BY MILTON READY
The recently completed repairs to the Vance Monument in the heart of downtown Asheville appear to have restored ol’ Zeb’s aging obelisk but not his reputation. The whole project has sparked a re-examination of Vance’s history, which encapsulates Asheville’s and much of North Carolina’s. Who was Zebulon Vance, exactly, and why would he deserve such an impressive memorial in Pack Square?
Gordon McKinney, Vance’s biographer, surprisingly turned into a hedging postmodernist, painting his subject as a slave owner and white supremacist who benefited from both. Dwight Mullen, a political science professor at UNC Asheville, has rightly questioned whether Vance was a “good” slave owner (as if that category ever existed), suggesting that the monument should simply be allowed to fall down as a powerful statement against racism. Fellow UNCA professor Darin Waters, meanwhile, says Vance was “complex,” a governor who “made hard choices for [North Carolina’s] residents,” such as using convict labor (both black and white) to bring railroads into Western North Carolina after 1876. Monuments can be repaired, but it’s harder to restore a person’s dented reputation.
Yet if you really want to know about Vance, the base of the monument contains some clues. There you’ll find a small bronze parade of pigs and turkeys with footprints in between, representing the Buncombe Turnpike, Western North Carolina’s major antebellum “freeway.” Vance grew up on the turnpike at his father’s stock stand on the French Broad River in Lapland (now Marshall), and yes, the family owned slaves, which the turnpike brought into Western North Carolina in ever-increasing numbers before the Civil War.
Census data from the period reveals slaves, often disguised as “servants” or “laborers,” in every North Carolina county. Indeed, many of the bronze footprints sandwiched in between the pigs and turkeys around Vance’s monument would belong to slaves and to children like Vance, who “cribbed” and herded the millions of animals that came down the pike each year. And women? They likely labored more and longer than anyone else on the turnpike.
In between the Vance Monument and the bronze pigs stands a smaller, tombstonelike memorial to Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. Despite the myth of “Unionism” and its generally misunderstood meaning, mountaineers like those of Vance’s 26th North Carolina Regiment bled to death for the Confederacy even as Vance battled President Jefferson Davis and his “tyranny.” Vance’s intransigence toward the Confederacy and his support of North Carolina’s ordinary soldiers never wavered, nor did his loyalty to an older constitutional union set up by slave owners like Jefferson, Washington and Madison. Vance also disliked Lincoln and the “black Republicans” who wanted slavery abolished. Indeed, Vance, like most North Carolinians then and now, just plain hated authority and central government of any kind.
He was one of the most prolific writers and orators of his day, and Vance’s letters, speeches and pamphlets tell you more about him than any current judgments concerning the times in which he lived. His courtship letters to his first wife, Harriett Newell Espy of Morganton, published in Elizabeth Roberts Cannon’s My Beloved Zebulon, reveal a charm and tenderness resident in a rustic but ambitious mountaineer. Vance’s stirring pamphlet The Scattered Nation stands as a monument to tolerance at a time when a wave of anti-Semitism swept the South and nation. It’s not surprising that Jewish organizations have helped get the old mountaineer’s monument repaired: They also helped put it up in 1897. A principled and high-minded man, Vance nonetheless embraced the racial stereotypes of the time that deemed newly freed blacks inferior. Yet he loathed the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, condemning its members as cowards and “ruffians,” its intimidating methods as unlawful.
Like Andrew Jackson, Zeb Vance believed in the common man, disliked elites, wanted the railroad extended to Western North Carolina because it benefited everyone, fought not for the Confederacy but for North Carolina and its flawed principles, was surprisingly elected governor from the mountains at an early age and, overall, was probably the most popular mountaineer in the state’s history. Our facile judgments of Vance derive from a hypocrisy that’s every bit as shallow as our own historical self-importance. As moderns, we embrace the conceit that we’re more tolerant, less nativist, less misogynistic, more moral, less anti-Semitic, less racist and more progressive than older conservatives like Vance. In reality, we may be worse.
Almost all monuments stand as tributes to politicians and wars, and, from that, our founders wanted none of them. They smacked of tyranny and empire, antithetical to democracy, yet our nation’s capital has since become overrun with them.
Asheville should not follow suit. Yes, we could erect memorials to Isaac Dickson, the father of black Asheville; to civil rights leader Floyd McKissick; to Lillian Exum Clement, the first woman in the South to be elected to a state legislature; or to Helen Morris Lewis, an early leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the South. But as Washington, D.C., has shown, there would be no end to candidates for additional monuments. Oh, yes: Vance has a statue in Washington as well.
Asheville, however, has found other ways to honor such notables as author Thomas Wolfe, philanthropist George Willis Pack and Jeter Pritchard, one of the few U.S. senators from the mountains. Wouldn’t it be nice have a few more parks, squares, green spaces, libraries and Urban Trail stops named after other important figures in Asheville’s and Western North Carolina’s history? You might be surprised by how many are not white males.
Milton Ready is a retired UNCA history professor and Mars Hill resident.