Rhett, Robert Barnwell (1800-1876)

views updated May 14 2018

Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876)



Lowcountry Aristocrat. Robert Barnwell Rhett was born Robert Barnwell Smith on 21 December 1800 in Beaufort, South Carolina, part of a small but significantly distinctive economic and social region of the South. Unlike the rest of the Lower South, which cultivated a hardy short-staple cotton, tidewater South Carolina offered conditions favorable to long-staple cotton, which commanded higher and more stable prices. Nearby was the rice-growing district, which similarly provided the economic base for a particularly aristocratic planter culture. Although Smiths family connections were distinguished, his own branch did not prosper, and with his brothers he changed his surname in 1837 to honor an illustrious ancestor, William Rhett. Shortly beforehand, he had established the foundation for his own wealth through the careful purchase of a plantation. By the 1850s he personified the ideal of the South Carolina planter, with almost two hundred slaves on two plantations, a town house in Charleston, and extensive debts to the Bank of South Carolina.

Beyond Calhoun. The long controversy over the tariff of 1828 was for Rhett as for many South Carolinians the crucial phase of political maturation. Elected to the state legislature in 1826, he soon earned a reputation for his strident attacks on the protective tariff. He reluctantly deferred to John C. Calhouns strategy of nullification of the tariff as a peaceful, constitutional method of resistance, and after winning election to Congress in 1837, he advanced in political influence by supporting Calhouns efforts to control the Democratic Party, win the presidency, and adjust government policy to satisfy the concerns of the South. When Calhouns bid for the Democratic nomination faltered in 1844, Rhett reverted to his earlier approach by leading the so-called Bluffton movement, which called for unilateral state action to block the Whig tariff of 1842. He remained in the House of Representatives for another five years, and uniquely among South Carolina politicians he managed to maintain considerable independence from Calhoun, although they agreed on key matters like opposition to the Wilmot Proviso. After Calhouns death in 1850, the state legislature elected Rhett to replace him in the United States Senate.

Disunion. Rhett took the lead in calling for the South to repudiate the Compromise of 1850. From the time of the Nashville Convention in June 1850 he made disunion his basic goal. His initial efforts met with disappointment, for secessionists were defeated in the South Carolina elections for a state convention. When the assembly contented itself in 1852 with simply affirming the right of secession, Rhett resigned his Senate seat and abandoned politics rather than share in what he branded submission. He took over the editorship of the Charleston newspaper Mercury and agitated through its columns for disunion. For much of the rest of the decade the prospects for a separate Southern nation continued to seem dim. Even in the radical hotbed of South Carolina, the strategy of working through the national Democratic Party found a powerful exponent in James L. Orr. Similarly in Virginia, which also produced several prominent fire-eaters, the presidential aspirations of Sen. Robert M. T. Hunter and Gov. Henry Wise served as a strong moderating influence in politics.

Triumph. Coordinating his efforts with like-minded leaders in other states, most notably William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, Rhett sought to undermine confidence in the Democratic Party to which he still belonged. The Lecompton controversy between Stephen A. Douglas and Southern Democrats provided a valuable opportunity, on which Yancey capitalized by masterminding a schism in the 1860 national convention when the party refused to endorse a congressional slave code for the territories. Although a delegate to the Richmond convention that nominated John C. Breckinridge, Rhett continued to hope for a Republican victory to touch off secession. Upon the election of Lincoln he led the call for the immediate secession of South Carolina, eager to avoid the delays and loss of momentum that had occurred in 18501851 as a result of attempts to arrange cooperative action by several states. Enactment of the ordinance of secession on 20 December 1860 realized the dream that he had long held, and on behalf of the convention he prepared the Address to the Slaveholding States inviting others to join the lead of South Carolina.

Disappointment. From the outset Rhett was one of many fire-eaters who exercised little influence in the Confederate government he had worked to create. Recognized as an impulsive agitator rather than a constructive statesman, he not only failed in his hope to be the first president of the Confederacy but was passed over in the selection of other officials. Mercury, edited since 1857 by his son Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., early became a critic of Jefferson Davis, first charging that he was too slow to take the military offensive and later emphasizing that the centralizing measures of the Confederate government infringed on the rights of states. Beaufort was overrun by the Union army early in the war, and when Rhett ran for the Confederate Congress in 1863 from the district that he had long represented in the United States Congress, the beleaguered electorate turned against him. In the final days of the war he made his last stand as an opponent of Daviss desperate willingness to free and arm the slaves. He outlived the shattering of his world and died in 1876, still hoping that the South would someday be separate and free.


Laura A. White, Robert Barnwell Rhett: Father of Secession (New York & London: Century, 1931).

Robert Barnwell Rhett

views updated May 23 2018

Robert Barnwell Rhett

Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876), American statesman, was a U.S. congressman and senator and the spokesman for Southern independence.

Robert Barnwell Rhett was born Robert Barnwell Smith on Dec. 21, 1800, in aristocratic Beaufort, S.C. His family had enjoyed a notable reputation in South Carolina history. At the age of 37 he changed his name from the plebeian Smith to the patrician Rhett. Although Rhett's schooling was irregular, at the age of 21 he was admitted to the South Carolina bar. He lived in the manner of the Carolina aristocracy throughout his life, owning two plantations and a succession of town residences.

In 1826 Rhett was elected to the state legislature, where he quickly became prominent in the protective tariff controversy. Initially he argued passionately for resistance, but he came to accept John C. Calhoun's theory of peaceful, constitutional nullification.

From 1837 to 1849 Rhett served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He worked closely with Calhoun, then senator from South Carolina, in propagating the notion that the Constitution, "rightly interpreted," protected the South. He also promoted Calhoun's plans for controlling the Democratic party. In 1844, when Calhoun failed to secure the presidential nomination, the Democrats deserted the South on the tariff issue; Rhett, defying Calhoun, led a movement for separate state action on the tariff.

When Calhoun died in 1850, Rhett was elected U.S. senator. By this time he had begun a campaign to promote South Carolina's secession from the Union. He was convinced that its withdrawal would encourage other Southern states to secede. The next year, however, South Carolina rejected Rhett's leadership by accepting the Compromise of 1850.

Although in political retirement throughout the 1850s, Rhett remained in contact with Southerners of secessionist persuasion. In the aftermath of the critical 1860 election, he was so influential in spreading secession ideas in South Carolina that he was called the father of secession. His most effective forum was the Charleston Mercury, a newspaper owned by his son after 1857. In early 1861 Rhett attended the Southern Convention at Montgomery. While not a member of the convention, he did lobby to defeat measures he deemed too conciliatory toward the North, and he was chosen by the convention to compose an address to the people of the slaveholding states. He failed, however, to secure the presidency of the Confederacy and was ignored in the Cabinet appointments.

Rhett attacked the Confederate administration for its attempts at centralization. He was twice defeated for a seat in the Confederate lower house and spent his last energies defending Southern civilization against the Confederate proposals to arm, and free, the slaves. On Sept. 14, 1876, Rhett died in Louisiana.

Further Reading

The best study of Rhett is Laura Amanda White, Robert Barnwell Rhett: Father of Secession (1931), a significant contribution to Confederate history, especially in its treatment of causative factors and immediate prewar events. □