America in the 1850s

The Supreme Court Decides

Who were the so-called “Fire-Eaters”?

James Hammond was a fine example of a political type: the aggressive, unrepentant Southern politician. Unlike many of his fellow Southerners, the Fire-Eaters did not apologize for slavery or its effects on the African American population. They claimed slavery was a positive good, because without it millions of African persons would have no exposure to Christianity or Western capitalism.

Men like James Hammond, Robert B. Rhett, and others went even further, however, declaring that they would perform the magician’s trick of secession without war, akin to a circus performer sticking fire down his throat without being burned. This, they said, was possible because the Northern states needed cotton and peace, far more than the Southern states needed peace or Northern materials. Therefore, when the day of secession came, the Northerners would accept Southern secession, and two nations would emerge: one North and the other South. The latter would continue to sell cotton to the highest bidder and would outdo the North in material prosperity. The Fire-Eaters gave Southerners a bad name.


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