Confederate William Lowndes Yancey dies of kidney disease in Montgomery, Alabama. Yancey, whose militant stand on the expansion of slavery contributed dramatically to the growing sectional tensions of the era, epitomized the rise of Southern nationalism in the years before the war. The term “fire-eater” was applied to radical secessionists like Yancey, and their rise significantly altered the debate over slavery.
Yancey’s road to secession was an unusual one. Born on a Georgia plantation in 1814, his father died when he was young. His mother married a Presbyterian minister from New York, who moved the family there when Yancey was nine. Educated in the North, he moved back to the South and became a staunch Unionist. He lived in South Carolina during the nullification crisis of the 1830s, a political dispute in which South Carolina, led by Vice President John C. Calhoun, asserted states’ rights by ignoring a federal tariff. It was the beginning of a debate that eventually led to the war.
Within a few years, the circumstances of Yancey’s life dramatically changed his political views. He married a slaveholder and moved to Alabama. In 1838, he killed his wife’s uncle in a street fight and served a few months in jail for manslaughter. Yancey suffered financially during the Panic of 1837, and most of his slaves died when a neighbor tried to kill his overseer by poisoning a well on Yancey’s plantation. These events–coupled with the rise of his stepfather, whom he hated, to a prominent position as an abolitionist–helped form Yancey’s political opinions.
In 1841, Yancey began a political career that led him to Congress by 1844. Known as a fiery orator, his words sparked at least one duel, albeit a bloodless one. Yancey, a Democrat, often lashed out against Whigs and even moderate members of his own party, such as Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. He vehemently opposed the Compromise of 1850 and became an avowed secessionist. He served only two terms in Congress but was an important figure in the growing crisis of the 1850s. When the war broke out, Yancey headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain and France to secure recognition of the Confederate States of America. These efforts were unsuccessful.
Later, as a senator from Alabama in the Confederate Congress, Yancey openly clashed with President Jefferson Davis and was often critical of the new Confederate government’s encroachment on the power of the states. His sudden death in 1863 silenced one of the strongest voices of states’ rights.