “mere” abstraction no less than on matters of supposed practicality, an extremist had to bend toward the middle in order to lure moderates toward the extreme. He had to find a compromised way to say that Northern Democrats must protect the blessing of slavery. Otherwise, few Lower South Democrats would embrace the vocabulary.
Yancey had tried for the boon of a reasonably extreme demand in the African slave trade controversy. He had not urged the extreme position that the trade must be opened. He had insisted on the (he thought) moderate principle that the federal government must not be the insulting closer. He had found that too many folk found the whole idea of reopening too extremist to credit this stab at moderation.
The territorial issue held more promise. Moderate Southerners did think they had as much right to protection of their property in the territories as did Northerners. They did think that honor required equal protection of everyone’s property. An extremist had only to find the moderate way to demand that Southerners be treated as honorable equals.
Before the Charleston convention began, Yancey saw that Jefferson Davis had provided the ideal reasonable vocabulary. Under pressure from both Albert Gallatin Brown and Mississippi ex-Whigs, Davis had concocted his minimal demand for congressional slave codes, only if in the future necessary. But moderate Northern Democrats, Yancey realized, still espoused Popular Sovereignty’s dogma of settlers’ final power to decide. So they would probably reject the principle of congressional intervention to overturn settlers’ decision, now or at any future time. Davis’s reasonable abstraction, as the dynamics of centrist Lower South politics defined reasonable, could thus test whether any hope for the Democracy remained reasonable, as the dynamics of centrist northern politics defined reasonable.
The Davis compromised abstraction offered equally reasonable prospects for raising Lower South consciousness toward insisting on a blessing. Albert Gallatin Brown’s demand for protection now might seem to have had more teaching value. But only one senator followed Brown. Davis commanded the Lower South congressional establishment. Davis, no less than Brown, defended slaveholders’ right to protection of a blessing, some time, some way. If that abstraction eventually became the basis of northern and southern policy, the historical trends against slavery would be reversed. No room would remain for national laws against importing Africans, or against slavery’s spread anywhere, or against expansion into potentially slaveholder-friendly Caribbean terrain. But if at any point along this supposedly “merely” abstract proslavery track, Northern Democrats jumped off Lower South Democrats’ abstruse train, the road to disunion would be wide open. Now there was a practicality! Jefferson Davis’s moderation would do Yancey’s extremism just fine, even if unreasonable South Carolina extremists could not fathom how.
Davis did fathom how he could be used against himself. He thus urged the National Democratic Convention to pay no heed to his abstraction when writing its platform. Along with Georgia’s Robert Toombs and other leaders of the Lower South’s Washington establishment, Davis prayed that the Democracy’s convention in Charleston would nominate a candidate (anyone but Douglas!) without much fretting about a merely abstract platform.26
But Yancey meant to put Davis’s moderate abstractions to radical use. He would insist that the national convention base the party’s platform on congressional protection of slavery in the territories, if later necessary. Otherwise, Alabama Democrats would seek to lead Mississippi’s Davis supporters, furious at the uncompromising rejection of their man’s compromised language, out of the convention. That exodus of a fraction of the Lower South minority of the southern minority of delegates might lead to a more general, lethal southern departure.
The precipitous action of a minority of the minority ranked second only to the precipitating impact of moderately radical abstractions in Yancey’s quiver of extremist weapons. Only the Cotton South, he knew, and only the Alabama/Mississippi fraction of that fraction of the South, might first rebel against the party. South Carolina fire-eaters, as Yancey believed stupidly, had taken themselves out of the party where extremist action must first triumph (even when Charleston supplied the physical stage for the Democratic convention). So Alabama must seize the lead in blasting the Democracy away from the milk-toast party platform that the southern (and especially Upper South) majority of delegates favored. If Mississippi followed—well, Yancey could hardly wait to see if the rest of the Lower South might then follow, and if Northern Democrats might then stonewall against departed Lower South delegates, and if Upper South delegates might then be forced out of the Democracy too.
Yancey did not count on immediate victory. He designed his strategy for the long haul. He believed that Northern Democrats, if placed under the gun of a threatened party split, might surrender to Davis-style (and now Yanceystyle) abstract reasonableness on the territories issue. Then the Alabama extremist would educate Lower South folks toward their next moderate proslavery ultimatum, and then the next. Eventually, Northern Democrats too would base all national legislation on protecting slavery’s blessings—or exasperated Yankees would finally scream “no way.” Either endgame would find a very patient William Lowndes Yancey leading Davis’s troops beyond the party’s previously choking bonds—bonds produced, Yancey passionately believed, by southern failure to issue reasonable ultimatums based on slavery’s abstract blessings.
– 5 –
Yancey also prayed that abstractly reasonable extremism would serve his crassly practical ambitions. The Alabama agitator coveted Benjamin F. Fitzpatrick’s seat in the U.S. Senate, especially if the Union survived the 1860 election. In 1859–60, Fitzpatrick opposed any southern ultimatum on protection of territorial slavery, even Davis’s diluted demand for possible future protection. If a territorial legislature, wrote Fitzpatrick in August 1859, “should attempt to exclude” slavery, “or fail to pass laws for its protection,” then “of course Congress can and ought to intervene, to protect property of every character, slave or otherwise.” But since the territorial question would not likely “become a practical issue … at an early period,” why undermine our northern friends now over a presently empty abstraction?27
Yancey particularly loathed this nonrecognition that allegedly empty abstractions can control history. He saw in the cursed misunderstanding the opportunity to make Fitzpatrick appear the foe of proslavery abstractions per se and friend only of party victory. Yancey knew that ex-governor John Winston, another Democratic Party aspirant for Fitzpatrick’s seat, hovered about, hunting for middle ground between the senator and the fire-eater. If Yancey went for enactment of congressional protection now, against Fitzpatrick’s rejection of any opposition to the Freeport Doctrine now, he would hand Winston the middle position: a Davis-like declaration now for future protection later, if necessary. Better to go for center ground and leave Winston nowhere to stand.28
South Carolinians disdained such grasps for grubby office. How could a so-called extremist enter the moderate Democratic Party at all, much less adopt Jefferson Davis’s moderate abstraction on territorial protection, much less seek the corrupt party’s nomination to serve in the foul national government?
Yancey no longer could abide this purism. Of course he had entered the national party where most Lower South folk resided; and he would stay there until they saw the necessity to depart the party behind him. Of course he would deploy the most moderate extremism that they could tolerate. He could then teach them that Northern Democrats would intolerably reject even moderate claims for southern equality. Of course he would seek nomination and election to the highest posts in the foulest American government. He would then attain the loftiest pulpit to preach that the temple must be cleaned or left to molder. At the climactic moment of the slavery expansion issue, a canny extremist contended for mainstream glory by poking Jefferson Davis’s precarious moderation a perilous speck toward the precipice.
The almost unbelievable and (on Davis’s part) utterly unintended collaboration of Davis and Yancey in a crucial national drama illustrates the historian Michael Holt’s wise dictum: national politics is ever grounded in local politics. Before Davis and Yancey could triumph nationally, they had to position themselves perfectly amidst the pressures back home. Yancey had to find an ideal Alabama niche, on the extremist edge—but not far from Benjamin Fitzpatrick’s moderation. Davis had to find an equally ideal niche, on the moderate edge—but not far from Albert Gallatin Brown’s extremism. In Charleston, Yancey would use Davis’s local niche as a foothold, and from there pull Mississippians toward reasonable extremism in national politics.
Yancey even hoped that reasonable extremism might ensure him Fitzpatrick’s U.S. Senate seat prematurely. Fitzpatrick’s term ended in 1861. But the state legislature, as elector of U.S. senators, could conduct the election earlier. Yancey’s supporters would seek his election in mid-November 1859. If they could then elect their man, a formidable senator-elect would espouse Alabama’s (and Jefferson Davis’s!) reasonable extremism in Charleston.
When the legislature met, however, Yancey supporters found that they had counted poorly. Fitzpatrick had slightly more votes than Yancey, while John Winston controlled about half as many. Since Yancey could not rally a majority, Yanceyites withdrew their plea for an early election.29
The sweetest plum in Alabama politics thus remained enticingly available when the Alabama state Democratic convention met in mid-January 1860 to choose delegates to the April national Charleston convention. Yancey ultimately controlled the convention and secured an update of the Alabama Platform of 1848. According to the revised Alabama Platform’s command, the state’s delegates to Charleston must insist that the Democracy’s national platform explicitly endorse congressional protection of slavery in U.S. territories. If the “National Convention should refuse to adopt, in substance,” our propositions, “our Delegates … are hereby positively instructed to withdraw” (emphasis mine).30
In substance! With those loaded words, Yancey refuted the persisting myth about his 1860 Alabama Platform: that it demanded an immediate, unconditional congressional slave code, à la Albert Gallatin Brown’s resolutions. Instead, Yancey and fellow Alabama delegates demanded in Charleston only a “substantial” retreat from pure Popular Sovereignty. By the time of the Charleston convention, “substantial” meant Davis’s resolutions for future congressional protection, if necessary. Sustained by Davis’s dance around the Freeport Doctrine, Yancey in Charleston could step beyond Winston and Fitzpatrick in provincial Alabama politics. He could also seek the highest national stakes by canceling Douglas’s Freeport dance around the socalled Dred Scott decision.