In United States history, the term Fire-Eaters refers to a group of extremist pro-slavery politicians from the South who urged the separation of southern states into a new nation, which became known as the Confederate States of America.
By radically urging secessionism in the South, the Fire-Eaters demonstrated the high level of sectionalism existing in the U.S. during the 1850s, and they materially contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War (1861–1865). As early as 1850, there was a southern minority of pro-slavery extremists who did much to weaken the fragile unity of the nation. Led by such men as Edmund Ruffin, Robert Rhett, Louis T. Wigfall, and William Lowndes Yancey, this group was dubbed “Fire-Eaters” by northerners. At an 1850 convention in Nashville, Tennessee, the Fire-Eaters urged southern secession, citing irrevocable differences between North and South, and they further inflamed passions by using propaganda against the North. However, the Compromise of 1850 and other moderate counsel, including that from President James Buchanan, kept the Fire-Eaters cool for a time.
In the later half of the 1850s, the group reemerged. They used several recent events for propaganda, among them "Bleeding Kansas" and the Sumner-Brooks Affair to accuse the North of trying to immediately abolish slavery. Using effective propaganda against 1860 presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, the Fire-Eaters were able to convince many southerners of this false accusation. They first targeted South Carolina, which passed an article of secession in December 1860. Wigfall, for one, actively encouraged an attack on Fort Sumter to prompt Virginia and other upper Southern States to secede as well. Thus, the Fire-Eaters helped to unleash a chain reaction that eventually led to the formation of the Confederate States of America and to the American Civil War. Their influence waned quickly after the start of major fighting.
- Nathaniel Beverley Tucker
- John A. Quitman
- Thomas C. Hindman
- William Porcher Miles
- Laurence M. Keitt
- James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow (publisher of DeBow's Review)
- Robert Rhett
- Louis Wigfall
- William Barksdale
- Edmund Ruffin
"Fire-eaters" was a name ascribed to outspoken Southern nationalists (supporters of "disunion," or an independent Southern nation). At first pro-nationalist thought centered around high tariffs, specifically the Tariff of Abominations that led to the Nullification Crisis. Following the repeated introduction of the Wilmot Proviso in the House of Representatives in the late 1840's, the most common spark of Southern nationalism was slavery.
In 1850 the Nashville Convention was called in hopes that Calhoun's nationalistic movement would catch on, but failed in part because of Calhoun's death, in part because of the success of the Compromise of 1850. It marked the earliest nationalistic efforts of the fire-eaters. Following the Compromise of 1850 the role of the fire-eaters lessened, but John C. Fremont's run for President on the Republican ticket in the Election of 1856, the Underground Railroad, the strongly pro-Republican elections of 1858 and John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry all rekindled calls for an independent South. The Dred Scot decision seemed to quench the South's thirst for independence, at least briefly.
Following Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry, the power of the fire-eaters increased dramatically. Led by the Charleston Mercury (it was owned by fire-eater Barnwell Rhett), fire-eaters became more radical in their speeches, some even suggesting war as the only way to gain Southern independence.
At the 1860 Democratic National Convention held in Charleston, South Carolina, fire-eaters conspired to divide the Democratic Party. They were convinced that the only way to achieve Southern Nationalism was by ensuring the election of a "Black Republican." Under Robert Barnwell Rhett's encouragement, William Lowndes Yancey added the old Alabama Platform as a plank in the majority Democratic platform in committee. Douglas supporters replaced it with the Cincinnati Platform on the floor of the convention. At this point, leading the entire delegations of six states and some from Georgia, Yancey walked off the floor.
By mid-October almost all fire-eaters were convinced that Abraham Lincoln would be elected president of the United States and began speaking on the future of the South under an abolitionist president, although some did not believe Lincoln would free the slaves. They spoke out against other Republicans such as William Seward, who they believe would have freed the slaves.
Men to whom the term commonly applied include:
- Robert Barnwell Rhett
- Edmund Ruffin
- Robert Toombs
- Louis Trezevant Wigfall
- William Yancey.
The term appears to have come from Thomas Hart Benton's comment on the floor of the Senate, labeling John C. Calhoun a firebrand. Northern papers altered this, calling any Southern Nationalist, including Calhoun, a fire-eater.
Fire-eater was also the name of General Albert Sidney Johnston's horse.