Zebulon Baird Vance

Macon Weekly Telegraph, Georgia
17 November 1905

"First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg, last at Appomattox" -- such is the proud boast of North Carolina for her grand devoir in the great war of 1861-65. Of her white population, men, women and children, one out of every six was at the front. No state embraced secession with more reluctance, but having engaged in it, no State supported the cause with more heroism or more fortitude, She gave everything but honor to the South, and there reposes in the bosom of Old Virginia as much buried valor and unselfish patriotism from North Carolina as from any other State, North or South.

When the news was flashed over the wires that President Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to coerce sovereign States, Zebulon B. Vance was addressing an immense audience, pleading for the Union and opposing the Confederacy. His hand was raised aloft in appealing gesture when the fatal tidings came, and in relating the incident to a New England audience a quarter of a century later, he continued: "When my hand cam down from that impassioned gesticulation it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a secessionist. I immediately, with altered voice and manner, called upon the assembled multitude to volunteer not fight against, but for, South Carolina. If war must come, I prefer to be with my own people. If we have to shed blood I prefer to shed Northern rather than Southern blood." North Carolina took her favorite son at his word, turned secessionist with him and volunteered for the conflict.

Zebulon Baird Vance was not only North Carolina's favorite son, but her greatest man, and I am not unmindful that Nathaniel Macon, Willie P. Mangum and George E. Badger were also sons of North Carolina. Never was there a man of whom it could with more truth be said that he was sprung from the people. Never was there a simpler character, never one of less guile, never one whose heart was more conspicuous on his sleeve than this mountaineer with the tongue of an orator, the heart of a patriot, the mind of a statesman and the soul of a poet. He enthused the populace from the stump and he instructed grave Senators in the council chamber. His tongue never acquired the art of deception and his hand never felt the contact of a tainted dollar. One might as easily have "plowed up hell with a pine shingle" as to have tempted him with a bribe.

The Vances went from Normandy with the Conqueror and helped to gain the day at Hastings. They were of the equestrian order, and in the English peerage the name is De Vaux, as it was in France. At an early day the family settled in Virginia, and it was from the Old Dominion that came the North Carolina branch. The grandfather of Zebulon B. Vance was a soldier of the Revolution and a captain at King's Mountain. Here is a passage from his will that is perhaps curious literature to those who got their idea of American slavery at the South from Mrs. Stowe's absurd fiction, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In disposing of some old slaves, the will directs: "it is my will and desire that they have full liberty, and I do by these presents give them full liberty to do and live with any of my children where their own children live, not as slaves, but as old acquaintances who labored and spent their strength to raise my said children and their own also. I enjoin it upon my children who may have the children of said black old people not to confine them, but let them go a while to one and while to another, where their children may be; and I enjoin it upon my children to see that the evening of the lives of these black people slide down as comfortably as may be."

The mother of Zebulon B. Vance was Mira Margaret Baird, and it was from her that her son derived his genius. She was the acquaintance and friend of John C. Calhoun and William C. Preston, whom she had frequently entertained at her husband's board. It was from her that Zeb Vance got his fancy and his humor, and from her, too, he got his big heart and his noble nature. The boy acquired a good education and was well grounded in Latin. The Bible was his favorite book and he could repeat whole chapters of it. Perhaps no other public man of our country ever drew so liberally and so constantly from its sacred pages for illustration as he. His lecture, "The Scattered Nation," is a classic, and perhaps as eloquent as a defense of the Jewish race as our language affords. Some of its passages are grand, and the closing paragraph is sublime in its energy and imagery.

When Vance completed his education he studied law and was admitted to the bar. He was a successful practitioner and invincible before a jury. Many was the case he laughed out of court, and it was a compliment a mountaineer paid him: "If that young feller Vance kin only git his case apast the jedge, he is as good a lawyer as any of 'em," meaning if his pleading only withstood the demurrer.

No man ever understood the common people better. No man ever had a profounder sympathy for them. No man ever had a keener perception of the ridiculous, or a profounder conception of the pathetic. he was ever genial and cordial and candid and confiding -- these and a vast fund of common sense, a memory tenacious of the slightiest particular, a sovereign contempt for sham, a sovereign hatred of meanness, an engaging fancy, and a fine command of plain, simple and direct language -- these combined to give him verdicts. He was no great lawyer, like Pinckney, and he was never an authority on a great constitutional question, even when he was a leading senator in Congress; but when it came to convincing a jury upon a question of fact, or persuading an audience on a question of policy, he was unrivaled and invincible.

After serving in the state legislature Vance was chosen a member of Congress in 1838. He was the youngest member of the house and a whig. He and John Sherman and Justin S. Morrill were agreed on economic subjects, though these two found him a formidable adversary a quarter of a century later in the United States senate. Vance was re-elected to Congress and took high rank. He was the special favorite of Tom Corwin, a congenial spirit, who was instrumental in securing his release from prison, where he had been thrown on the order of Edwin M. Stanton without warrant and in defiance of law.

When Lincoln was selected Vance did all in his power to prevent secession. He took the stump on that behalf, and the majority of North Carolina was with him; but the bombardment of Fort Sumter fired the Northern heart, and Lincoln's call for volunteers served to recruit Southern as well as Northern armies. It sent Vance to war as Captain of the 14th North Carolina Regiment. Later he recruited and was appointed Colonel of the 26th North Carolina, and participated in numerous battles at the head of that historic command. When Governor-elect he went into the battle of Malvern Hill over the protests of his comrades, who told him his place was at Raleigh.

As Governor he put in commission in a blockade runner that he purchased on the Clyde. The vessel made numerous successful ventures, bringing in supplies and arms and taking out cotton. It is very likely that the war would have ended a year sooner but for Vance's effort on this behalf. He was Governor when the war came to an end, and it was his proud boast that in North Carolina the writ of habeas corpus was not suspended and the civil remained paramount to military authority. It was true of but one other State, North or South. At least, that is a statement in one of Vance's speeches. Of course, he meant that the habeas corpus, so far as North Carolina was concerned, was not suspended by Confederate or State authority. It was suspended by Federal authority in the closing days of the war.

When Vance got out of prison he returned to North Carolina and began the practice of law. In 1870 he was chosen Senator in Congress, but was denied his seat. Six years later he was elected Governor, after a most exciting contest, defeating Judge Settle. He was re-elected, and probably was Chief Magistrate of the "Old North State" longer than any other individual. To him is attributed the immortal suggestion of the "Governor of North Carolina to the Governor of South Carolina."

He was a man of infinite jest. When a friend remarked to him once that it was strange that he and his brother belonged to different churches he answered: "Yes; but a stranger thing than that is that Bob believes in the doctrine of falling from grace and never falls while I do not believe in the possibility of falling from grace, but am always falling."

Vance entered the United States senate in 1879, simultaneously with Vest of Missouri, and remained a member of that body until his death in 1894. He was a leader of his side from the day he became a member, and men saw in him one of the very great debaters of that body during the fifteen years he was a member of it. He could hit hard and never feared to strike, be the adversary whom he might. Ingalls himself felt his steel and never challenged him more. The Kansas senator had made a speech on the negro question that was a thing of brilliant phrases. In reply Vance said:

"It constitutes the burden of his speech (the negro's wrongs), around which is clustered the brightest display of rhetorical pyrotechnics ever employed to conceal a paucity of ideas by the gorgeousness of phraseology. The rhetorical display across the forensic heavens reminds me forcibly of an atronomer's description of the remarkable tenuity of the tail of a certain comet. He said its length was a hundred million miles as it stretched athwart the skies, that its breadth was 50,000 miles -- and yet the solid matter which it contained could be condensed and transported in a one-horse cart."

But he was not content to employ the weapon of ridicule only. He assailed Ingalls with invective, and one who would read a splendid burst of eloquent indignation should read Vance's speech on the legislative, executive and judicial appropriation bill for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1880. Only a few days ago a mob arose against a dozen or so little negro children in Pittsburg, Pa. Their crime was attendance at school. The mob made them tenants of hospitals instead. How ridiculous is Ingall's magnificent eloquence in behalf of the negro read in light of that Pittsburg outrage the good year of 1903.

Vance was a versatile man -- thinker, orator, poet, scholar, soldier, administrator. The greatest child of his brain was the lecture on "The Scattered Nation." It is a wonderful production, infinitely surpassing Bob Ingersoll's blasphemies. It is the work of a scholar and a thinker, as well as of an orator and a poet. His reading must have been vast and his reflection the profundest to have produced this extraordinary composition. It is history and philosophy, as well as eulogy of the greatest branch of the human family. No man interested in the subject can afford to neglect this lecture, and Vance must ever be an honored name with the chosen people who produced Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David.

Here is an extract. After referring to Macaulay's famous passage concerning the antiquity of the Catholic Church, Vance proceeds:

"The Jewish people, church and institutions, are still left standing, though the stones of the temple remain no longer one upon the other, though its sacrifice fires are forever extinguished, and though the tribes whose glory it was, wander with weary feet throughout the earth. And what is the line of Roman pontiffs compared to that splendid dynasty of the successors of Aaron and Levi? 'The twilight of fable,' in which the line of pontiffs began, was but the noonday brightness of the Jewish priethood. Their institution carries the mind back to the age when the prophet, in rapt mood, stood over Babylon and uttered God's wrath against that grand and wondrous mistress of the Euphratian plain -- when the Memphian chivalry still gave precedence to the chariots and horsemen who each morning poured forth from the brazen gates of the abode of Ammon; when Tyre and Sidon were yet building their palaces by the sea, and Carthage, their greatest daughter, was yet unborn. That dynasty of prophetic priests existed even before Clio's pen had learned to record the deeds of men; and when that splendid entombed civilization once lighted the shores of the Erythraean Sea, the banks of the Euphrates and the plains of Shinay, with a glory inconceivable, of which there is naught now to tell, except the dumb eloquence of ruined temples and buried cities."

Dozens of passages equally eloquent and ornate might be culled from this gem of human thought. Every youth, Jew or Gentle, ought to read and ponder this eloquent lecture. It ought to be recited in every American academy to exercise the thought and stimulate the imagination of every budding genius of our land.

Only a deeply religious mind could have conceived this splendid work, and upon reading it one can but wish that the lines of Vance had been so cast as to make letters his passion. It will not be until a real historian has told the story of the tremendous revolution of 1861 that the figure of Zebulon Baird Vance shall loom up before the public vision in all its Titanic proportions. He was a very great man.

North Carolina's Greatest Man (Tombstone Tuesday)

Southern Graves Blog

Southern Graves Home