Perhaps the political motives of the fire-eater are often neglected because he was, with some notable exceptions, a dreadful politician. After all, for more than ten years he could not turn the explosive issue of the antebellum period to his advantage. The multitude he apparently shaped by 1860 resulted from provocative events surrounding slavery instead of fire-eater manipulation of Southern fears. In short, events finally made the radical secessionists' advice seem plausible.
The fire-eater never shaped events with his rhetoric, and he frequently found himself without a constituency. The conservative planter class of the South, for whom the fire-eater presumed to speak, rejected his radicalism. The Democratic party in the South disowned him because of the unpopularity of his exaggerated views both at home and in the North.
All that changed suddenly in 1860 because slavery had thoroughly disrupted sectional political accord for almost six years.
The use of the most dangerous issue of the age -- and hence the most potent issue of the age -- marked a high degree of complacency, opportunism, and irresponsibly among men who sincerely professed love for the Union. Each time they used slavery to secure support for or ensure antipathy against a piece of legislation, used it to make attractive or unacceptable this or that candidate for the highest to the lowest elective office, locally or nationally, they honed the issue to such sharpness that it became positively Damoclean. At that point the fire-eater emerged from the periphery of the political arena, not ranting or raving, but with calm deliberation, to grasp this weapon and cleave the Democratic party.