One of a series of posts, as explained in “Williams & the Civl War: The Wrong Side – Introduction“:
At long last, 150 years after the Union prevailed “with a brave army, and a just cause” in the American Civil War, one of the most visible remaining markers of that conflict is on everyone’s lips and coming down…
Williams College, and most Ephs, reflect on the Civil War through a Union lens — correctly so, from both a moral and historical perspective… [s]o let’s use this occasion to learn more from and about Ephs on the subject of the Civil War and especially on the other side: the Confederacy.
When it was published, EphBlog took note of William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War, Eric Walther’s biography of Yancey, the first published since 1892.
Yancey entered Williams College as a member of the class of 1830, but did not graduate. As a lawyer and a congressman, Yancey was a powerful orator for the cause of rebellion and secession. His
“sweet” and “musical” voice was one of the secessionists’ greatest tools. One auditor said of Yancey’s speeches that they were “seasoned with the salt of argument, the vinegar of sarcasm, the pepper of wit, and the genuine champagne of eloquence.”
As a Confederate senator, he took a leading role in the legislative debates of the Confederacy, and eventually became known as a potential rival to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. And when he died of a kidney infection in 1863, shortly after the Union triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg turned the tide towards the United States’s ultimate victory, the New York Herald reveled in the death of the “arch plotter of this terrible Southern rebellion,” and Harper’s Weekly editorialized that he was “the most virulent, but not one of the most able of the traitors who have conspired for the ruin of our country.”
At the time of EphBlog’s prior coverage, the EphBlog budget didn’t support buying a copy of his biography, and so we were left wondering:
Does anyone know if Yancey’s time at Williams is described in any detail? He was apparently a member of the class of 1833, but only stayed at Williams one year and never graduated… If there were a lot of material on Williams in this book, I (and other EphBlog readers) might buy a copy.
We need wonder no longer — it is! And it’s not quite a story of a one-year dropout whose principal experience was being in disciplinary hot water, as suggested by the post and by Guy Creese ’75, drawing on Professor Fred Rudolph’s work.
Based on research in the Williamsiana collection and other primary sources, Walther reveals that Yancey survived multiple disciplinary episodes, was readmitted following an expulsion, and left Williams after completing his studies in the spring of 1833, just six weeks shy of graduation.
As Walther recounts, Yancey’s road to Williams began with his stepfather, the Reverend Nathan Sydney Smith Beman, a one-year attendee (in 1803) of young Williams College, who soon withdrew in favor of Middlebury, where he financed his education with “odd jobs.”
Beman directed Yancey’s education, first in Chittenango, New York, then in Troy, then at the Brick Academy in Bennington, and ultimately, at the Lenox Academy, which led to Yancey’s arrival at Williams. As Walther explains, his tour of schools likely stemmed not from financial difficulties, but:
from William’s already troublesome personality. His aunt Louisa Cunningham once warned his brother, Ben, “Don’t you be led away by William’s wild notions, who could never rest satisfied in one place 2 months at a time.”
So it is hardly surprising that Yancey lasted less than a year at Williams. As Walther notes, however, a short stay in college in 1830 meant a lot more than it would today:
[I]n an era when even the shortest attendance in a college was exceptional, it promised to expand and to challenge his mind, to allow him to mix with other young men of great ambition and a sense of self-importance… [so] in the fall of 1830, Yancey entered Williams College
On its surface, Williamstown, in northwestern Massachusetts, a village of slightly more than 2,000 people where pigs and cows roamed the streets, offered little to excite new students… [but] the College  enjoyed vigor and growth after some lean years in the 1810s and the students Yancey encountered exhibited seriousness and energy… [d]uring Yancey’s first year, the legendary professor Mark Hopkins began his career there.
President Griffin had a direct and powerful influence on young Yancey, but never proved a satisfactory mentor or father figure. In fact, Griffin was a close friend of Reverend Beman’s and a prominent evangelist in his own right. Religious intensity ran high… and included several revivals in Williamstown led by Beman at Griffin’s invitation. Williams, like most colleges at the time — even state-sponsored ones — mandated morning and evening prayer services. The campus also had two temperance societies and was home to the Williams Anti-Slavery Society, among the first antislavery organizations in the state. And Professor Griffin himself — like Beman — combined religion and anti-slavery.
Walther clearly suggests that Yancey’s political shaping was in part a rebellion against this alliance of stepfather and college president. And it began to play out while Yancey was at Williams.
His interest in public speaking drew him to Williams’s Philotechnian Society, a group that met for debate and oratory on philosophical, religious, and political issues of the day [where] he had an immediate impact on his peers… the society’s secretary commented on the unusual spirit of [his] first meeting… Regular classroom work proved too passive and its rules ridiculous. For Yancey, oratory quickly seemed the way to attention, camaraderie, distinction, even power and triumph…
A milestone occurred for Yancey in the fall of 1832 when the Philologicians sponsored a debate on the question “Would the Election of General Jackson tend to Destroy the Union?” Yancey argued the negative, likely in part because of his stepfather’s opposite views. Although Yancey lost this campus debate, his efforts captured the attention of local Democrats, [who] asked him to stump for Ebenezer Emmons, a Williams College professor and candidate for the state legislature… Emmons won [and] the experience proved exhilarating for Yancey.
Yancey also worked as an editor on the Adelphi, a biweekly newspaper in which, in contrast to his future role as a secessionist, Yancey laid out strong nationalist views:
As the dispute grew over tariffs and sovereignty between President Jackson and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, [Yancey] clearly favored a strong nationalist position [as did] his most vehement political editorial, [which] also concerned the relationship between state and federal powers. In 1828, Governor George M. Troup began a survey of Creek Indian lands in Georgia for redistribution to whites… The administration of John Quincy Adams had objected that the matter lay under federal, not state, jurisdiction. Troup threatened armed confrontation, citing state sovereignty, and when [in 1832 the redistribution proceeded], Yancey bristled at this defiance of federal authority and power. “It will be the duty of the Marshal of the United States for that district to summon to his aid a posse comitatus, and of the President of the United States… to place the Army and militia of the United States at the service of civil authority,” the young editor demanded.
What of Yancey’s failure to graduate? Walther has little light to shed:
The final year Yancey spent at Williams began auspiciously but ended prematurely and a bit mysteriously. Named Senior Orator by his class and First Orator by the Adelphic Union, Yancey had obviously established himself as the leading student speaker… He finished his coursework six weeks prior to commencement and qualified for a degree, but did not stay to take it and never returned for it. This was not terribly unusual… the sixty-two colleges in the United States in 1832 produced only 670 graduates. Contemporaries drew very different explanations for Yancey’s failure to graduate. His uncle  blamed it on Beman. Beman’s biographer claimed that family financial burdens [led to Yancey’s withdrawal]… Another explanation had credibility mostly because of Yancey’s character and conduct later in life. Years later, after he began to gain a national reputation for violence, two newspapers [in Boston and Troy] ran a story asserting that Yancey’s premature departure from college resulted from disciplinary action.
But Walther discounts this last story — involving the tossing of a pickle barrel into a church window — because it resembles too closely the 1831 incident (for which Yancey was disciplined) for tossing a cask of water into a Methodist church meeting.
Walther’s discussion of Yancey’s time at Williams concludes by stating that “[a]fter his return south, Yancey extolled both the College and the town as superior to Harvard and Yale” (just as is true today), and assessing Beman as a greater influence on Yancey’s views and oration than that of Rev. Griffin.
Walther’s account repeatedly returns to the power of Yancey’s oratory and how it propelled him to leadership in the secessionist movement, and ultimately, the United States into a Civil War. From the Adelphic Union of Yancey’s day to the Debate Union of today, public speaking has long been recognized as an instrumental part of the liberal-arts experience, but the silver tongue of a persuasive leader can be a double-edged sword.