Governor Zeb Vance

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Governor Zeb Vance

Zeb Vance
North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader
by Gordon B. McKinney
Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


When I first started working on Zeb Vance as a research topic, I had an opportunity to share some of my ideas with a group of senior citizens at a meeting in Black Mountain, North Carolina. During the discussion period that followed my presentation, one woman made several very insightful comments. After the end of the formal program, she came forward and introduced herself as Mrs. Glenn Tucker, the wife of the best scholarly biographer of Vance. She shared with me some of the challenges that she and her husband had faced in working on Zeb Vance: Champion of Personal Freedom, a work that has stood as the finest study of Vance's life for nearly four decades.[1]

Unfortunately, the challenges that the Tuckers faced forced them to neglect the period after the Civil War. Since the publication of Zeb Vance, the amount of scholarship on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age has expanded enormously. Making use of new analytical approaches and ideas, including gender analysis and modernization theory, scholars have developed much different perceptions of topics such as the role that race played in shaping the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The result is the need for a new biography of Zebulon Vance that places him in the context of historians' rapidly changing perceptions of the American South. Many of the interpretations in this study that differ from those offered by the Tuckers were first presented by other scholars in articles and monographs. I have sought to convey the breadth and depth of this exciting new work as accurately as possible. Where I disagree with some scholars on a point, I have tried to explain why in some detail, using primary sources to support my assertions.

The Tucker biography was not the first scholarly attempt to understand Vance's historical reputation. As early as 1914, J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton discussed important parts of Vance's career in his highly partisan Reconstruction in North Carolina. In this detailed account of events between 1861 and 1876, Hamilton wrote approvingly of virtually everything that Vance did during the period, and he used quotations from Vance letters to support his analysis. Unfortunately, Hamilton's determination to attack African Americans and Republicans—especially William Woods Holden—at every point limited the value of his study. In 1925, Frank Owsley took the opposite stand on the value of Vance's contribution during the Civil War. In his monograph, State Rights in the Confederacy, Owsley accused Vance and Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown of undermining the Confederate war effort. Owsley was particularly critical of Vance's unwillingness to share state resources with the Southern government.[2]

The Civil War centennial in the 1960s encouraged many writers and publishers to produce studies of topics that had been neglected for decades. Like many other works from this period, John G. Barrett's The Civil War in North Carolina, published in 1963, concentrated on battles and the movements of armies. Barrett's book, however, was the first of these centennial monographs to also examine the contributions that Vance made during the war. The picture of Vance that emerges from his study is one of a skilled administrator who kept North Carolina's troops well supplied.[3]

Starting in the 1970s, however, scholars began to examine Vance's career in a much more detailed manner. The result of their investigations was a considerably more nuanced depiction of his life. For example, William T. Auman challenged the picture of Vance as a champion of constitutional rights. In several studies, Auman argued that Vance sanctioned harsh tactics, including torture, against opponents of the Confederate war effort. Paul D. Escott confirmed Auman's assertions and went on to point out that Vance employed a subtle strategy of alternating leniency and firmness toward peace advocates. Escott also analyzed the controversies between Vance and Jefferson Davis that had prompted Owsley to claim that Vance undercut the Confederacy. Escott recognized that Vance was actually attempting to ensure that North Carolina's fragile Confederate nationalism was nurtured and sustained. Finally, analyzing the opposition to Vance by Republicans in western North Carolina, I demonstrated that Vance's postwar career was as full of controversy and partisan competition as was the case during the war.[4]

In the last thirty years, a great many new studies have been published that provide fuller information about several of the men with whom Vance interacted. Max Williams continued the massive task of publishing the manuscripts of William A. Graham, one of Vance's mentors during the war. In a biography of Henry K. Burgwyn Jr., Archie K. Davis gave a much needed corrective to our understanding of Vance as a soldier. William C. Harris provided a definitive biography of Vance's political nemesis William Woods Holden, and Horace Raper and Thornton Mitchell published the surviving Holden manuscripts through 1868. E. Stanly Godbold and Mattie U. Russell wrote a valuable biography of William Holland Thomas, a persistent Vance opponent in western North Carolina. Jeff Crow composed a sympathetic sketch of Vance's 1876 gubernatorial opponent Thomas Settle Jr. that uncovered some previously unrecognized features of that contest. Finally, Thomas E. Jeffrey produced an outstanding study of Thomas Lanier Clingman, the major roadblock to Vance's political advancement as a young man.[5] All of these works taken together made it obvious that Vance was not a lone actor at any time in his career, and that any Vance biographer needed to be aware of the actions of many other historical figures.

Other scholars sought to place Vance in the context of his native mountain region in western North Carolina. Phillip S. Paludan described Vance's angry attempt to gain a measure of justice for the victims of an atrocity in Madison County. John C. Inscoe provided the first convincing description of the mountain slaveowning class; Vance was a self-conscious member of this group. John and I chronicled Vance's efforts as governor to relieve the suffering of the civilian population in the Appalachian counties. We also related how Vance tried, with far less success, to counter the growing war-weariness in the region. Kenneth W. Noe and Shannon H. Wilson edited a series of essays that explored the impact of the entire war on the mountain South; these essays helped to place Vance's efforts in a broader perspective. Martin Crawford, in his study of Ashe County, allowed scholars to consider the impact of the war on small mountain communities.[6]

Another group of historians evaluated Vance through the lens of their more complex understanding of the Confederate experience. Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William Still Jr. tried to explain why the Confederacy failed. In the process, they absolved Vance of any blame for the result and cited his imaginative supply policies as an example of his positive contributions. George C. Rable examined the revolt against partisan politics within the Confederacy and cited Vance as the prime example of a successful state leader. Rable's portrait of Vance as a master political craftsman who sought to aid the Confederacy by maintaining a tenuous political truce in North Carolina is especially convincing. My own interpretation of Vance's war governorship closely follows Rable's.[7]

Other scholars investigated the roles played by larger forces in creating the world in which Vance lived. Paul D. Escott drew a very convincing picture of the North Carolina political and economic elite during the last half of the nineteenth century. Escott featured Vance as one of the leaders of this group and showed how the war governor became a major architect of the postwar political system that limited the underclass's access to power. On a broader scale, Laurence Shore described the ideological consistency of Southern capitalists. His study also placed Vance within a much broader perspective than had previous studies. Anne C. Rose made a similar point when she used Vance as an example of elite adjustment to Victorian America. In her insightful study, Rose examined Vance's domestic and public life in relation the lives of middle-class men and women throughout the nation.[8]

This study is, then, an attempt to evaluate the life of Zebulon Vance within the context of our best understanding of the times in which he lived. They were turbulent times. Debates about slavery, the Civil War, the modernization of Appalachia, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age politics still provoke controversy in and outside of the academic world. Zeb was a public figure for virtually his entire life, and he took very definite stands on the major issues of his time. Most of the time, there was little ambiguity in his statements; it is clear that he said and wrote what he meant. In many cases, his contemporaries disagreed with him and argued back with considerable vigor. Thus, many of the current controversies about Zeb's legacy first arose while he was still alive and capable of replying. Since Zeb had a well-developed historical perspective, he offered rebuttals to many of the arguments that are made about him today. This makes the role of Zeb's biographer a most interesting one, as his perspective must be regularly addressed in the text.

Another important consideration that every biographer must address is the personality and individuality of the subject. In Zeb's case, it is clear that virtually from childhood he was recognized as a unique character. First, he was physically arresting. He was always large; he appears to have been big-boned. He stood an inch below six feet tall and weighed nearly 200 pounds as a young man; as he matured he reached an approximate weight of 230 pounds. Everyone also noticed Zeb's abundant hair. It was dark black and very unruly when he was young, but in his thirties it turned to gray, and it looked increasingly distinguished as he attained middle age. Many observers were struck by Vance's eyes, as well. Apparently they twinkled with goodwill, with a touch of mischievousness always present. Zeb radiated wit and humor. He was a masterful storyteller who was also very adept at the quick quip. All indications are that he never met a stranger, and that he was able to converse on a seemingly equal basis with all classes, sexes, and races. He also struck most of his contemporaries as intellectually acute—if not too deep. As a result of all these pleasing attributes, Zeb was a widely admired public figure.

After considerable study, I have concluded that any understanding of Zebulon Vance must begin and end with the recognition that he was first and foremost a politician. Even in the midst of the Civil War, many of his actions were based on political considerations. Zeb read the public mind very accurately on many occasions and often pursued policies that reflected his understanding of the public's needs. This ability made him an extremely effective governor of North Carolina during the Civil War and led him to champion the small farmers during the Gilded Age. But Zeb never lost sight of his own political needs. He sought election to public office for four decades with an almost frantic energy, and he was very unhappy when he was a private citizen. Other aspects of Zeb's life—especially his family—were important to him, but he neglected them if they came into conflict with his political ambitions.

The compulsion to pursue political power is part of the core of many successful public figures. When it is harnessed to a good cause, and the person is placed in the right place at the right time, astonishing accomplishments can be the result. Unfortunately, this same drive continues to work when the individual is in a position to cause harm. This was true for Zeb. On a number of occasions, he pursued policies or espoused positions that severely damaged the lives of other people. Generally, he did not recognize that what he was doing was undesirable, and he rarely expressed regret about the actions that he had taken.

One of the areas in which Zeb did the most damage was race relations. William Cooper, in his biography of Jefferson Davis, noted that although Davis was a consistent racist, his biography would not take special note of that fact.[9] Cooper's decision was a valid one, because Davis lived most of his life in a society in which race relations were rigidly bound by law and custom. In that sense, Davis had few options, and his opinions were not a matter open to discussion or dispute. Zeb Vance lived in a very different world, however. Throughout his public life, race relations were an important part of the public discourse. Between 1862 and 1894, government policies evolved rapidly, and law and custom were in a state of flux. In the midst of these momentous changes, Zeb refused to modify his positions in any meaningful way. He firmly believed in the mental inferiority of African Americans and never deviated from that belief. As the people of the United States tried to adjust to emancipation and black citizenship, Zeb sought to limit African American access to political power. He used negative stereotypes of African Americans in political campaigns, in congressional speeches, and in his public and private writings. All of this material helped to shape the public dialogue about race relations in North Carolina to the detriment of the new black citizens. Unlike Jefferson Davis, Zeb lived at a time when he had the option to adopt different attitudes and change his public stands. He chose not to do so.

One of the reasons that Zeb's position on any issue was important is that he was one of the great public speakers of his day. At a time when public speaking was both a form of communication and a form of entertainment, Zeb was a master of both elements. He had a commanding voice that could reach large crowds in the days before mechanical amplification. In addition, Zeb was capable of speaking for as long as three hours at a time. Although he often did not prepare formal addresses, his surviving speeches indicate that he followed a rough outline that led to obvious conclusions. He made many of his most telling points through the use of short and humorous stories that listeners recalled long after they forgot the main subject of the speech. Because this talent was relatively rare among speakers of the period, Zeb was justifiably celebrated as an outstanding humorist and public speaker. It is difficult to recapture all of the magic of Zeb's public addresses today, but they are covered in some detail in the text that follows.

Finally, Zeb participated in a highly competitive political system that contained many men who were as ambitious as he was. In order to demonstrate the challenges and constraints that Zeb faced, this study provides a great deal of information about his allies, his opponents, and the political milieu in which they operated. The enduring image of Zeb is that of a massively popular figure who won elections to public office with ease. That was usually not the case. Zeb was challenged by people within his own party as well as those in opposition parties on a consistent basis. On a number of occasions, Zeb was defeated or won very narrow victories. Thus, to properly understand his life, it is essential to understand how the world of politics and politicians operated throughout his lifetime. Politics was the world in which he thrived and prospered, and in it he expressed the essence of his being.

Recommended Reading: Zeb Vance: North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader (Hardcover) (528 pages) (The University of North Carolina Press). Description: In this comprehensive biography of the man who led North Carolina through the Civil War and, as a U.S. senator from 1878 to 1894, served as the state's leading spokesman, Gordon McKinney presents Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-94) as a far more complex figure than has been previously recognized. Vance campaigned to keep North Carolina in the Union, but after Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter, he joined the army and rose to the rank of colonel. Continued below.

He was viewed as a champion of individual rights and enjoyed great popularity among voters. But McKinney demonstrates that Vance was not as progressive as earlier biographers suggest. Vance was a tireless advocate for white North Carolinians in the Reconstruction Period, and his policies and positions often favored the rich and powerful. McKinney provides significant new information about Vance's third governorship, his senatorial career, and his role in the origins of the modern Democratic Party in North Carolina. This new biography offers the fullest, most complete understanding yet of a legendary North Carolina leader. "From soldier to politician, this is a fascinating read regarding one of America's prominent citizens..."

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