Robert Rhett

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The Honorable
Robert Barnwell Rhett
Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr.gif
Deputy to the Provisional C.S. Congress from South Carolina
In office
February 4, 1861 – February 17, 1862
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
United States Senator
from South Carolina
In office
December 18, 1850 – May 7, 1852
Preceded by Robert Barnwell
Succeeded by William de Saussure
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina's 7th Congressional District
In office
March 4, 1843 – March 3, 1849
Preceded by James Rogers
Succeeded by William Colcock
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina's 2nd Congressional District
In office
March 4, 1837 – March 3, 1843
Preceded by William Grayson
Succeeded by Richard Simpson
Attorney General of South Carolina
In office
November 29, 1832 – March 4, 1837
Governor Robert Hayne
George McDuffie
Pierce Butler
Member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from St. Bartholomew's Parish
In office
November 27, 1826 – November 29, 1832
Personal details
Born (1800-12-21)December 21, 1800
Beaufort, South Carolina
Died September 14, 1876(1876-09-14) (aged 75)
St. James Parish, Louisiana
Resting place Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina
Political party Democratic
Profession Politician, lawyer

Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. (December 21, 1800 – September 14, 1876) was an American lawyer, newspaper publisher, and politician from South Carolina. He was an extreme pro-slavery spokesman and advocate of secession - a "Fire-Eater", in the slang of the time. He published these views through his newspaper, the Charleston Mercury.[1] He served as a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator from South Carolina as a Democrat.


He was born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was of English ancestry.[2] On his Barnwell mother's side, he was related to U.S. Representative Robert Barnwell (his great-uncle) and U.S. Representative and Senator Robert Woodward Barnwell (son of Robert). A cousin of the Barnwells was the wife of Alexander Garden.

He studied law and became a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1826, serving until 1832. Rhett was extremely pro-slavery in his views. At the end of the Nullification Crisis in 1833, Rhett told the South Carolina Nullification Convention:

In 1832, Rhett became South Carolina attorney general, serving until 1837. He was then elected U.S. Representative, serving until 1849. In 1838, he changed his last name from Smith to that of a prominent colonial ancestor, Colonel William Rhett.[4]

Rhett objected vehemently to the protectionist Tariff of 1842. On July 31, 1844, Rhett launched the Bluffton Movement, which called for South Carolina to return to nullification or else declare secession. The Bluffton program was soon repudiated by more moderate South Carolina Democrats (including even Senator John C. Calhoun), who feared it would endanger the presidential candidacy of James K. Polk.

Rhett left the House of Representatives in 1849.

Rhett opposed the Compromise of 1850 as against the interests of the slave-holding South. He joined fellow Fire-Eaters at the Nashville Convention of 1850, which failed to endorse his aim of secession for the whole South.

After the Nashville Convention, Rhett, William Lowndes Yancey, and a few others met in Macon, Georgia on August 21, 1850, and formed the short-lived Southern National Party. In December 1850, he was elected U.S. Senator, to complete the term left by the death of Calhoun.


Rhett continued to advocate secession in response to the Compromise. But in 1852, South Carolina refrained from declaring secession, and instead merely passed an ordinance declaring a state's right to secede. Disappointed, Rhett resigned his U.S. Senate seat. He continued to express his fiery secessionist sentiments through the Charleston Mercury, now edited by his son, Robert jr.

The 1860 Democratic National Convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, and a large bloc of Southern delegates walked out when the platform was insufficiently pro-slavery. This led to the division of the party and separate Northern and Southern nominees for President, which practically guaranteed the election of an anti-slavery Republican, which in turn triggered declarations of secession in seven states.

During the 1860 presidential campaign, a widely credited report in the Nashville Patriot said that this outcome was the intended result of a conspiracy by Rhett, Yancey, and William Porcher Miles, hatched at the Southern Convention in Montgomery, Alabama, in May 1858.[5]

After the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, Rhett was elected to the South Carolina Secession Convention, which declared secession in December. Rhett was chosen as a South Carolina delegate to the Provisional Confederate States Congress in Montgomery, Alabama. He was one of the most active delegates and was chairman of the committee which reported the Confederate Constitution.

Subsequently he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He received no higher office in the Confederate government and returned to South Carolina. During the rest of the War, he sharply criticized the policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

Post-war life

After the end of the War, he settled in Louisiana. While it was rumored that he was a delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention, that was in fact his son, Robert Rhett, Jr., who had shared his father's editorship responsibilities.

Rhett died in St. James Parish near New Orleans. He is interred at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

The Robert Barnwell Rhett House was declared to be a National Historic Landmark in 1973.[6][7]

See also


  1. The Secession Charleston News and Courier - December 18, 1960
  2. William C. Davis, William C. Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater page 1
  3. Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina 1816-1836, pg. 297.
  4. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, vol. 1: The Improvised War, 1861-1862 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p. 28.
  5. "Robert Barnwell Rhett House". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-03-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Benjamin Levy (January 29, 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination:" (pdf). National Park Service.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> and Accompanying two photos, exterior, from 1973 PDF (32 KB)

Further reading

  • Davis, William C. Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Scarborough, William K., “Propagandists for Secession: Edmund Ruffin of Virginia and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 112 (July–Oct. 2011), 126–38.
  • White, Laura A. Robert Barnwell Rhett: Father of Secession (1931)

Primary sources

  • Davis, William C. (editor) (2002) A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett

External links