David Kane ’58 noted this book review in the Wall Street Journal.

“We stand upon the dark platform of southern slavery, and all we ask is to be allowed to keep it to ourselves.” So declared William Lowndes Yancey in 1860, speaking to a crowd in Wilmington, Del., on behalf of the pro-slavery National Democrats and their presidential candidate, John Breckinridge. Yancey went on: “Let us do that, and we will not let the negro insult you by coming here and marrying your daughters.”

As a fellow secessionist later observed, Yancey was “a very eloquent & powerful speaker. But he is so fluent that he does not know when to stop.” Yancey is much less well known today than many other leaders of the Civil War period, but he was hardly a marginal figure. A lawyer, newspaper editor, U.S. congressman and,

an Eph. Who knew?

[L]ater, a Confederate diplomat and senator, he articulated the Southern cause with a startling force and clarity.

Yancey’s speeches and writings suggest that, for the powerful minority of white Southerners determined to break up the Union, the Civil War was first and last about slavery, whatever the Confederacy’s defenders might say about states’ rights and unfair tariffs. Yancey compared Southern interests to a ship: “That ship is slavery; the cargo may be the tariff; we must preserve the ship or all go down together.” He delivered his most memorable words in a speech introducing Jefferson Davis, the new president of the Confederacy, to adoring throngs in Montgomery, Ala., in February 1861: “The man and the hour have met.”

Now the subject and his biographer have met. Eric H. Walther’s authoritative “William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War” is the first biography of the great orator and “prince of fire-eaters” (as a Cincinnati Commercial newspaper reporter once called him) since 1892, and it is long overdue. As Mr. Walther’s title implies, Yancey (1814-63) helped spur the move to war. He and his political kin tried mightily to push, pull, cajole and coerce a majority of their fellow white Southerners into secession.

It took 30 years, but they did it, and what listeners described as Yancey’s “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.” A reporter claimed that Yancey could have led a New Orleans audience into the Mississippi River.


1) Unfortunately, neither Amazon nor the publisher’s homepage allow for on-line searches. 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. As noted by Scott McLemee, academic publishers should be doing a better job of reaching out more broadly to potential readers. If there were a lot of material on Williams in this book, I (and other EphBlog readers) might buy a copy.

2) There is a great senior thesis to be written about Yancey’s youth in Troy and his time at Williams. Who will write it? As Richard Dunn explained, the best senior theses are written about discrete, contained topics that other people haven’t written about time and again. All else equal, a history thesis about a small but interesting aspect of Williams will be much better than one about the causes of World War I.

3) And, on a personal note, today is David Kane’s ’58 birthday. Happy Birthday Dad!

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