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Zebulon Baird Vance, 1830-1894
The Duties of Defeat. An Address Delivered before the Two Literary Societies of the University of North Carolina, June 7th, 1866, by Ex-Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance
Raleigh: William B. Smith & Company, 1866.


According to John G. Barrett's biographical sketch of Zebulon Baird Vance, Vance was born just north of Asheville, North Carolina, in 1830. He first studied law in the Asheville area and then at the University of North Carolina; he was elected solicitor for Buncombe County, North Carolina, shortly after finishing his studies. Vance saw the law as a "preparation for politics, which was his passion" (Barrett). Indeed, he went on to serve in the lower house of the North Carolina legislature and as a U.S. Congressman before the outbreak of the Civil War. He went to war as a Captain and was promoted to Colonel in less than a year. In 1862, Vance accepted the Conservative party nomination for Governor; following his victory, he aggressively supported North Carolina during wartime, a feat that made him a "beloved leader" in the state (Barrett). Following the Confederate surrender, Vance was arrested and sent to Washington, DC, but no reason or charges were provided and he was released after more than a month in prison. He returned to the law in the South and was elected to the U.S. Senate, but he was unable to serve at the time, due to his status as an ex-Confederate. Vance was subsequently elected for a third term as Governor, but he served only two years before again being elected to the U.S. Senate, a position he held until his death in 1894. Vance had four sons by his first wife, Harriette Espy, who died in 1878; he was survived by his second wife, Florence Steele Martin, with whom he had no additional children.

Between his terms as Governor, Vance spoke at the University of North Carolina regarding the role of the Southerner in post-Civil War America. His speech was subsequently published under the title "The Duties of Defeat. An Address Delivered before the Two Literary Societies of the University of North Carolina, June 7th, 1866, by Ex-Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance." Arguing for integrity, truth, and a recognition of all that is good in the South and the North, Vance's passionate and persuasive speech leaves little doubt concerning the reasons for his political success and public likeability.

Vance begins "The Duties of Defeat" by expressing relief that the University, the "chiefest ornament of North Carolina" and his own alma mater, had survived the war and retained much of "her ancient life and energy," if not her "full measure of prosperity" (p. 5). But Vance moves quickly to a sense of purpose, if not urgency, noting that despite the end of the Civil War, "we are not yet at the end of the Revolution as is popularly supposed, but are only, as we trust, at the end of armed violence" (p. 5). The actual Revolution would continue, with the changing balance between the "relative powers and duties of the States and Federal Government," the "almost immediate emancipation of three million five hundred thousand slaves," and "some of the most startling and dangerous questions of the age" (pp. 5, 6). But Vance does not mention these changes with bitterness; instead, he offers his listeners (and readers) a sense of wonder and determination. For now, more than any other time in American history, is a time of real necessity for "the educated young men of our State" (p. 5). The war, like the recently inaugurated railroad, brought forth "change," and that "change . . . not only cometh upon us, but cometh with speed and with power" (p. 6).

Part of that change included dealing with the "complete ruin and impoverishment of the people of the Southern States" (p. 6). Vance notes that "what with the value of our slaves, the injury inflicted upon real property, the destruction of personal, the depreciation or annihilation of all manner of stocks and securities, together with the sums expended in the maintenance of war, make our material losses alone, all told, in the estimation of the most prudent, equal to five thousand million dollars!" (p. 7). But much greater than this loss for Vance is the loss of the "highest and noblest property of a State—her citizens," of whom the South collectively lost "two hundred and fifty thousand" (p. 7). Vance details the many losses, including "homesteads burned to ashes," "fields desolated," "innumerable orphans, widows, and helpless persons, reduced to beggary," the loss of industry and credit, "public charities overthrown," the "educational fund utterly lost," the loss of " all representation in the public councils," the "heart-broken and wretched people of the State," and the "mighty debt" left by the war (p. 8).

Accepting the despair without hatred, however, Vance urges the young scholars to take charge wisely: "Neither spent, nor broken down, by the fierce conflicts and deadly disappointments of the past, your fresh spirits are not only endowed with the vigor necessary to successful action, but they can more easily bend to the Procrustean bed of circumstances, which is spread for the repose of a conquered people,—wherein lies, now, and at all times, the true secret of statesmanship" (p. 10). Claiming "there is nothing which can exceed the recuperative powers of nature when aided by the industry of man," Vance calls forth North Carolina's best to remove "all the bloody footprints of ruthless war" using "the hand of intelligent industry" (p. 10).

This calling to rebuild and thus be reborn is, for Vance, a greater calling than the call to war. For while "it is a noble thing to die for one's country: it is a higher and a nobler thing to live for it" (p. 11). With the fighting over, "the noblest soldier, now, is he that, with axe and plough, pitches his tent against the waste places of his fire-blasted home, and swears that from its ruins there shall arise another like unto it" (p. 11). Indeed, Vance uses the war and industry to emphasize the strength and masculinity of the South. He acknowledges that both sides were "grievously deceived in its estimate of the other," and that the North felt the people of the South were weakened, or "unmanned," by both the climate and the reliance on slavery (p. 12). The length of the war proved both sides faulty in their estimates. Vance urges these young men to "undeceive them" again "by the vigor and energy with which we shall clear away the wreck of our fallen fortunes, adapt ourselves to circumstances under changed institutions and new systems of labor," and rebuild North Carolina (p. 12).

Because the State's education and general welfare funds were depleted, Vance urges these educated men to remember "the sacred duties which will devolve on you as citizens and patriots," including education, care for the orphans of war, and the relief of the destitute (p. 13). He also tells the young men to repay their debt to the Confederate dead by sending as many bodies as possible home to be buried and "perpetuate their memories by tablets of stone" (p. 14). While they cannot erect "monuments of victory" or "triumphal arches," they can "bring their remains home and bury them with decency and in silence" (pp. 14, 15).

Amidst all the suffering and loss, Vance notes that the students will soon "be permitted to take a part in the government of your country" (p. 16). He warns them to learn the lessons of war: "Let it ever be before your eyes, and learn of it, among other wise things, that the yielding to blind passions and personal resentments, when the happiness of thousands is entrusted to your judgment, is a crime for which God will hold you accountable" (p. 16). And while Vance notes that the balance between state and federal governments has drastically shifted beyond what Southerners thought just, "it is our country still, and if it cannot be governed as we wish it, it must yet be governed some other way; and it is still our duty to labor for its prosperity and glory, with ardor and sincerity" (p. 18). Thus, Vance advocates openness in lieu of resentment, for "it is our bounded duty as honest men to give our new formed institutions a full and fair trial—especially the new system of labor—and if they prove better than the old, let us forget our sufferings and be thankful" (p. 18).

Perhaps the biggest piece of guidance Vance gives the potential future leaders of the state, however, is his emphasis on the need for "self-respecting consistency" (p. 19). By this phrase, Vance explains, he does not mean "an unchanging adherence to one opinion or set of opinions" (p. 19). Instead, he states "all public men should propose certain great truths or principles as their objects to be attained—never to be abandoned except upon the clearest convictions of their falsity" (p. 19). This adherence, claims Vance, is "not only the best policy for the truth's sake, but [also] to inspire confidence" (p. 20). Consistency involves readily admitting one's errors, as "a blunder, honestly confessed, is already half atoned," but "persisted in willfully, it perpetuates ruin and becomes a crime" (p. 20). Similarly, a politician who "cannot forgive as he is forgiven, is both a bad statesman and a bad man" (p. 20). Ultimately, "faith, honestly kept, even in the worst of causes, can never fail to inspire respect in the breast of a generous foe, which not even the bitterness of a civil war can destroy" (p. 20).

Vance, while concerned about the South's absence from "current political events," combined with the "taunts, the gibes, the sneers and the vulgar triumphs of ignoble spirits" from some northerners, notes that they were nonetheless "to be expected" (p. 20). But, he argues, "their brief day will soon pass" as "it is not in the nature of man always to hate; and the reign of the bad passions is short-lived" (p. 20). Once the communities are brought back into "common associations," "good will" will follow, for "as the passions cool, reason must return, and with reason comes justice, whose inseparable companion is fraternity" (pp. 20, 21).

Vance warns that despite humankind's propensity for a return to balance, the South could prevent the desired outcome if it practices "uncalled for self-abasement" (p. 22). To do so would inspire only "contempt and suspicion" (p. 23). "Surely," Vance states, "the fact of our submission can be sufficiently complete and sincere, without making the manner thereof such as to forfeit the respect of either ourselves or our late foes" (p. 23).

In closing, Vance urges the University to "open again its gates and send forth to the work of the regeneration of their country as many high-souled and generous, brave and enthusiastic youths, as rushed through its portals to untimely graves during the years of our tribulation," for among these students may appear "walking with and comforting our mourning people, One, whose form is like unto that of the Son of God!" (p. 25). Despite the losses of the Civil War and the turmoil that followed, Vance remains optimistic for the future, seeking a Southern Messiah to lead reunification and, more importantly, the re-establishment of Southern confidence.

Works Consulted: Barrett, John G., "Zebulon Baird Vance, 13 May 1830-14 Apr. 1894," Documenting the American South, From the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Ed. William S. Powell.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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