Born in the Reems Creek area of Buncombe County on May 13, 1830, Zebulon Baird Vance rose from humble beginnings on his grandfather's 900-acre farm to become the colorful and outspoken governor of North Carolina during the Civil War years and after. Vance's family moved from the family farm when Zeb was three years old, settling on the French Broad Turnpike, which connected the eastern parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as western North Carolina, to the cotton region of South Carolina and the lower South. Living on the turnpike and helping out at his father's drovers stand (similar to a modern day truck stop) provided Zeb with a wealth of experiences that would serve him well in his future political career.
At the age of 13, David Vance sent his son Zeb to Jonesboro, Tennessee to attend Washington College and receive what would be equivalent to a high school education. He studied English, Latin, geography, composition, and declamation – similar to public speaking. In 1844, after the death of his father, Zeb returned home, when limited funds made it necessary for him to discontinue his schooling in Tennessee. Later that same year, the Vance family moved to Asheville, where Zeb continued his education at local schools. In 1852, Zeb wrote to David Swain, former North Carolina governor and president of the University of North Carolina about attending school there. Swain replied that Zeb should come to Chapel Hill and even arranged for a loan to finance one year of schooling.
Although not a particularly impressive scholar, Vance established many relationships at the University that would serve him for the rest of his life. He studied law and joined both the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and Dialectic Society, where he honed his speech-making and debating skills.
In December of 1852, Zeb went to Raleigh and acquired his license to practice law in the county Courts of Pleas and Quarter which enabled him to prepare documents and court papers, but not allow him to appear in Superior Court. He returned to Asheville and was elected Buncombe County solicitor in early 1853. Despite not having a license to practice in Superior Court, he could practice in district court. He began riding the Seventh District Court circuit, meaning he traveled within the judicial district (or circuit) to try cases. This allowed him to broaden his recognition throughout the region, which launched Vance's political career.
In April of 1854, Zeb announced that he would run for the North Carolina House of Commons, equivalent to today's state House of Representatives. This election, however, reflected the decline of the Whig Party of which the Vance family were long-standing supporters. Zeb Vance realized he needed to find a new party. As the Whig Party fell apart in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, he began to consider the American or "Know-Nothing" Party in early 1855.
Although he ran unsuccessfully for the North Carolina Senate in 1856, by 1858, he chose to run for the United State House of Representatives, in a special election to replace Thomas L. Clingman, who had been elected to the United States Senate by the North Carolina General Assembly. During the campaign, Zeb refined the oratory skills that would serve him the rest of his life. His speeches always included three elements: discussion of pertinent issues, partisan attacks on his opponents, and amusing stories and anecdotes.
Zebulon Vance served in the United States House of Representatives during some of Congress's most controversial and historic times. He was present shortly after the Dred Scott decision was handed down by the United States Supreme Court in 1857; during John Brown raid on Harper's Ferry in October of 1859; and during the presidential election of the summer and fall of 1860.
That presidential campaign proved to be one of the most complicated in United States history, with four candidates vying for office – all of whom had a chance of winning. The Democratic Party split. Northern Democrats nominated Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas and his "popular sovereignty" ideology. Southern Democrats chose Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge and advocated protection of slavery in the territories. The Republican Party, which did not exist in the South, nominated Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery in the territories. Finally, a new party, the Constitutional Union Party, composed of former Whigs and members of the American Party, chose Tennessean John Bell. The party platform dedicated itself to preserving the Union through compromise over the issue of slavery. During the Congressional break of 1860, Zeb Vance campaigned hard for Bell and the Unionist ideology. Vance was a firm Unionist, but no abolitionist.
When Abraham Lincoln won the election, states in the lower South, led by South Carolina, began seceding from the Union. Still, Zeb Vance remained convinced that secession was wrong and posed a bigger threat to the institution of slavery than staying in the Union. In November, on his way back to Washington to complete his congressional term, he stopped in Raleigh to urge calm regarding secession. He agreed that, should the other upper South states decide to secede, North Carolina would have no choice but to join them. But he held out hope for Lincoln as a "national president."
When the issue of whether to call a secession convention arose in North Carolina, Vance differed from most of his fellow Unionists who maintained that such a convention should not take place. He believed that the convention should be held and Unionists should endeavor to control it. When the vote was finally taken, Unionists prevented a convention from being called. Vance may have lost the battle, but his fellow Unionists had not yet won the war. There would be no consideration of secession in North Carolina – for now.
After South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln called for troops to put down the insurrection. North Carolinians, including staunch Unionist Zebulon Vance, became incensed by the request. They could never provide troops to fight against fellow Southerners. Upon hearing the news of Lincoln's call for troops, Vance stated,
For myself, I will say that I was canvassing for the Union with all my strength; I was addressing a large and excited crowd, large numbers of whom were armed, and literally had my arms extended upward in pleading for peace and the Union of our Fathers, when the telegraphic news was announced of the firing on Sumter and [the] President's call for seventy-five thousand volunteers. When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation, it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a Secessionist." (Zeb Vance by Gordon B. McKinney, p. 76)
On May 20, 1861, North Carolina seceded from the United States and made ready to join the newly formed Confederate States of America.