There’s a certain breed of Southerner, a stubborn strain, who bite onto their ideas, hopes, and ambitions with the tenacious grip of an impassioned bulldog. Through shifting tides and conflicts, they hold fast to their ideals and gnaw gradually away at the objections of those around them. Take, for example, Zebulon Baird Vance.
Raised in Buncombe County, North Carolina, Vance spent his childhood roaming the wooded hills between Asheville and Weaverville. Born in the middle of a gaggle of eight, Vance still managed to stand out among his siblings; at just twelve, he traveled west to Washington College in Tennessee to pursue a better life and begin his higher education. But his initial foray into his destiny was unfortunately short-lived.
Following his father’s death two years after his departure, Vance trekked back across the mountains and reluctantly settled into his old life. His flame, however, had been lit; his taste of a better life—not just based in education, but in a cultivated community—would drive him for the rest of his days. He immediately began courting Harriette Espy, an aristocratic acquaintance from his time in Tennessee, via letter. His relationship worked as an anchor, a fine string that kept him tied to the world he had inhabited and later came to influence.
Vance knew that the key to improving his position and local standing lay in law, but achieving his degree proved problematic. It was an expensive undertaking. With bold panache that would come to define Vance, he brazenly wrote to the President of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the former governor of the state and fellow native of Buncombe County, asking for a loan from the college in order to attend their law program. His surprising reply: yes. UNC loaned Vance $300 to pursue his degree. And unsurprisingly, Vance performed exceedingly well.
By 1852 Vance was practicing law in Asheville. He displayed a natural tendency for law and leadership, quickly earning him the position of county solicitor (or prosecuting attorney). And in 1858, at twenty-eight years of age and with only six years of professional experience under his belt, Vance was elected to Congress. But again, the winds of change began to blow through Vance’s sails, this time reaching far beyond his family and through the nation.
By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, Vance had already left Asheville for Raleigh, where he was stationed as captain of the Rough & Ready Guards. Unlike many of his heated comrades, Vance had originally opposed the War, or at least questioned the timing, instead positioning himself as a loose unionist. But with the rumblings of aggression and those first fateful shots at Fort Sumter, Vance rushed to the defense of his people, wholly supporting the Confederacy. As was the case with most of his career pursuits, Vance found immediate success as a military man, moving quickly through the ranks to become Colonel of the 26th North Carolina.
Vance was so successful in his military career that he inspired his statesmen to elect him as governor of North Carolina in September of 1862. Vance proved to be an unequivocal ally and benefactor of his people, defending North Carolinians’ rights throughout the course of the War. Whereas President Davis and his Confederate government observed and defended states’ rights (an impetus for the very war itself), Vance supported individual rights and was a staunch proponent of local self-government—a position that often put him at odds with his President and colleagues.
Under Vance’s government, North Carolina remained the only state to uphold the rights of habeas corpus throughout the course of the war, maintaining a fully-functional court system even through the hardest of times. As other states floundered and the Confederate government disintegrated, North Carolina upheld the tenets of a successful law system. But Vance’s devotion to his state reached far beyond the stale formalities of law and reached to the heart of his constituents. When blockade runners passed through North Carolina, for example, Vance refused to allow them passage across the subsequent border before they had offered locals their fair share of the smuggled supplies.
Vance’s genuine allegiance to his people inspired the Confederate nation. He helped boost morale, preserved and redistributed much-needed aid, and helped bring sense to increasingly cruel conscription practices. His unmitigated support of the Southern people earned him the nickname War Governor of the South.
Despite the inevitable loss of the War and the concurrent demise of his government, Vance remained a respected and notable figure in politics—but not without trial. Though he was reelected to his post in 1864, Vance was booted from his position, arrested, and imprisoned in D.C. following the conclusion of the conflict. Vance maintained his innocence of treason, and he was eventually pardoned and sent back to North Carolina.
Though Vance immediately returned to practicing law, he was initially shunned from politics based on technicalities. When he was elected to the US Senate in 1870, he wasn’t allowed to ascend to his political position because of his previous affiliation with the Confederacy. But misty memories of Vance’s governmental strengths during the states’ most trying time continued to inspire the people of North Carolina to elect Vance, regardless of federal opinions. So in 1876, eleven years after the Union government debunked him, Vance was once again sworn in as governor of North Carolina. And only three years later, the people of Carolina once again put his name forth for Senate: the federal government finally accepted Vance as US senator, a position he retained until his death in 1894.
Always a proponent of peoples’ rights, Vance continued to champion neglected causes throughout his career. During his final term as governor he focused on education, striving to bring those resources to the entire state but especially the hidden hollows of Appalachia (a cause perhaps inspired by his own experiences as a boy). And in 1870, Vance began traveling the country and sharing his landmark speech, “The Scattered Nation.” In a time before women could vote and racial and religious prejudice was simply a norm, Vance used his platform to espouse the unheard of: religious tolerance. “The Scattered Nation” projected an American future where all religions were accepted and welcomed in a homogenous nation—ideals that our political icons were wary to support for nearly another century, ideals our country still struggles with today.
“The Scattered Nation” speaks to the soul of Vance himself. From a childhood spent striving for education and betterment, to a youthful career of political advancement, to wartime devotion to his people and their welfare, to his aging adherence to his morals, Vance exhibited a tenacious support of the good, in both himself and his nation.