Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fire-Eating

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 6, 2013

When someone delivers a fire-eating speech or uses fire-eating language, you can assume there’s some element of danger or surprise involved. After all, who isn’t impressed and in awe of the circus fire-eater? However, in every day terms, someone who is a fire-eater is usually a belligerent person or a militant partisan and by extension, fire-eating language or fire-eating speeches are meant to be hostile and aggressive. In politics, fire-eating refers to extremist political views that deviate significantly from mainstream, accepted political beliefs.

Just three years ago, on August 22, 2010 the Daily Banter published a story by Bob Cesca entitled “The Screeching, Fire-Eating Mob” in which he addressed a violent video making the rounds online at the time. He began his article with this:

This video is disgraceful and makes me ashamed to be an American. Here we see a throng of ignorant fire-eaters protesting against Park 51 and subsequently accosting an African-American man who made the mistake of looking vaguely “muslim-ish” (John Cole’s word).

In “Religion and the American Civil War” edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson and published in 1998 by Oxford Press, a number of authors discussed the subject in various essays. Whether it was Drew Gilpin Faust or Christopher Grasso, Samuel S. Hill or Phillip Shaw Paludan, or any of the other contributers, the subject remained fresh and presented fact after fact for consideration. In Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s essay “Church, Honor, and Secession” the following was written:

[Benjamin Morgan] Palmer insisted that the southern white people’s “providential trust” required them “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as now existing.” His widely distributed sermon had as much impact for secession in the lower South as Breckinridge’s for Unionism in the border states. Yet even this fire-eating divine conceded that the relationship of master and slave was scarcely all that the church could hope for.

The expression fire-eating was a favorite of author Robert Black in his book “Facism In Germany” written in 1974 and published in two volumes by Steyn Publications of London, England in 1975. Robert Black was the pseudonym used by Robin Blick and the more than 800-page book examined the roots of facism and Marxism in Germany as well as Italy and Russia within the context of its effects on Germany. The word fire appeared 44 times in this work and fire-eating appeared three times. Two of those instances are as follows:

Yet right up to the last days of peace, the SPD maintained what appeared to be a firm anti-war stand. The Austrian ultimatum to Russia was denounced in fire-eating language on 25 July, the SPD manifesto directly calling upon all party members and supporters ‘to express immediately in mass meetings the unshakable will to peace of the class-conscious proletariat’.

and

Neither were the German diplomatic corps in Moscow taken in by Stalin’s fire-eating speeches on the prospects of revolution in Germany, which in order to preserve his Communist credentials, he was obliged to make more often than harmonious Soviet-German relations would have otherwise found politic.

The Sunday News Journal of September 25, 1957 ran a news story entitled, “Ike’s Action Draws Fire Eating Words.” It discussed the reaction some Senators had to President Eisenhower’s decision to address segregation and integration in schools in the southern states. The legality of the President’s move was questioned and some were concerned that it would cause more trouble than it intended to prevent. Eisenhower, however, defended his actions as he was concerned that mob rule might overtake the situation of riots over school integration in Arkansas, and thereby menace the safety of the United States of America as well as the free world. This was the news story’s opening paragraph:

Officials’ reaction to Pres. Eisenhower’s federalization of the Arkansas National Guard in an effort to bring about racial integration in the public schools tended to split along South-North lines with Dixie condemnation ranging from fire eating talk of armed resistance to much milder condemnation.

On September 19, 1939 the Milwaukee Journal made no bones in the headline it ran with the story by Alfred F. Pahlke on Adolf Hilter’s speech where he announced Germany’s agreement with Russia. The reporter stated that Hitler’s voice was “deceptive, merely the lull between barrages of machine gun oratory when the words from the mountaineer’s throat, never soft or tender, burst forth as hard as bullets pelting the enemy” and that Hitler’s voice had “few shadings, few stops and registers” but that had “the most of his limited variety.” The article was entitled, “Fire Eating Herr Hitler Now Weighing Words.”

A generation earlier on May 21, 1913, the Mansfield Shield carried a story on the front page that came out of Washington as reported by the United Press. The story related how President Woodrow Wilson had called Mississippi Senator Sisson to his office to ask him if the speech he intended on delivering to the House intended to use language that might be construed by the Japanese as inviting belligerency thereby complicating the situation between the U.S. and Japan. That article was entitled, “President Sends For And Admonishes Fire-Eating Southern Legislator.”

It seems that politics is the place where the expression is most often used as seen in the New York Times on March 27, 1893. Just as the fighting continues in Northern Ireland, so it was back in 1893 with the Irish in Ulster continuing to rise up against the British. The article stated, “If Ulster has to fight for her liberties she will put into the field an army of 50,000 men, decently armed and equipped.” The headline that accompanied the story read, “Those Fire-Eating Ulsterman Will Defy Parliament And Raise An Army.”

It was in the October 24, 1856 edition of the New York Times that great pains were taken to conceal the identity of the author of a letter printed in the paper that day, carrying the headline, “A Queer Development: A New Plot Of The Pro-Slavery Democracy.” The newspaper prefaced the letter with a statement that the newspaper owed it to fairness to say that “the writer of the letter [takes] pains to conceal his identity, ensurring us that events will vindicate the truth of his statements, but that under no circumstances can he be known in connection with them.” In the letter that followed that comment, the following was written in part:

If it should turn out, therefore, when those packages are opened that the electors of four or five Southern States cast their votes for some new Democrat — Douglas, or Wise, or Jefferson Davis — his name will go into the House as the third candidate, and Mr. Fillmore will be ruled out! The balance of power will thus be transferred from the Fillmore men to the fire-eating section of the Democracy: and with such a rod in their hands they anticipate an easy victory.

In the late 1840s, the Wilmot Proviso was introduced repeatedly into the House Of Representatives. It led to spirited debates about the Tariff of Abominations which led to the Nullification Crisis. Those outspoken Southern nationalists who supported the concept of an independent Southern nation and who argued in favor of “disunion” became known as fire-eaters and their spirited comments became known as fire-eating.

And over in England nearly a generation earlier, in the book entitled,  “A Defence of the Loyal Inhabitants of Dudley” written by a member of the Pitt Club, dated December 2, 1819 and published by J. Fawcett in London (England) in 1820, the following passage is found on page 78:

It is one, who is precluded the advantage of coming into personal contact with them, or he would not have condescended to pamphletizing this exposure, not that he assumes to himself, any invincibility of power, he is no fire-eater; but he would most strenuously endeavour to make His Majesty’s ministers, eat their own words, by double mouthfuls, in the presence of the assembled representatives of the nation.

Prior to that, Robert Powell was presented with a purse of gold and a large silver medal by the Royal Society in 1751 for his 60-year career which included fire-eating … the sort that includes flames and great physical danger. Idiomation was unable to find any mention of fire-eating being anything other than what Robert Powell and others engaged in at the time.

Of interest is the fact that the word fire is from the Middle English word furen which means to arouse or to excite, and dates back to the late 1300s. Fire-eaters first appeared in European courts in the 1667 when a fire-eater by the name of Richardson when his act was recorded in the Journal des Savants and later by diarist John Evelyn on October 8, 1672 in London. Prior to that, Sir Henry Walton had written a letter dated June 3, 1633 that detailed the performance of a fire-eater he’d seen perform in his travels.

With the use of the word fire-eater in a publication written in 1819 and published the following year, and the fire-eating feats recorded in 1751 (a 68-year span between the two dates), Idiomation feels that the real feat and the new meaning of the expression happened between these two dates. It is therefore reasonable to believe it came into existence sometime in the 1780s.

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