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THE YELLOWHAMMER WAR
The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama
By Kenneth W. Noe
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Precipitating a Revolution
Alabama's Democracy in the Election of 1860
Lonnie A. Burnett
William Lowndes Yancey had a clear view of the future. In 1858, the longtime Alabamian wrote a letter to a young supporter revealing his personal agenda. Yancey expressed a desire to "fire the Southern heart, instruct the Southern mind, give courage to each other, and at the moment, by one organized, concerted action ... precipitate the cotton States into a revolution." Contemporary critics as well as future historians seized upon this "Scarlet Letter" to positively assign blame for the 1860 split of the national Democratic Party, the subsequent election of Abraham Lincoln, and the resulting secession of the Southern states to Yancey—the "Prince of Secession." Yancey's domination of Alabama's Democratic Party guaranteed that the state would be on the frontline of the most divisive election in American history. Scholars have tended to ignore, however, the role of Yancey's in-state opposition—the moderate wing of Alabama's Democratic Party. This minority, led by editor-politicians such as John Forsyth of the Mobile Register and John J. Seibels of the Montgomery Confederation, opposed the secessionists at every turn. Supporters of Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, this group saw a national, not sectional, party as the only way to keep the federal government out of the hands of the "Black Republicans." Although typically portrayed as falling victim to Yancey's secessionist maneuverings, these veterans of many Democratic battles often took the offensive. At a critical juncture when Yancey appeared to be open to compromise, the "Douglas traitors"—hoping to isolate and destroy the secessionist faction once and for all—worked behind the scenes to make sure the long-threatened convention bolt would indeed transpire. In an August 1860 speech, Huntsville politician Jere Clemens accurately expressed the sentiment of the hour: "This is no holiday occasion. The existence of this republic is at stake."
Yancey was the voice of states' rights and secession in Alabama and perhaps the entire South. The Georgia native gained notoriety as a fire-eater in 1848 with the introduction of the "Alabama Platform." In reaction to the ill-fated Wilmot Proviso (which sought to ban slavery from any territory gained in the Mexican War), Yancey pushed for congressional protection of slave property through a federal slave code. As a delegate to the 1848 national Democratic convention in Baltimore, Yancey led a two-man walkout when the platform committee refused to endorse his position. Concerned that the South was not safe in the national party, in 1850 he helped organize the Southern Rights Party. However, in 1856 Yancey temporarily returned to the Democratic fold. At the Democratic convention in Cincinnati, he went along with a compromise platform that was left intentionally vague so as to be acceptable to both North and South. The 1857 Dred Scott decision—in which the Supreme Court ruled that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could ban slavery in any territory—was a victory for Yancey and his supporters.
Yancey bristled at the suggestion that he was a disunionist. In his mind, secession was a "defensive southern reaction to incendiary revolutionary changes in the North." By refusing to protect slave property in the territories, the North had, in Yancey's words, "in effect, destroyed the Constitutional compact of Union." By the late 1850s, however, Yancey had lost patience with both compromise and moderate Southern Democrats. A broad-based party could not afford to press matters of principle to the extreme and still appeal to a wide-ranging constituency, yet Yancey lamented the fact that politicalexpediency often dictated that Southern interests were sacrificed in the name of party. He also felt this willingness to acquiesce had brought the South little in return. The Compromise of 1850 brought California into the Union as a free state and had abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia with no compensation to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 returned few slaves. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 ultimately brought no slaves to Kansas. Southern Democrats felt they were losing control of the national party and began to agree with the fire-eaters in much larger numbers.
Stephen A. Douglas meanwhile aspired to lead the national Democratic Party. Douglas had been a member of Congress for many years and was intimately involved in most of the controversial measures of the day. He had played an active role in the final passage of the Compromise of 1850 and, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was this legislation that forever linked the senator with the doctrine of "popular sovereignty"—a plan whereby the voters in a territory (as opposed to Congress) would decide the fate of slavery. Douglas, the "Little Giant," harbored massive ambition and had set his sights on the nation's highest office. In 1856 he had stepped aside in favor of the nomination of Pennsylvanian James Buchanan. Because Buchanan had pledged to serve only one term, Douglas considered himself the legitimate heir to the 1860 prize.
Although he was the most polarizing figure in the 1860 presidential election process, Douglas had once enjoyed fairly widespread Southern support. He agreed with many Southern leaders on the most important issues, such as the Mexican War and subsequent annexation of territory, opposition to the Wilmot Proviso, and support for the Fugitive Slave Act. The ultimate political pragmatist, the senator viewed the peculiar institution in light of the Constitution and the maintenance of the Union. Thus, said Douglas: "I deal with slavery as a political question involving questions of public policy." Douglas boasted that "I do not admit the fact that there is a better Democrat on earth than I am, or a sounder one on the question of states' rights, and even on the slavery question." Many Northerners lambasted Douglas for his overly pro-Southern views. One Chicago editor referred to Douglas as "the most servile tool that has crawled in the slime and scum of slavery at the foot of the slave power." In 1858 one Alabamian editor, who would later side with Yancey, commented that Douglas was "a particular favorite with several of the southern states, and stood a better chance for the Democratic nomination for the contest of 1860 than any other individual."
How then did Douglas come to be regarded as the South's "greatest and most dangerous enemy"? Several of the senator's actions led to his fall from grace. The first would be the fruits of his own Kansas-Nebraska Act. After a period of prolonged violence, the struggle to organize the Kansas Territory returned to the halls of Congress. A constitutional convention of highly questionable legitimacy had met in Lecompton, Kansas, in 1857 and sent a pro-slavery document to Congress for approval. Recognizing the blatant fraud involved in this process, Douglas broke ranks with the Buchanan administration and voted with the majority against the proposed constitution. Alabamian partisans felt that Douglas was turning his back on his own popular sovereignty doctrine in that Congress had thwarted the will of the people in the territory. The Lecompton fiasco led to much more heated debate—now focusing on not just if but when, at what stage, and even how could the inhabitants of a territory legitimately exercise control over slavery. Alabama's judgment of Douglas was severe. Senator Clement C. Clay wrote: "How can any true Southern man maintain that he [Douglas] should have been retained as the exponent of the Democratic Party?"
The Dred Scott decision seemed to settle the controversy surrounding the territorial organization procedure. Yanceyites embraced the decision as a repudiation of popular sovereignty and began to aggressively push for a federal slave code. At this point, Douglas once again thrust himself into the center of the national firestorm. At Freeport, Illinois, during the now famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, a relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln asked Douglas if popular sovereignty could survive Dred Scott. Douglas responded that a territorial legislature could, in effect, abolish slavery by doing nothing. If local authorities refused to enforce slave laws, slaveholders would be forced to move elsewhere. In this "Freeport Doctrine" Douglas had stripped the South of the victory it felt it had won in the Supreme Court. Negative reaction was such that when Congress convened in December 1859, Southern senators stripped Douglas of his committee chairmanship. Douglas only made matters worse by trying to clarify his position. In a lengthy article he penned for Harper's, he set out to explain the historical context of popular sovereignty including a constitutional justification. Douglas abandoned the practical approach and took the debate to the philosophical level. This played into the hands of his opponents, who could now pontificate on the abstract doctrine of states' rights. The ideological differences that had been skillfully hidden at Cincinnati were forced into the open.
Why, then, did a small minority of Alabama's Democrats continue to support Stephen A. Douglas? As is always the case in politics, reasons were sometimes personal. Particularly in the case of Forsyth, a deep animosity toward Buchanan was a factor. Forsyth once remarked that "of all men living he liked Mr. Buchanan the least." Douglas and Forsyth both had well-documented breaks with the administration, and their mutual disdain forged them into a firm alliance. Around the state, similar grudges shook up traditional bonds. The rivalry between Yancey and Douglas advocate Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick forced many state Democrats to rethink customary power arrangements, as would the 1859 governor's race between secessionist William F. Samford and moderate Andrew B. Moore. Philosophical differences also came into play. Moderates agreed with Douglas's popular sovereignty stance. They could not fathom why avowed Southern rights men would deny the voters of a territory the right to control their own affairs. In a speech before the Alabama House of Representatives, Forsyth noted the irony that an "extreme Southern rights friend claims jurisdiction for Congress over the question of slavery in the territories." Moderates blamed the popular sovereignty confusion on Buchanan's support of the Lecompton constitution, which he had "in an evil hour, thrust upon Congress, and to which he recklessly committed the Democratic Party."
The most important factor, however, was practical politics. Moderates believed the slavery debate was over an abstraction—or what a Northern congressman described as "an imaginary Negro in an impossible place." The editor of the Gainesville Independent perhaps explained this best when he wrote, "While we have the abstract right to congressional protection, the assertion of the right ought to be determined by a fair comparison of its advantages and disadvantages. If no particular good is to result from it, it is foolish and wicked to stake the Union and safety of the South on the asserting of this right." Seibels noted that the only important issue for Alabama's Democratic Party was "shall we unite to prevent the election of an abolitionist or shall we aid his election by our supineness?" In an ongoing battle with the Yancey-supporting Montgomery Advertiser, Forsyth prophetically warned that if the secessionists did not cease their agitation over the territories, then "as sure as the hand on the dial will travel on to the appointed time, so sure will you have that Black Republican administration. And then, gentlemen, what will become of your claim for protection in the territories?" According to Jere Clemens, the Yancey faction had "dragged the slavery question from the obscure pulpits of a few crazy fanatics and thrust it upon a national theatre." After John Brown's raid in October 1859, the "abstraction" of slavery and abolition became all too concrete. Brown's trial, conviction, execution, and sympathetic Northern reaction would be the backdrop to two critical Alabama events: the opening of the state legislature and the convening of the Democratic State Convention.
The seventh biennial session of the Alabama legislature was gaveled to order in December 1859. Two items of business dominated the assembly. The first involved the election of a U.S. senator. The term of Benjamin Fitzpatrick had two years remaining, but Yancey, who coveted the seat, felt he had the votes needed to unseat his state rival. Yancey attacked Fitzpatrick for his support of the Kansas Conference Bill and other "non-Southern" votes. A Montgomery Weekly Advertiser editorial titled "The Treachery of Douglas" took the incumbent to task for his pro-Douglas leanings. After many speeches and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the vote was called off—a clear defeat for Yancey. The legislature, apparently anticipating future trouble, also began to pass preemptive measures. The lawmakers appropriated $200,000 to equip an eight-thousand-man state militia; authorized the University of Alabama to introduce military training; and chartered the Southern Fire Arms Company to manufacture munitions. Most ominously, both houses passed a resolution calling on Governor Moore to call an election for delegates to a state convention in the event a Republican won the upcoming presidential contest. Although technically the vote was not a call for a secession convention, most viewed it as such.
Official state business soon took a back seat to the second major event: the Alabama Democratic State Convention. With the national debate over slavery and the potential candidacy of Stephen A. Douglas driving state party strategy, even the normally mundane selection of state delegates proved to be contentious. In Montgomery and Mobile, local party meetings split over ideological differences with each side passing resolutions and sending competing delegations to the state meeting. The highly anticipated convention assembled on January 11, 1860, in the House chamber of the Alabama state capitol. Sutton S. Scott, a delegate from Madison County, gave a melancholy description of the opening scene: "A grim sort of quietude and determination were the ruling spirits of the hour. The very atmosphere seemed oppressive with the weight and burden of the issues, the result of which could not be otherwise than far-reaching and enduring." The battle lines were clearly drawn between the Yancey faction and the moderates with the former having a decided majority of the over four hundred delegates in the chamber. Along with Yancey, the Alabama radicals were led by Leroy Pope Walker, Thomas H. Watts, and Francis S. Lyon. Their objective was an affirmation of the Alabama Platform and a determination to bend the national party to their way of thinking. Forsyth, Seibels, and Fitzpatrick were joined by Henry W. Hilliard, John Winston, and Nicholas Davis in advocating a cooperationist stance at the upcoming national meeting.
Day one of the convention was consumed with organizational duties. The body selected Lyon as the convention's presiding officer. This was seen as a victory for Yancey in an early test of strength. More important, the convention selected platform and credentials committees. Yanceyites dominated both groups. The second day began with a wave of resolutions ranging from the amount of time a delegate could speak (no more than thirty minutes on any subject) to a failed preemptive move to put off the adoption of any resolution until after the upcoming Charleston national Democratic Party meeting. In the evening session, the body heard the credentials committee report regarding the contested Montgomery and Mobile County seats. In both cases, the committee, not surprisingly, recommended the acceptance of the pro-Yancey group. The convention concurred with both reports but later allowed both Mobile groups to be seated since several names appeared on both slates.
The entire morning session on the third day was devoted to debate on platform resolutions. Alexander White of Dallas County set the tone with his resolution that "upon the question of slavery in the States and Territories, the South only desires equality and justice, and these she will have peaceably if she can—forcibly if she must." John Forsyth offered a set of moderate resolutions suggesting that Alabama Democrats should "strike hands and lock shields" with their northern and western counterparts in order to defeat the "vandal hordes of Black Republicans." At the Friday evening session, the platform committee presented its long-awaited report. With its twelve resolutions, this report, in retrospect, sealed the fate of the national Democratic Party and of the Union itself. Although much of the document was standard Democratic Party fare, resolutions seven and ten were of particular concern. The seventh resolution stated, in part, that the power to abolish slavery "certainly does not belong to the people of the Territories in any capacity." This not-so-thinly veiled reference was a clear indication that Alabama's delegates to Charleston could not, under any circumstances, support Stephen A. Douglas—the champion of popular sovereignty. The tenth instructed Alabama's Charleston delegation to withdraw if that body did not accept the positions enumerated in the other resolutions. Often overlooked, however, is that Yancey, at this point, insisted that the Charleston delegates have some wiggle room. Perhaps remembering the humiliation of his lonely 1848 walkout, Yancey did not want to go to South Carolina completely handcuffed. Thus the final version of the tenth resolution instructed the delegates to withdraw if the national convention "shall refuse to adopt, in substance, the propositions embraced in the preceding resolutions." The addition of this phrase allowed for compromise and ambiguity, as had been the deliberate result of the language used in the 1856 Cincinnati platform.
Excerpted from THE YELLOWHAMMER WAR by Kenneth W. Noe. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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