In United States history in the 1850s, the Fire-Eaters were an unorganized group of extremist pro-slavery Southern politicians who urged the separation of southern states into a new nation, which became known as the Confederate States of America. The dean of the group was Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina. They sought to reopen the international slave trade, which had been illegal since 1808.
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.
- William Barksdale
- James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow (publisher of DeBow's Review)
- Thomas C. Hindman
- Laurence M. Keitt
- William Porcher Miles
- John A. Quitman
- Robert Rhett
- Edmund Ruffin
- Nathaniel Beverley Tucker
- Louis Wigfall
- William Lowndes Yancey
- Walther, Eric H., The Fire-Eaters, (Louisiana State University Press, 1992) ISBN 0-8071-1775-7
- Walther, Eric H. William Lowndes Yancey: The Coming of the Civil War (2006)
- William J. Cooper, Jr. and Thomas E. Terrill (2008). The American South: A History. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 363.