To understand Alabama history one must appreciate the impact of the failure of secession of the state in the subsequent half century as well as the causes for the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the state in the mid-twentieth century. The prophet of the first revolution was William Lowndes Yancey and the prophet of the second was Martin Luther King, Jr., two Southerners who set in motion forces that shaped American history beyond the borders of the state and region. In the years between their two lives Alabama changed dramatically.These examples of outstanding scholarship were published in The Alabama Review over the past forty years and provide an overview of a century of change in Alabama. The first articles center of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, which left Alabama reeling in turmoil. The efforts of the Greenbackers, the Grange, the Alliance, and the Populists ended in frustration as the politics of pressure and intimidation prevailed for the half-century after the Civil War. White as well as black poor had not yet appreciated the political power of their numbers.
In the new century, progressives had a distinct sense that they could take on outside forces larger than themselves. National currents swept Alabama into movements for the regulation of railroads, women’s suffrage, child labor reform, and welfare capitalism. Still, progressive reform coexisted with the most frightening political and social movement of early twentieth-century Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan, whose blessing or curse made or broke the careers of powerful politicians.
The desperation of the Great Depression gave way to a revived sense that Alabamians could shape their world. Not only was this feeling new, but so were the politicians whose debut represented emergence of the poor determined to act in their own behalf. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first thunder of a social and political storm that would remake Alabama and the entire country.
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About the Author
Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins is professor emerita of history at the University of Alabama, a past president of the Alabama Historical Association, and editor of the Alabama Review for twenty years. She is the author or editor of The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865–1881; The Journals of Josiah Gorgas, 1857–1878; and Love and Duty: Amelia and Josiah Gorgas and Their Family.
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From Civil War to Civil Rights, Alabama 1860â"1960
An Anthology from The Alabama Review
By Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Civil War and Reconstruction
The Young Manhood of William L. Yancey
RALPH B. DRAUGHON, JR.
One of the most colorful politicians of ante-bellum Alabama was William Lowndes Yancey, the "Orator of Secession," who led the Southern walkout from the Democrat National Convention in 1860 and the withdrawal from the Union in the following year. Indeed, one prominent American historian, Dwight Lowell Dumond, has made the statement that "Without Yancey's brilliant oratory and indefatigable labors there would have been no secession, no Southern Confederacy." Whether Dumond's statement is exaggerated or not, Yancey has been noticed in the history books for his fire-eating speeches and for his participation in the heated events which preceded disunion. But of the man himself very little is known.
William Yancey's father was Benjamin Cudworth Yancey, a South Carolina politician whose bright career was cut short by death in 1817. Benjamin's widow, Caroline Yancey, then took William, who was three years old, and William's infant brother from South Carolina to Georgia, where the little family made its home at the Shoals of Ogeechee, Mrs. Yancey's childhood home.
There at the Shoals lived Mrs. Yancey's mother, Catherine Bird, a former Virginian, renowned for her beauty and her beautiful daughters. William's grandmother, his mother, and his aunts, the Bird sisters, were such belles that an admirer dubbed their home "The Aviary," since so many pretty Birds lived there. Unfortunately, however, these ladies were noted not only for their good looks, but also for their bad dispositions, and William's mother and grandmother occasionally had truly remarkable temper tantrums. A glance at his childhood home reveals that William came by his own temper quite naturally.
When William was old enough to begin schooling, his mother gave him his first instruction. She trained him to be an orator, for his father had been a fine speaker and had been eulogized as a fountain of "the living waters of eloquence." While her little boy declaimed some of the florid rhetoric which was so favored in the Nineteenth Century, Mrs. Yancey would knit but would interrupt him frequently to make corrections. Rather prophetically, young William's favorite recitation was a piece called, "On Jordan's stormy banks, I stand" — a good choice for a boy who would one day lead his people in a stormy exodus from the Union.
Caroline Yancey sent her son for his first formal instruction to a nearby school taught by Presbyterian ministers, Mount Zion Academy, where William came under the supervision of that school's remarkable founder and headmaster, Nathan Sidney Smith Beman. A Northerner who had come to Georgia in 1812, Beman was a superior academician who exacted a stern discipline, neither sparing the rod nor spoiling the child. He was a preacher of emotional and intellectual eloquence, but because he was also a man who sometimes interrupted his piety with displays of personal arrogance, it is easy to speculate that he was not greatly loved by his students.
A widower with several grown children, Beman became charmed by Mrs. Yancey soon after her son came to Mount Zion and in 1821, when William was seven years old, she and the schoolmaster were married. Benjamin Yancey had left his widow some property which, according to his will, should have passed to a trustee for the Yancey children in the event that Mrs. Yancey remarried. Nevertheless, in spite of the will, Nathan Beman somehow came into control of the inheritance, and Yancey kinsmen later accused him of squandering the estate on himself and his own children.
The year he married Mrs. Yancey, Beman asked to leave the Georgia Presbytery. The preacher wanted to return to the North, and as he began to search for a new position in that region he took a step he was later to regret. On April 11, 1822 he sold to a man from Savannah for the sum of $700, three slaves — a Negro woman, her four-year-old son, and her infant daughter, whose name was Caroline. Beman himself had been a slaveholder before his marriage to Mrs. Yancey, and there is considerable doubt about whether he sold his own slaves or those which came to him as a part of the Yancey estate. No matter who owned the Negroes, however, the sale of them became extremely embarrassing to Beman when he became a prominent New York minister in pronounced opposition to slavery. The kinsmen and friends of William Yancey later pointed to the sale as evidence of Beman's false piety and charged that Beman was a hypocrite who preached against slavery after selling slaves himself. And if the slaves were part of the Yancey property, then the Yanceys could charge that Beman had not only sold slaves, he had also pocketed the money.
Beman accepted a pastorate at the First Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York and brought his wife and stepchildren North in June, 1823. William Yancey was almost nine years old when he left his Georgia home. The change was great from the mild winters of Georgia to the months of ice and snow in Troy, and far different from the Shoals of Ogeechee was life in the bustling young city by the Hudson River. Yancey probably encountered many problems of adjustment when he went to live in the Northern industrial town where people moved at a faster pace and spoke with a different accent. Moreover, he had to deal with the problems any boy has to face when he is identified as a preacher's son. The members of Beman's church were strict religionists. Indeed, the congregation had been disrupted when the previous minister offended conservative church members by installing heating and allowing music in the church.
In later years William Yancey never said much about his New York boyhood, but his life in Troy appears to have been unstable and unhappy. Life in the Beman household was made up of increasingly angry and more acrimonious clashes between Caroline and Nathan Beman, while in strange contrast the household also glowed in the light of religious evangelism.
Like her mother, Caroline Yancey Beman had a violent temper and in Troy her rages became almost uncontrollable. The hired girls at her home particularly upset her. She would scream in rage at them, threatening to knock them down or toss them into the street. When her husband tried to interfere, Caroline Beman would start a furious argument with him. William Yancey's mother had two children by her second marriage. In a fit of irritation she would slap the children or hit them on their heads with the heel of a shoe. If Beman objected, she would turn her fury on him. Beman in his own way was as pugnacious as his wife, but where Caroline was emotional and hot-tempered the preacher was cold, arrogant, and sarcastic. He piously refused to take any part of the blame for the domestic difficulties, taunting his wife for being either deranged or immoral. In 1826 Beman threatened to take legal action to rid himself of his wife, but the argument ended when the preacher forced Caroline into admitting that she was a venomous and sinful woman. When Mrs. Beman in abject penitence confessed before the elders of Beman's church the wrongs she had done her husband, Beman and the elders allowed her to remain with the preacher and be admitted to the church.
Young William Yancey was shaken by the vituperative disputes between his mother and stepfather and he was also intensely affected by the pervading atmosphere of religious fervor in the Beman household. In 1825 Beman held one of the greatest revivals in the history of Troy, and though the city was small, hundreds of people came to seek repentence for their sins and to join the church. In the fall and winter of 1826–1827 Beman held another great revival with Charles Grandison Finney assisting in the preaching. Beman and Finney were developing the doctrines of the New School of Presbyterianism which liberalized the Calvinism of predestination and damnation and offered to mankind the hope of atonement and salvation. Though Beman's doctrines disrupted the conservative Calvinists in his congregation, he stubbornly persisted in his evangelical labors. By 1830, when Yancey was about to enter college, the New School preaching had spread throughout the country and the American people were caught up in the greatest of the modern religious awakenings, the Great Revival of 1830.
The Beman household was of course hotly involved in the fervor. William Yancey's life now became an unhappy mixture of family feud and religious crusade. Growing up in the emotionally charged atmosphere, he developed a temper that perhaps more than equalled his mother's, but he also acquired a great deal of his stepfather's crusading zeal. Unfortunately, the mixture of temper and crusading zeal in Yancey was as volatile as the mixture of bitter argument and religious evangelism in his boyhood environment.
There is no evidence that during his childhood Yancey took his mother's side in the fights between the Beman couple, but his later animosity towards Beman indicates a long-standing resentment of the treatment afforded Caroline Beman by the preacher. Yancey loved his mother, in spite of her fierce temper, and he remained devoted to her all his life. Had the relationship of Beman and his stepson been happier, Yancey might have followed Beman to become a preacher, or perhaps even an Abolitionist. Instead, Yancey became a wild, hot-tempered rebel, the fire-eater of secession.
Nevertheless, Yancey was not all temper. He was a curious mixture, and the other part of the mixture, the crusading zeal which Nathan Beman had inspired, was still below the surface. Later in Yancey's career his fervor for crusading reappeared, causing him to resemble his stepfather in many ways. But in marked contrast with Beman, Yancey's crusading fervor was always mixed with a hot temper, producing results unlike any that Nathan Beman intended.
Beman saw to it that William Yancey had the opportunity for an excellent education. The preacher sent his stepsons to good schools, some of them presided over by friends of Beman in the Presbyterian ministry. Yancey attended the academies of Troy, Bennington, Chitteningo, and Lenox, and in 1830, at the age of sixteen, he entered Williams College. The educational opportunities afforded William Yancey and his brother Benjamin tend to belie the charge that Beman misappropriated funds meant for his stepchildren's support and education. Nevertheless, Robert Cunningham, uncle of William Yancey, contributed most of the money to send his Yancey nephews to school. Cunningham was generous in supplying funds and Mrs. Cunningham, Caroline Beman's sister, was equally generous in supplying advice to the Yancey boys. To William's younger brother, Louisa Cunningham wrote on July 20, 1833, "Yes let your mothers [sic] trouble be an incentive to you — comfort her heart yet — succeed in business, and place her beyond the control of a tyrant...."
William Yancey was in need of his aunt's counsel when he entered college. He was an unruly student and a member of a rowdy group. Several years after leaving college he reminisced:
... I feel somewhat as I did of yore, when a
wild student, I
'Threw by Euclid,
Closed the book lid
And turn'd the key, in the door lock,'
And was ready to cut rare, fantastick [monkey]
shines, which I would not that a dignified world
should look upon.
During Yancey's college days Beman occasionally visited the vicinity of the college on preaching missions, and on these visits Beman probably preached as earnestly to his stepson as he did to the local congregations.
During his years at Williams College, Yancey helped to edit a student literary journal, joined an oratorical society, and had an opportunity to study under a noted teacher of rhetoric, Mark Hopkins. Nevertheless, Yancey's collegiate education lasted only three years, for he withdrew from Williams College in 1833. When he became a Southern leader, Northern newspapers charged that he had been kicked out of college for tossing a pickle barrel through the window of a Methodist meeting house. This story is believable, but unsubstantiated. More probably, he withdrew for financial reasons. His uncle was having difficulty educating his own children along with the Yancey boys. Furthermore, in 1832 and 1833 Caroline and Nathan Beman engaged in disputes which almost ended in their separation. Mrs. Beman's troubles probably made William anxious to begin earning an independent living.
After leaving college Yancey returned to the South, and he and Nathan Beman went their separate ways. Beman went on to become one of the most vehement opponents of slavery, and Yancey one of its most adamant defenders.
If the troubles between Beman and his wife did not begin with slavery, it became inextricably entangled in their arguments. Nathan Beman's opposition to slavery increased year after year during William's youth. In 1827 Beman held a religious service, which both races attended, to celebrate the final extinction of slavery in the State of New York. During Yancey's college years his stepfather helped to start a school for Negroes in the basement of a church. In 1835, after Yancey had returned South, Beman took an uncompromisingly strong stand against slavery at a Pittsburgh meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In fact, Beman's anti-slavery attack was one of the opening wedges which helped to split apart the Presbyterian Church.
Furthermore, when Beman returned from the Presbyterian meeting, the difficulties between himself and his wife soon erupted in full fury. Beman accused her of slandering him, mistreating hired girls, and begrudging food to Henry Beman, a son by the preacher's first marriage who was dying of tuberculosis. Beman threatened divorce, but the couple agreed instead that Mrs. Beman should sojourn in the South for a year and a half. By this arrangement the preacher made certain that his wife would not interfere in his anti-slavery activities which he increased after her departure.
During Mrs. Beman's visit to the South the couple engaged in a venomous correspondence. Caroline sent her husband a pro-slavery letter, and he sent back a stinging reply: "What you say on abolition & slavery is an old story, and has not at all altered my views. The attempt ... to reconcile the abominations of slavery with the pure system of Jesus Christ is a complete failure, though it has made so deep an impression on your mind." Caroline demanded more money from her husband and Beman intercepted his wife's letters to and from their children. The preacher forbade Caroline to shorten her Southern visit, to visit their daughter in boarding school, or to correspond with friends in Troy. Without telling his wife, he also began making plans to attend the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London.
When Beman returned from the conference, he wrote Theodore Dwight Weld, the great Abolitionist leader, that he was thinking of engaging permanently in "the cause of the oppressed," adding: "There are some things in my personal situation which you can guess which render it peculiarly necessary for me to see you." The delicate personal matter obviously referred to Caroline Beman, who was definitely an encumbrance to her anti-slavery husband. Caroline was to end her Southern visit in the spring of 1837, but Beman had already written her, April 3, "You can't return to the North. Should you be rash enough to do it, you will not find me; & the children will be beyond your reach. You can't force matters after all that has past." Despite her husband's warning, Mrs. Beman returned, but Beman refused to take her back. When she sneaked two trunks out of her former house, Beman had the Troy City Council order them returned, and the couple engaged in bitter squabbling over their mutual possessions, which Beman himself divided. After the division, the preacher provided a small allowance for Caroline and sent her packing. He could now devote his full time to "the cause of the oppressed."
William Yancey was actively interested in the troubles of the Beman couple and fully sympathetic to his mother's point of view. When the Bemans began their last quarrel, Mrs. Beman reported to William's younger brother, September 20, 1835, that "William wrote to your Father [Beman] so dreadful a letter that I had to burn it and not let your Father see it." If Mrs. Beman burned the letter, it must have been truly dreadful. Furthermore, she saved the angry letters the preacher wrote her and she sent them to William Yancey. She also wrote William, charging that the preacher had beaten her shamefully, though she denied the charge in her next letter.
Excerpted from From Civil War to Civil Rights, Alabama 1860â"1960 by Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins. Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of ContentsContents
Civil War and Reconstruction
The Young Manhood of William L. Yancey
Selma and the Confederate States Navy
The Cahawba Military Prison, 1863–1865
The 1863 Raid of Abel D. Streight: Why It Failed
Five Men Called Scalawags
Carpetbaggers in Alabama: Tradition Versus Truth
Josiah Gorgas and the Brierfield Iron Works
Female Planters and Planters' Wives in Civil War and Reconstruction: Alabama, 1850–1870
Bourbonism and Populism
The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Alabama Agriculture
The Alabama State Grange
William Manning Lowe and the Greenback Party in Alabama
The Farmers's Alliance in Alabama
Governor Johnston's Attempt to Unseat Senator Morgan, 1899–1900
Political Reforms of the Progressive Era
Comer, Smith, and Jones: Alabama's Railroad War of 1907–1914
Edgar Gardner Murphy and the Child Labor Movement
George Gordon Crawford: Man of the New South
Religion in the Urban South: The Divided Religious Mind of Birmingham, 1900–1930
The Woman Suffrage Movement in Alabama, 1910–1920
Henry Ford and Muscle Shoals
Fiery Crosses in the Roaring Twenties: Activities of the Revised Klan in Alabama, 1915–1930
The 1924 Underwood Campaign in Alabama
Bibb Graves as a Progressive, 1927–1930
Alabama Politics, J. Thomas Heflin, and the Expulsion Movement of 1929
The Great Depression
Spindle, Mine, and Mule: The Poor White Experience in Post–Civil War Alabama
World War II and Beyond
The Old Order Changes: Graves, Sparks, Folsom, and the Gubernatorial Election of 1942
The Senate's Rejection of Aubrey Williams as Rural Electrification Administrator
James E. Folsom's 1946 Campaign
Challenge and Response in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956