Lawyer, Planter, Editor, Statesman
The nicknames appended to William L. Yancey-"the Silver-tongued Orator of Secession" and "the Prince of Fire-eaters"-attest to his best known accomplishments. One of the foremost Southern nationalists, he was lauded as a great speaker among great speakers in an era when oratorical skill was essential to success in politics.
Born in Warren County, Georgia, on August 14, 1814, to Caroline (Bird) and Benjamin C. Yancey, he was taken from his beloved South as a child. In the wake of his father's death, his mother had married a local schoolteacher, the Reverend Nathan Beman, a native of New England. After selling the Yancey slaves, the Reverend Beman moved his new family to New York and became a fervent abolitionist. As a young adult Yancey chose to return to his native South in 1833 to practice law, first to Georgia and then to South Carolina, where he married Sarah Caroline Earle of Greenville in 1835. After moving his new bride to Cahaba, Alabama in 1836, William abandoned the practice of law to become a planter and a newspaper editor.
A political career was natural for the outspoken young attorney, planter, and editor. His early views were actually those of a strong unionist and he opposed John C. Calhoun during the famous Nullification Crisis in South Carolina. But over time, he became a leading advocate of a separate Southern nation. Like most other prominent fire-eaters, Yancey's political beliefs embraced a sound and strong program of progressive social reforms, including women's rights, banking, the penal code, prisons, and education. His liberalism extended to public denouncements of the religious persecution of Catholics by the Know-Nothing Party, a violation of religious freedom and of the constitution that he so strongly supported.
As a Democrat, Yancey became a significant party leader on both the state and national level, as well as one of the most powerful men of the antebellum South. His political career included service in the Alabama General Assembly, the national House of Representatives, the Confederate diplomatic corps, and the Confederate States Senate.
After a lifetime of service to Alabama and to two nations-the United States of America and the Confederate States of America-William Lowndes Yancey died on July 27, 1863. No man could better symbolize an era.
William Lowndes Yancey was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame in 1995.