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William Lowndes Yancey and the Southern Honor Code

William Lowndes Yancey and the Southern Honor Code
AI visualization of William Lowndes Yancey's deadly scuffle with Dr. Robinson Earle in 1838.

This week's video kicks off a series on the life of William Lowndes Yancey, the Alabama fire-eater best known for leading the walkout at the 1860 Democratic national convention that split the party and assured Abraham Lincoln's election. The first episode focuses on Yancey's violent upbringing and youth, also taking note of his early Unionism and opposition to John C. Calhoun's doctrine of nullification.

Yancey's biographer Eric H. Walther notes Yancey's commitment to Southern notions of honor and self-defense:

To Yancey, as to so many southerners, it was as important to defend oneself and one's family as it was to protect one's honor. The violence of the southwestern frontier magnified this general southern ethos. Many considered it prudent, if not necessary, to carry a gun. Indian removal by state and federal authorities was never complete, and fears of Indian attacks persisted for some time. In fact, Ben Yancey [William's younger brother] served as first lieutenant of the Wetumpka Borderers in Coosa County as late as 1839. Intraracial violence surpassed any Indian threat. A visitor to Phenix City in the 1830s reported, “Scarcely a day passes without some human blood being shed.” Fights, duels, and pirating were almost daily rituals in Mobile. In 1825, Huntsville, with only two thousand residents, endured five murders. And yet, juries— if any of these incidents reached a courtroom—tended to favor defendants almost any time they argued that their honor was involved. Although Alabama, like most southern states, had outlawed dueling (in 1819), white society never viewed affairs of honor the same as outright murder.
Yancey maintained a dogged, even extreme adherence to the code of honor. Southern honor largely defined the conduct of men as adults, as fathers, and as sons, as demonstrated by the Yancey boys’ defense of their mother and her honor. Codes of honor, written and unwritten, also shaped behavioral norms for women. Defense of one's honor pervaded virtually every level of southern society, regardless of class. The exaggerated manner in which Yancey shed the values of his New England upbringing and embraced these southern ideals arose from his determination to defend the good name of his father and his desperation to achieve social acceptance. The latter desire in turn grew out of his inability to receive the unconditional love and acceptance that every child seeks from their parents. When one student of Yancey's youth blithely commented, “In his eagerness to be southern Yancey decidedly overdid it,” he came close to revealing the key to Yancey's personal, social, and political behavior. Yancey did overdo things. In his zeal to attain the esteem of others, he embraced in the extreme the most valued characteristics of his adopted frontier society: slaveholding, oratory, public affairs, and manly, honorable conduct.
His commitment to honor, combined with personal misfortunes in 1838, led to the first of many notorious acts of violence perpetrated by the young Yancey [the incident discussed in the above video]. Like most Americans of his day, Yancey blamed himself for the financial woes of his family. Debts certainly did nothing to lift Yancey's esteem in his community, but honorable efforts to persevere, and the company of thousands of others who shared his fate, helped mitigate that problem. After all, a lot of people were going broke.
A personal tragedy exacerbated his distress: on August 23, 1838, his six-month-old son George died. A brief death notice did not reveal the cause, but high infant mortality still plagued American families at this time. Among whites, about one in seven children died before their first birthday; one in five ‘would not live to age twenty-one. However common the occurrence and whatever the cause of George's death, Sarah and William suffered a tremendous emotional blow. They were loving parents and Yancey, as father and head of the household, was responsible for the health and welfare of his family, especially its weakest members. An infant's death would be a blow to any head of a household, virtually anywhere, at any time. Yancey surely felt that he had failed, regardless of whether or not he could have prevented his son's death. This misfortune, combined with his financial embarrassments, resulted in Yancey clinging ever more tenaciously to the defense of his good name and that of his family. At least in that he could exert some power over his life and strive for public approval.

Fast-forward to Yancey's trial after slaying Dr. Robinson Earle (as described in the video):

Thomas Gantt, Yancey's old friend and one-time adversary from Ben Perry's law office, paid bail to get Yancey out of jail. Yancey returned to the safety of Rosemont, the Cunningham's home in Greenville, ‘where he awaited trial. The state charged him with felony murder, not criminal manslaughter, and set the trial in Greenville for October 24. His cousin Jesse Beene, in Augusta, Georgia, at the time, warned Yancey's brother that many friends of the Earles wished to take matters into their own hands before the trial, but expressed confidence both in his safety at Rosemont and in the defense case underway by Yancey's lawyers. Perhaps recalling Ben's own hot temper and acute sense of honor, Beene asked Yancey's brother to stay away until the trial so as not to further antagonize the Earle clan.
The trial began on October 24, 1838, and lasted a grueling seventeen hours. Yancey pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder. The state's two attorneys brought four witnesses, including the young Elias Earle, who all testified that Yancey shot Dr. Earle. Yancey's lawyers, David Wardlaw, Benjamin Perry, and future secessionist congressman Armistead Burt, moved for acquittal, claiming that Yancey fired his gun accidentally while defending himself from Earle's assault. Their nine witnesses, including Thomas Gantt, all stressed the menacing attitude and size of Earle and the offensive nature of his remarks. One defense witness verified Yancey's story that Mrs. Earle publicly chastised her husband for his initial failure to strike Yancey, and the doctor's response that it was not too late, implying of course that Earle intended to harm Yancey and that self-defense was in order.
The jury took only a few moments to reach a verdict. They found Yancey guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and sentenced him to a year in jail and a fine of $1,500. Throughout the trial, a Greenville reporter for Yancey's old paper, the Mountaineer, noted that Yancey sat “serene and gentlemanly.” But now he rose, wishing to make some remarks on his own behalf. The judge either did not notice, or, more likely, decided that two o'clock in the morning was no time for an oration. Instead, the judge himself briefly expressed his sympathy for Yancey and agreed that the killing was accidental. He also scolded Yancey, saying that his habit of carrying weapons was “reprehensible” and that while it might have been the habit in the wild west of Alabama, it most certainly was not all right in more civilized South Carolina. Yancey's jail term started two days later, on October 26.
Deprived of a courtroom venue, Yancey turned to the columns of his own newspaper for vindication. He had left the Southern Democrat under the care of Ben back in June when he had anticipated only a two-month absence. In November, from his jail cell, Yancey addressed the readers of Cahaba. “Reared with the spirit of a man in my bosom—and taught to preserve inviolate my honor—my character, and my person, I have acted as such a spirit dictated,” he began. Yancey acknowledged that his actions violated the law, so the honor-bound young man pronounced that “it is now equally my duty to submit, with calmness, to the consequences, as it was an imperious duty to act as I did.” Yancey declared that spending a year in jail was infinitely better than having others consider him a “despised, an abject and a cowardly being.” Most of Yancey's readers and friends agreed. One wrote to Ben, “I am now doubly proud of [our friendship], & when we meet again I shall press his hand with warmer admiration & redoubled cordiality.”

One can only speculate how differently history might have turned out had the jury found Yancey guilty of murder rather than manslaughter (which is not to say the jury was wrong; there does seem to have been an element of self-defense in the bloody incident). There were of course other fire-eaters, but Yancey was one of the most eloquent and effectual in 1860. Next week's video will cover Yancey's evolution into a full-blown secessionist and his role in splitting the Democratic party.

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