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 on Robert Barnwell Rhett

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.