William Lowndes Yancey, Confederate Fire Eater
The World’s Famous Orations.America: II. (1818–1865). 1906.
His Speech of Protest in the Charleston Convention William Lowndes Yancey (1814–63) (1860) Born in 1814, died in 1863; after being active against Nullification in South Carolina, he removed to Alabama in 1836; prominent as an Antiwhig orator in the Presidential campaign of 1840; elected to Congress in 1844; fought a bloodless duel with Congressman Clingman in 1845; author of the “Alabama Platform” of 1847; vigorously opposed the Clay Compromise of 1850; became famous as a secession orator before the Civil War; led the seceders from the Charleston Convention in 1860; went to Europe seeking recognition from England and France of the Southern Confederacy; thereafter until his death a member of the Confederate Senate.
IT 1 has been charged, in order to demoralize whatever influence we might be entitled to, either from our personal or political characteristics or as representatives of the State of Alabama, that we are disruptionists, disunionists per se; that we desire to break up the party in the State of Alabama, to break up the party in the Union, and to dissolve the Union itself. Each and all of these allegations, come from what quarter they may, I pronounce to be false. There is no disunionist, that I know of, in the delegation from the State of Alabama. There is no disruptionist that I know of, and if there are factionists in our delegation they could not have got in there with the knowledge upon the part of our State Convention that they were of so unenviable a character.
1 We have come here, with the twofold purpose of saving the country and of saving the Democracy; and if the Democracy will not lend itself to that high, holy and elevated purpose; if it can not elevate itself above the mere question of how perfect shall be its mere personal organization and how widespread shall be its mere voting success, then we say to you, gentlemen, mournfully and regretfully, that, in the opinion of the State of Alabama, and I believe, of the whole South, you have failed in your mission, and it will be our duty to go forth and make an appeal to the loyalty of the country to stand by that Constitution which party organizations have deliberately rejected.
2 The South is in a minority, we have been tauntingly told to-day. In the progress of events and the march of civilization and emigration, the Northwest has grown up, from a mere infant in swaddling clothes, at the formation of the Constitution, into the form and proportions of a giant people; and owing to its institutions and demand for white labor, and the peculiar nature of our institutions, tho advancing side by side with us in parallel lines, but never necessarily in conflict, it has surpassed us greatly in numbers. We are, therefore, in a numerical minority. But we do not murmur at this; we cheerfully accept the result; but we as firmly claim the right of the minority—and what is that? We claim the benefit of the Constitution that was made for the protection of minorities.
3 In the march of events, feeling conscious of your numerical power, you have aggressed upon us. We hold up between us and your advancing columns of numbers that written instrument which your and our fathers made, and by the compact of which, you with your power were to respect as to us and our rights. Our and your fathers made it that they and their children should for ever observe it; that, upon all questions affecting the rights of the minority, the majority should not rely upon their voting numbers, but should look, in restraint upon passion, avarice and lust for power, to the written compact, to see in what the minority was to be respected, and how it was to be protected, and to yield an implicit obedience to that compact. Constitutions are made solely for the protection of the minorities in government, and for the guidance of majorities.
4 Ours are now the institutions which are at stake; ours is the peace that is to be destroyed; ours is the property that is to be destroyed; ours is the honor at stake—the honor of children, the honor of families, the lives, perhaps, of all of us. It all rests upon what your course may ultimately make out of a great heaving volcano of passion. Bear with us then, while we stand sternly upon what is yet a dormant volcano, and say that we can yield no position until we are convinced that we are wrong. We are in a position to ask you to yield. What right of yours, gentlemen of the North, have we of the South ever invaded? What institution of yours have we ever assailed, directly or indirectly? What laws have we ever passed that have invaded, or induced others to invade, the sanctity of your homes, or to put your lives in jeopardy, or that were likely to destroy the fundamental institutions of your States? The wisest, the most learned and the best among you remain silent, because you can not say that we have done this thing.
5 If your view is right and ours is not one strictly supported by the compact, still the consequence, in a remote degree, of your proposition, may bring a dreaded result upon us all. If you have no domestic, no municipal peace at stake, and no property at stake, and no fundamental institutions of your liberties at stake, are we asking any too much of you to-day when we ask you to yield to us in this matter as brothers, in order to quiet our doubts? For in yielding you lose nothing that is essentially right. Do I state that proposition, gentlemen, any stronger than your own intellects and your own judgment will thoroughly endorse? If I do, I am unconscious of it.
6 Turn the pages of the recent past as regards the possessions acquired in the Mexican War, in which, gentlemen, it is but modestly stating the fact when I say that Southern chivalry was equal to Northern chivalry—that Southern blood was poured out in equal quantities with Northern blood—and Southern genius shone as bright upon the battle-field as Northern genius; and yet. when the battle was done, and the glittering spoil was brought forward, a vast and disproportionate quantity was given to the North, while the South was made to take the portion of an almost portionless son.
7 In the Northern States the Democratic party was once overwhelmingly in the ascendent. Why are they not so now? And why is the South more unitedly Democratic? The answer is ready. Antislavery sentiment is dominant in the North—slavery sentiment is dominant in the South. And, gentlemen, let me tell you, if it is not presumption in me to tell you, why you have grown weaker and weaker. It is my belief, from some observation and reflection upon this subject, that you are not now in the ascendent in the North, because you have tampered with the antislavery feeling of that section. I do not mean that you have tampered with it, or yielded to it, as a matter of choice. I do not mean that you are wilful traitors to your convictions of duty; but this is what I do mean: Finding an overwhelming preponderance of power in that antislavery sentiment, believing it to be the common will of your people, you hesitated before it; you trembled at its march. You did not triumph over the young Hercules in his cradle, because you made no direct effort to do so.
8 There is a conviction in our minds that we can not be safe in the Union, unless we obtain your unequivocal pledge to an administration of this government upon plainly avowed constitutional, congressional, as well as executive and judicial, protection of our rights. You have objected that this is a new feature in Democracy. But I say you have taken jurisdiction of this question in years past. In 1844 you took jurisdiction of the slavery question, to protect it from assaults. In 1848 you again took jurisdiction of the slavery question, tho to a limited extent. In 1852 you did the same; and in 1856 when the Territorial issues were forced upon the country by the Freesoilers, you demanded that the Democratic party should take one step farther in advance, in order to be up with the progress of the times, and with the march of aggression. You then added to these former platforms another plank, which it was then deemed would be sufficient to meet the issues urged.
9 And what was that plank? It was that Congress should not intervene to establish or abolish slavery in State or Territory. What is the fair and just meaning of this proposition? Lawyers and statesmen who are in the habit of construing laws and constitutions by the light of experience and by the rules which the great jurists of all ages have laid down for their construction, know that in order to decide what a law of doubtful import means, you must look at the subject matter, at the cause of its enactment; you must look at the evils it was designed to correct, and the remedy it was designed to give.
10 Gentlemen of the Convention, that venerable, that able, that revered jurist, the honorable chief justice of the United States, trembling upon the very verge of the grave, for years kept merely alive by the pure spirit of patriotic duty that burns within his breast—a spirit that will not permit him to succumb to the gnawings of disease and to the weaknesses of mortality—which hold him, as it were, suspended between two worlds, with his spotless ermine around him, standing upon the very altar of justice, has given to us the utterance of the Supreme Court of the United States upon this very question.
11 Let the murmur of the hustings be stilled—let the voices of individual citizens, no matter how great and respected in their appropriate spheres, be hushed, while the law, as expounded by the constituted authority of the country, emotionless, passionless and just, rolls in its silvery cadence over the entire realm, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the ice-bound regions of the North to the glittering waters of the Gulf. What says that decision? That decision tells you, gentlemen, that the Territorial Legislature has no power to interfere with the rights of the slave-owner in the Territory while in a Territorial condition. That decision tells you that this government is a union of sovereign States; which States are coequal, and in trust for which coequal States the government holds the Territories. It tells you that the people of those coequal States have a right to go into these Territories, thus held in trust, with every species of property which is recognized as property by the States in which they live, or by the Constitution of the United States.
12 But, we are met right here with this assertion: we are told by the distinguished advocate of this doctrine of popular sovereignty that this opinion is not a decision of the Supreme Court, but merely the opinion of citizen Taney. He does not tell you, my countrymen, that it is not the opinion of the great majority of the Supreme Court bench. Oh, no! but he tells you that it is a matter that is obiter dicta, outside the jurisdiction of the Court; in other words, extra-judicial—that it is simply the opinion of Chief Justice Taney, as an individual, and not the decision of the Court because it was not the subject-matter before the Court.
13 Now, Mr. Douglas and all others who make that assertion and undertake to get rid of the. moral, the constitutional, the intellectual power of the argument, put themselves directly in conflict with the venerable chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and with the recorded decision of the Court itself; because Chief Justice Taney, after disposing of the demurrer in that case, undertook to go on and to decide the question upon the facts and the merits of the case; and, said he, in doing that we are met with the objection, “That anything we may say upon that part of the case will be extrajudicial and mere obiter dicta. This is a manifest mistake,” etc.; and the Court—not Chief Justice Taney, but the whole Court, with but two dissenting voices—decided that it was not obiter dicta; that it was exactly in point, within the jurisdiction of the Court, and that it was the duty of the Court to decide it.
14 Now then, who shall the Democracy recognize as authority on this point—a statesman, no matter how brilliant and able and powerful in intellect, in the very meridian of life, animated by an ardent and consuming ambition, struggling as no other man has ever done for the high and brilliant position of candidate for the presidency of the United States, at the hand of this great party; or that old and venerable jurist, who, having filled his years with honor, leaves you his last great decision before stepping from the high place of earthly power into the grave, to appear before his Maker, in whose presence deception is impossible, and earthly position is as dust in the balance?
15 We simply claim that we, being coequal with you in the Territories, we having property which is as sacred to us as yours is to you, that is recognized as such by the Constitution of our common country—shall enjoy, unmolested, the rights to go into the Territories, and to remain there, and enjoy those rights as citizens of the United States, as long as our common government holds those Territories in trust for the States of which we are citizens. That is all.
16 We shall go to the wall upon this issue if events shall demand it, and accept defeat upon it. Let the threatened thunders roll and the lightning flash through the sky, and let the dark cloud now resting on the Southern horizon be pointed out by you. Let the world know that our people are in earnest. In accepting defeat upon that issue, my countrymen, we are bound to rise, if there is virtue in the Constitution. But if we accept your policy, where shall we be? We shall then have assented to the great fact involved in adopting your platform, that the government is a failure so far as the protection of the South in the Territories is concerned. We should be estopped for ever from asserting our principle simply by your pointing to the record that we had assented to the fact that the government could not be administered on a clear assertion of our rights. Is it true, gentlemen of the Northwest? Is it true, gentlemen of the whole country, that our government is a failure so far as the plain and unequivocal rights of the South are concerned? If it be a failure, we are not patriots unless we go to work at the very foundation stone of this error and reconstruct this party on a proper basis.
17 To my countrymen of the South I have a few words here to say. Be true to your constitutional duties and rights. Be true to your own sense of right. Accept of defeat here, if defeat is to attend the assertion of the right, in order that you may secure a permanent victory in whatever contest you carry a constitutional banner. Yield nothing of principle for mere party success—else you will die by the hands of your associates as surely as by the hand of your avowed enemy.
18 A party, in its noblest sense, is an organized body that pledges itself to the people to administer the government on a constitutional basis. The people have no interest in parties, except to have them pledged to administer the government for the protection of their rights. The leaders of the masses, brilliant men, great statesmen, may, by ever ignoring the people’s rights, still have a brilliant destiny in the rewards of office and the distribution of eighty millions annually; but when those leaders, those statesmen, become untrue to the people, and ask the people to vote for a party that ignores their rights, and dares not acknowledge them, in order to put and keep them in office, they ought to be strung upon a political gallows higher than that ever erected for Haman.
19 Note 1. From his speech in the National Democratic Convention at Charleston, April 28, 1860, in support of the protest of the Alabama delegation. Printed here from a rare pamphlet report of the proceedings of the convention, found in the New York Public Library. Yancey in this convention was the leader of the seceders, who afterward met in Baltimore and nominated Breckenridge. Woodrow Wilson says of Yancey’s work at this time: “It was he more than any other, who taught the South what Douglas really meant; he more than any other, who split the ranks of the Democratic party at Charleston, made the election of Douglas impossible, and brought Lincoln in.”