Fire-eaters were southern political ideologues whose uncompromising demands and radical oratory on the subject of slavery and secession played an important part in driving the nation toward disunion in 1860 and 1861. In contrast to the majority of pro-slavery politicians and writers who relied upon tactics of moral suasion to draw northerners into a tacit acceptance of their domestic institution—by pointing out its biblical roots, foundation in natural law, constitutional protection, or strength as a mudsill upon which civilization could rear itself—fire-eaters grew increasingly impatient with attempts to coax northerners toward what (to them) seemed both reasonable and necessary. Indeed, the vituperation of fire-eaters' speechifying often reflected a growing hatred of all things Yankee and a determination to separate from the Union to return government and society in their section to the pro-slavery principles of the Founding Fathers.
Although fire-eating sentiment appears most prominently in public discourse after the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso (1846), usually in reaction to some practical antislavery threat (whether real, anticipated, or imagined), the first bloc of political ultras dedicated to promoting a pro-southern course emerged in the wake of the Missouri Compromise (1820), gathering strength especially in South Carolina during the 1820s. With the rise of the anti-tariff movement in that state after 1827, pro-southern radicals such as Robert Turnbull, James Hamilton Jr. (1786–1857), and Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800–1876) warned that slaveholders had to mobilize politically to defend their property, even advocating the formation of paramilitary minutemen groups to resist federal interference. Although he remained a lifelong nationalist, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) educated the South to the constitutionality of the right of individual states to nullify federal tariff laws. Should Washington persist in attempts to enforce these laws, radicals insisted, the South might justly resist through violence and secession.
Although such hotheaded proclamations came to naught in the Nullification crisis, the rise of abolitionist activity and the failure of tariff reform before 1846 kept fire-eating sentiment sputtering along. Its heartland remained the South Carolina low country, but with the western migration of the planter class, radicalism took root in the Mississippi Valley and beyond. Although their views might not have seemed very outrageous on the streets of Charleston, the aggressive attitudes of such South Carolina transplants as James D. B. De Bow (1820–1867) of Louisiana, William Lowndes Yancey (1814–1863) of Alabama, or Louis Wigfall (1816–1874) of Texas stood out prominently against more moderate voices in the newer states of the cotton South. The presence of such firebrands, mixed with a touchy sense of honor and the heady prospects of a booming economy, led more moderate types—natural-born party men such as Clement C. Clay Jr. (1816–1882) of Alabama, Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) of Mississippi, Pierre Soulé (1801–1870) of Louisiana, and Robert Toombs (1810–1885) of Georgia, for example—to incorporate more radical demands in their public statements and to advocate them more insistently.
As the question of slavery's expansion into the western territories focused national attention after the Mexican War (1846–1848), it was as much this vociferous style of public utterance as the practical policies they advocated that marked out fire-eaters as distinct. Although they remained solid National Democrats, Preston Brooks (1819–1857) and Lawrence Keitt (1824–1864), for example, (both, again, of South Carolina) were vilified in the North for their intemperate speech in defense of slavery and southern rights, and their willingness to use violence in the course of political debate to silence opposition. Where southern moderates had traditionally embraced the Constitution as slavery's great bulwark of safety, fire-eaters across the 1850s proposed one measure after another aimed at changing, overriding, or simply defying national law.
Based especially in New Orleans, southern filibusters aimed to solve the slavery expansion question in practical fashion, by annexing or conquering an empire for slavery in the Caribbean. The efforts of Soulé and William Walker (1824–1860) in this regard almost brought America to war with foreign powers more than once between 1854 and 1859. More radical still were the efforts of fire-eaters such as South Carolina's Leonidas Spratt and Georgia's C. A. L. Lamar to force the federal government to reopen the transatlantic slave trade. Fire-eaters such as Spratt and Rhett were hardly arguing in good faith here, as even southern moderates recognized. As their hatred for northern abolitionism grew alongside a dread of impending Republican victory, pro-slavery radicals raised increasingly impossible demands, for the purpose of pointing out what little protection their way of life had from national institutions. If Washington would not approve a federal slave code and if Congress would not give guarantees that it would never meddle with emancipation, then what logical course was left to the South except secession?
The irony is that when secession came in 1860 and 1861, most so-called professional fire-eaters, such as Rhett, Yancey, or Keitt, kept silent, were out of the country, or simply not very important. It was more moderate types such as Henry Wise (1806–1876) of Virginia, Christopher Memminger (1803–1888) of South Carolina, and Alexander Stephens (1812–1883) who did most to promote the cause of disunion—even where they were hostile to it—by incorporating the fire-eaters' style and weighing their practical arguments in the public forum. The violent and uncompromising tone of such secessionist pamphlets as The South Alone Should Govern the South, and African Slavery Should be Controlled by Those Only Who are Friendly to It and The Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It—penned by lifelong moderate John Townsend—shows just how much the spirit of the fire-eaters had come to permeate political discourse. By standing at the margins and hectoring incessantly across four decades, fire-eaters had drawn their section gradually to them—and over the precipice into Civil War (1861–1865).
Townsend, John. The Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It. Charleston, SC: Evans & Cogswell, 1860.
Townsend, John. The South Alone Should Govern the South, and African Slavery Should be Controlled by Those Only Who are Friendly to It. Charleston, SC: Evans & Cogswell, 1860.
Lawrence T. McDonnell
FIRE-EATERS. An outspoken group of Southern, proslavery extremists, the Fire-Eaters advocated secession from the Union and the formation of an independent confederacy as early as the 1840s. The group included a number of well-known champions of Southern sovereignty, including South Carolina newspaper editor Robert Barnwell Rhett, Virginia planter Edmund Ruffin, and William Lowndes Yancey, a radical Democrat from Alabama. Although Rhett, Ruffin, Yancey, and other Fire-Eaters were the chief spokesmen for confederacy, many moderate southerners who supported secession continued to distrust them and they seldom acquired responsible positions within the Confederate government.
Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
Wendell H.Stephenson/e. m.
fire-eaters, in U.S. history, term applied by Northerners to proslavery extremists in the South in the two decades before the Civil War. Edmund Ruffin, Robert B. Rhett, and William L. Yancey were the most notable of the group. As early as 1850, at a convention held in Nashville, Tenn., the "fire-eaters" urged secession upon the South, but the Compromise of 1850 and more moderate counsel combined to postpone that event for another 10 years. Although the "fire-eaters" were in large measure responsible for the movement to organize a separate Southern government, they filled minor offices under the Confederacy.