Sunday, November 29, 2009

Just finished reading - The Fire-Eaters by Eric H. Walther

The term "fire-eater," brings to my mind, thoughts of an uncompromising partisan politician; a frothy-mouthed stump speaker of unbending principles and enthusiastic hatred for enemies. I was pleased to find that my interpretation was not too distant from that of the author of The Fire-Eaters. Although not all of the men that Walther examines would be considered great orators (some were much better writers than speakers), and not all came to promote secession by the same means; all did truly believe that the best way to ensure, protect, and perpetuate the South and its way of life was through the withdrawal of the slaveholding states from the Union.

Walther is a professor of history at the University of Houston and is a well known scholar on topics related to the coming of the Civil War. He has also produced a biography of one of the most venomous fire-eaters, William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War (2006), as well as a work on the umbrella theme, Shattering the Union: America in the 1850s (2004).

In The Fire-Eaters, Walther examines nine of the most well known promoters of secession: Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, William Lowndes Yancey, John Anthony Quitman, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Laurence M. Keitt, Louis T. Wigfall, James D.B. De Bow, Edmund Ruffin, and William Porcher Miles. These men were from diverse backgrounds and held many different thoughts from one another, but they all agreed on secession as the remedy to the South's perceived step-child status in the Union. Walther contends that it was this diversity in character that allowed them to appeal to the wide array of Southern sentiment during the years leading up to the Civil War and effectively lead the states out of the Union.

It is not surprising that a number of the men were natives of South Carolina. The Palmetto state bred disunionism like no other state in the South. But, one of the fire-eaters examined was born in the North (Quitman), and another spent much of his youth in the North (Yancey). The men were not all strict conservatives. Many of them were progressive thinking on certain subjects. Ruffin, for example, was widely known for developing agricultural practices that bucked the trend of abandoning nutrient deficient soils in the East for more fertile fields in the West. Others, such as Keitt, Miles, and Quitman promoted programs of progressive reform in their respective states.

All of these fire-eaters had some role in politics at some time in their lives. Quitman was elected governor of Mississippi; Tucker, Keitt, Yancey, Wigfall, and Miles were all members of the United States Congress; publisher De Bow circulated at Southern conventions and served at head of the national census bureau; and Ruffin served in the Virginia legislature. They used their various positions to promote their beliefs and spread their cause.

Walther sums up the fire-eating theme quite well by writing, "By addressing the 'ills' of society, the fire-eaters saw themselves as preservers of basic American values. They invoked the revolutionary heritage and ideals of the Founding Fathers. They strove to perpetuate self-government as they perceived it and to correct abuses in the political process. Their concern with expansion, corruption, industrialisation, and romantic, millennial reform placed fire-eaters squarely within the mainstream of contemporary American society. All fire-eaters argued that they were defending their rights and values as Americans and, whether gleefully or with regret, came to believe that these aspirations could only be protected in a southern confederacy."

Of course, all the fire-eaters believed the institution of slavery was a benefit to both races. They all claimed that the North's disdain and unenforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act was justification alone for secession. Some promoted the idea of reopening the African slave trade to help expand slavery to territories to the west and lower slave prices to where even poor whites could benefit for the labor of blacks. They all wished to see slavery expand to other sections and territories, and Quitman even came close to leading a filibuster campaign to capture Cuba from Spain in order to expand American slaveholding interests. Their defense of slavery, their touchy sense of honor, and their perception that Northerners looked at them as un-American only contributed to their goal of a separate, independent, and sovereign Southern nation.

It is probably impossible to fully understand the secession movement without a close look at these nine men. Their similarities and differences indicate that secession, just like later support for the war effort, was not as monolithic as previously believed. I highly recommend this book to those interested in knowing the backgrounds of the men, and the similarity and the diversity of thought that was involved in the movement to remove the Southern states from the Union.

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