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Confederate Senator Yancey Juggles State Sovereignty with Military Necessity

Confederate Senator Yancey Juggles State Sovereignty with Military Necessity
AI visualization of Confederate soldiers in 1862. Despite his staunch state-rights views, Senator William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama joined his colleages in the Confederate Congress in supporting the first military draft on the North American continent.

This week's video wraps up my four-part series on the life of Alabama fire-eater William Lowndes Yancey. As in last week's episode, we find him grappling with the realities of helping to govern the new country he helped bring into being, this time as a member of the Confederate Senate.

As discussed in the video, Yancey joined his colleagues in both chambers of the Confederate Congress in supporting Jefferson Davis's request for a military draft – the first in the North American continent – which was quite a concession for as staunch a champion of states rights as Yancey was (and for that matter, as Davis had been as a U.S. senator). The first conscription act applied to able-bodied men aged 18 to 35, but by the fall of 1862 it was time to go back to the well, Yancey biographer Eric H. Walther writes:

Many southerners had exploited the exemptions in the first bill to avoid military service, or decided to hire substitutes to fight for them. Some manipulated that provision as well, selling themselves as substitutes, deserting, then selling their services again. The law exempted one white man for every twenty slaves on plantations to assure control of the slave population behind the battle lines. But that provision, combined with the ability of those with money enough to hire substitutes, caused many soldiers and political leaders to complain that the war placed too much of a burden on those with the fewest resources. Overriding all these concerns for the Davis administration, though, was the chronic need for more troops.
A new conscription bill reached the floor of the Senate, calling for the additional enlistment of able-bodied men from thirty-five to forty-five years old to fill depleted companies, battalions, and regiments before any spare men would form new units. On September 3, Yancey offered an amendment to the bill, one that gained the support of others who grew more concerned about the balance between states’ rights and growing centralized power. Yancey's amendment called for the organization of additional troops under state auspices for a three-year enlistment, but once received from the governors of each state these soldiers would serve as the president directed, as part of the Confederate army. If state governors failed to raise enough men within thirty days, the bill returned conscription authority to the president.
The fine distinction between the original bill and Yancey's amendment centered on the essence of the Confederate experiment. He explained that when he voted for the bill of April 16, a “controlling necessity” dictated his actions: Richmond faced grave peril from an overpowering enemy. Since that crisis had passed, Congress had time to consider the larger principles connected to the mechanism of the conscription bills. Yancey alluded to the protests of Georgia governor Joseph Brown and of Zebulon Vance, governor of North Carolina, who claimed that conscription violated the Confederate Constitution by vesting Congress with sovereign powers, instead of the various states. Yancey announced unequivocally that he did not see any constitutional violation, nor any damage to state sovereignty. Demonstrating a new sophistication, Yancey cautioned “that State sovereignty, which in some respects is the strongest, may yet become the weakest point in our organic system.” Yancey recognized the right of each state to judge for itself “a question of the invasion of their rights by this government,” and to do so simply “from their own stand-point, and in favor of their own interests.” It was the task of a statesman, however, not to force such an issue on the states “without the sternest necessity.” That necessity, Yancey repeated, absolutely existed back in April. Nevertheless, he knew that disagreements over issues like this often left lasting resentment and resurfaced once war ended and a common struggle no longer bound people together. Hoping to lay a solid foundation for a postwar Confederate nation, Yancey offered an amendment, “a peace offering.”
A “peace offering” by Yancey did not, however, signal that he had completely changed his stripes. An old Whig adversary from Georgia, Benjamin H. Hill, now sat with Yancey in the Confederate Senate and rankled the Alabamian as never before. As Yancey continued his elaboration on the distinctions between state and Confederate powers, he referred to Hill's proposal that under its warmaking powers the Congress could lawfully conscript “every judicial officer of a state, from Justice of the Peace to the Chief Justice upon the supreme bench—can enroll every member of Congress.” Yancey insisted that such sweeping national power resembled that of the despised Abraham Lincoln. Hill denied ever justifying Lincoln's actions, but Yancey fired back that Hill shared the philosophy of Lincoln by asserting that a threat to “ ‘National Life’ “justified unlimited war powers. That phrase, Yancey said, was simply another term for national sovereignty. “We have no national life,” Yancey explained. “A nation is a Sovereign State; the Confederacy is not a Sovereign State.” The Confederacy, he explained, only represented common interests of states to foreign governments. “As between itself and its creators, the States, it is but an agent and in no sense national.”
After a few days of debate the Senate soundly defeated Yancey's amendment. The original measure, although changed by minor amendments, passed 20-2. After that setback, Yancey's colleagues in the House briefly lifted his spirits by passing a conscription bill more in line with his proposal. A conference committee, however, agreed upon the Senate version, which finally became law on September 27.
With a conscription bill well on its way to passage, Yancey and Congress turned their attention to the related question of exemptions. Considering how those provisions and practices had been abused already, as well as how much more sweeping the second conscription bill had shaped up to be, debate again centered on the essential philosophical struggle of the Confederate republic: how to balance state sovereignty with centralized government. Yancey grew especially concerned when three colleagues, Benjamin Hill of Georgia, James Phelan of Mississippi, and William E. Simms of Kentucky, argued against virtually all exemptions, even those of officeholders and judges. If this reasoning prevailed, Yancey warned, the Confederate Congress itself would undermine the limited Constitutional Government that southerners had worked so diligently to establish and had defended so valiantly. Having labored and sacrificed so long for this end, Yancey could not sit idly now.
Yancey began a protracted resistance to Simms, Hill, and Phelan on September 10. Yancey cast himself in the role of “watchman” as he reminded his colleagues that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Already, he argued, signs existed to show that “a change from a civil government, with constitutional checks and balances, to a military absolutism, is in progress.” For example, the Confederate military commander at Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, under orders from President Davis, had declared martial law, with authority derived from Congress.26 Now, if Congress could coerce into military service every officer except the president, it could “suspend and supersede all civil government.” On top of that were reports that General Braxton Bragg had summarily executed a civilian without resorting to either civil or martial law, heightening threats to wartime civil liberties.”
Struggling to control his emotions and inclination to bitterly attack his opponents, Yancey could not help but accuse Simms, Phelan, and Hill of unwittingly following in the footsteps of “Lincoln despotism.” Yancey considered it ironic that any Confederate would favor an expansion of government powers that matched those undertaken by Lincoln. He asked these three senators if they truly wished President Davis to acquire these same powers: suspension of habeas corpus, imprisoning disloyal elected officials, and shutting down opposition newspapers.
Simms interrupted to defend his position, and in the process addressed a recurring dilemma for free societies at war. If the Confederacy required all possible military powers to protect itself from invasion, then Congress not only had the power but also the duty to do so. Self-preservation, not a desire to destroy civil government, motivated him and his supporters to prevent “enslavement and overthrow by a foreign invader.”
Yancey interpreted Simms's reply as an affirmation that, under certain circumstances, he would use Lincoln's rationale that under the banner of preserving a way of life, Simms would forfeit the rights and sovereignty of their citizens. Yancey believed “it is far better for a free people to be vanquished in open combat with the invader than voluntarily yield their liberties and constitutional safeguards to the stealthy progress of legislative and executive usurpations.”
Having clearly established the danger of executive dictatorship, Yancey quickly separated his fears from any insinuation that Jefferson Davis wished to become a dictator. As Yancey continued his efforts to stand upon principle without disrupting the harmony required to prosecute the war effort, he now lauded the president. Although acknowledging occasional differences of opinion, Yancey announced firmly, “I have no fears of his assuming unconstitutional power... . No more determined opponent of usurpation will be found in the Confederacy.” Yet he also cautioned that congressional leaders might unwittingly begin a descent into dictatorship by citing necessity, “blood-covered, liberty-despoiling, m ‘necessity No matter how menacing the Yankee onslaught, Yancey concluded, “I do not believe we are weakened for war by too much constitutional liberty.”
Over the next several days Yancey softened the tone of his remarks toward Hill, Simms, and Phelan, even as he continued to fight for a reasonably generous list of exemptions. He tried to mollify these senators by conceding that he knew they had no intention to overthrow civil government. When Simms repeated his insistence that every available man ought to be put into military service, Yancey responded with a different tack. He reminded Simms of the “eight-tenths of our population” who depended upon local government, the women, the aged, and the children, who would be left without civil administration if all others grabbed guns and left home to fight. Yancey argued logically that at least a skeletal force had to remain at home to support noncombatants as well as to supply troops in the field.
Debate over exemptions dragged on, and over time emotions cooled. Some moved to exempt justices of the peace; others, including Yancey, drew distinctions between militia duty and conscripted service. He hoped to exempt all college students, likely with his own sons in mind. Others proposed amendments to amendments to exempt mail carriers and ferryboat operators. After a series of votes beginning on September 16, an exemptions bill passed Congress on September 27. At almost every vote before final passage, Hill and Phelan (Simms was absent) voted against Yancey, adding to his festering anger toward the two. But the final bill reflected Yancey's determination to protect normal civilian life as much as possible. The bill exempted virtually all officeholders and clerks at every level of government, as well as personnel who operated railroads and piloted boats, one overseer for every twenty slaves, and a huge list of professionals who could prove in writing that they had labored at their vocation for at least five years. The Richmond Whig and the Examiner lauded Yancey's vigilant stand against “reckless legislation” that could have hurried the government toward military despotism, and the Montgomery Advertiser echoed those endorsements, which Yancey proudly clipped and saved for his scrapbook.

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