Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

William J. Cooper, Jr


This study is a collective biography of nine prominent secessionists: Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, William Lowndes Yancey, John A. Quitman, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Laurence M. Keitt, Louis T. Wigfall, James D. B. DeBow, Edmund Ruffin, and William Porcher Miles. It explores both the variety of personalities drawn to the secession movement and what motivated them to advocate the creation of a Southern Confederacy. By examining individuals, each chapter dramatizes a particular aspect of southern radicalism. Although the chronological focus is on the secession crisis and the decade preceding the Civil War, the scope of this study includes the entire nineteenth century. Previous studies of Civil War causation have either ignored the fire-eaters or dismissed them variously as demagogues, reactionaries, blunderers, or as members of a displaced class in southern society; many have treated them simply as villains or as heroes of a lost cause. My subjects show, however, that fire-eaters spent decades developing a coherent political philosophy and shared a tradition of concern for southern liberty that had existed as long as the republic. Fire-eaters participated actively in all levels of politics and often received tremendous and sustained popular support. Because fire-eating was not strictly an intellectual movement, my dissertation also demonstrates how political developments outside their control hindered or helped the fire-eaters in their campaign for secession. Although my study stresses the unity of ideas, themes, and methods which characterized the fire-eaters, I have also been careful to avoid treating them as a monolith. The fire-eaters were an issue-oriented group; besides sharing a devotion to southern independence, they were men with markedly different political agendas and outlooks. This diversity enable them to appeal to a wide spectrum of southern opinion and thereby rally support for secession through a variety of means.