In American history, the Fire-Eaters were a group of radical pro-slavery Southerners in the Antebellum South who urged the separation of Southern states into a new nation, which became 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 the North and the South, and they inflamed passions by using propaganda against the North. However, the Compromise of 1850 and other moderate counsel kept the Fire-Eaters cool for a time.
In the later half of the 1850s, the group reemerged. During the election of 1856, Fire-Eaters used threats of secession in order to persuade Northerners, valuing unity over anti-slavery, to vote for James Buchanan. They used several recent events for propaganda, among them "Bleeding Kansas" and the Sumner-Brooks Affair, to accuse the North of trying to abolish slavery immediately. Using effective propaganda against 1860 presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, the nominee of the anti-slavery Republican Party, the Fire-Eaters were able to convince many southerners of this. However, Lincoln, despite abolitionist sentiment within the party, had promised not to abolish slavery in the Southern states, but only to forbid it in the territories. 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. 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.
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