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Robert Barnwell Rhett
Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Confederate Political
Robert Barnwell Rhett
Nickname: "The Great Secessionist"
Barnwell Rhett, as he preferred to be called, was so radical that John C. Calhoun and ogh:Augustine Smith Clayton urged him to abandon his inflammatory political rhetoric in favor of a peaceful settlement during the Nullification Crisis. Unlike Calhoun, Rhett had claimed that South Carolina had but two choices, resist or submit. Calhoun was trying to work out a solution where the Union was preserved, as was state's rights.
Born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, South Carolina, Rhett changed his name in 1837, when he decided to seek election to national office because Rhett was more aristocratic than Smith (it was also the name of a sometime slave trader in his ancestry). He was raised on his father's plantation and learned to read and write thanks to his grandmother. Although he started college he did not finish - his father needed help running the plantation. He began a law firm with his cousin, Robert Barnwell, in Colleton District. In 1826 he was elected to the South Carolina legislature and shortly thereafter married.
One of his first exposures to radical thinking was in a series of essays by South Carolina nullificationist Robert Turnbull titled The Crisis. Another major influence was Thomas Cooper, a lawyer, scientist, and philosopher who left England because of his radical views. He found a comfortable home in Charleston (and became President of South Carolina College), where his views were openly discussed.
Even before Calhoun sparked the Nullification Crisis, Barnwell Rhett was stirring the sedition pot claiming protective tariffs were illegal under the U. S. Constitution. Rhett, a strict constructionist, believed that any power not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution remained with the state. He narrowly interpreted the government's right to tariff to raise money as not including protective tariffs.
By 1830 Rhett had begun openly comparing Southerners as slaves to an out of control federal government and advocating secession to remedy the problem. When a state convention was called to determined the course of action for South Carolina, Calhoun asked Rhett to tone down his rhetoric. Although the fiery orator did, it was only for a short period during the convention. Faced with a lack of support from other southern states, a federal threat of invasion backed by the presence of Winfield Scott, and a Compromise Tariff then winding its way through Congress the South Carolina convention voted to disavow nullification.
Within a year Rhett was again advocating Revolution with statements like "What, sir, has Carolina ever obtained great or free, but by Revolution?" He also argued that only slaveholders understood what it was like to be "the creature of the will of others," which echoed well in the ears of his supporters, coastal plantation owners. Later Barnwell Rhett would claim he converted to secessionist in 1844, however, as early as 1833 he was calling for an independent South.
When Rhett entered the U. S. House in 1836 radical Anti-Slavery societies had begun presenting abolitionist petitions to northern congressmen. At the time, constituent petitions were read to Congress, but the abolitionist petitions were becoming burdensome. Originally simply a House resolution, the gag rule regarding these anti-slavery petitions became a rule in 1840 and continued as House Rule 21, House Rule 23 and House Rule 25 until 1844, when the ban was lifted.
Among his earliest political efforts was an attempt to take slavery out of the national political arena. He called for an amendment restricting federal authorities from making laws on slavery for Washington D. C. and new territories. A second amendment would extend west the line established by the Missouri Compromise (Compromise of 1820). Finally, he proposed a ban on the discussion of slavery at a federal level.
When all three died a quick death, Rhett again called for disunion. Rhett's star would continue to grow. Calhoun had come to respect the radical views of Rhett, as had some other southerners. His brother-in-law became editor of the Charleston Mercury and a colleague, Franklin Elmore controlled the South Carolinian in the state capital, Columbia.
Rhett's popularity in his U. S. House district did not translate into popularity in the South Carolina state assembly. When John C. Calhoun resigned his Senate seat in 1842 (effective date March 3, 1843) to run for President, the South Carolina senate voted not to replace him with Barnwell Rhett but Daniel Elliott Huger, who opposed nullification. Although Barnwell did return to the House, many viewed his career as being over.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Calhoun, unable to secure a Senate seat for Rhett, chose him as campaign manager. As the convention grew close, Democrats eschewed both Calhoun and Martin Van Buren in favor of James Polk. Once Calhoun had lost, Rhett once again took aim at the federal government. One of the facets of solving the Nullification Crisis was the so-called Compromise Tariff of 1833, hammered out by Calhoun and Henry Clay. In 1842 the Whigs, aided by some Northern Democrats, managed to pass the Tariff of 1842 (Rhett and many southerners called it the Black Tariff) and convinced President John Tyler to sign the bill. On July 31, 1844 Barnwell Rhett, speaking to 500 people beneath what is known to this day at the "Secession Oak," called for the nullification of the act or secession from the United States in Bluffton, South Carolina.
John Calhoun was unwilling to support the movement and it quickly died. Rhett unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1844, when he returned to Congress, became noted as one of a few in the House that voted against James Polk's resolution to go to war with Mexico. The Election of 1848 saw Calhoun and Rhett go their separate ways. Calhoun supported eventual winner Zachary Taylor while Rhett supported loser Lewis Cass because Taylor, according to Rhett, had little to interest the Southerner. Rhett became convinced that the election of Taylor meant an end to slavery.
When Taylor openly backed the admission of California it seemed as if Rhett's dire prediction had come true. Then in March, 1850, John Calhoun died. Barnwell Rhett decided to try an entirely different tact, remaining virtually silent at the Nashville Convention. He did pen the Address of the Convention, accusing the North of meddling with slavery for 14 years. And although the convention decided to support the Union, he believed that it moved the South in the direction of secession.
After leaving the convention Rhett tried to unite secessionists under the common banner of a political party. In August, 1850, Rhett formed the short-lived Southern National party in Macon, GA, but failure turned to victory when the South Carolina assembly elected Rhett to the Senate. His changing rhetoric included attempts to brand abolitionists as degrading to a Southerner's dignity and claiming that South Carolina was "ruled by the North." He began to sense that the Compromise of 1850 was moving South Carolina away from secession and asked the governor to seize federal forts. Wisely, the governor refused.
That October, in an election for a state convention, the cooperationists won an easy victory. When the convention completed the following April it declared that South Carolina had a right to secede but it would not. The findings made Rhett resign his Senate seat and devote full time to the cause of secession - but don't call it that. The pro-Union fervor sweeping the nation had swept through South Carolina and only a few men wanted to be known as secessionists.
The early 1850's were a strange time for Rhett, combining bad, worse and better in a strange elixir that he was forced to partake. His wife Elizabeth died in December, 1852, but he was blessed to find his second wife Catherine a few years later. His namesake son ran into several bad years on his plantation. A cancer on his nose was misdiagnosed and not removed. Through it all he continued to espouse the right of secession.
Kansas and Nebraska developments intrigued the former Senator. Rhett supported the bill, but by 1856 it was just another reason for secession as Southerners were murdered by Unionists (note the switch from abolitionists). Once his son's plantation woes were in the past, Rhett purchased the Charleston Mercury and let the son run it. Young Rhett was little different from Barnwell Rhett, Sr. in his stand on secession. One thing Young Rhett did do was deny other fire-eaters access to the newspaper.
Rhett warned it would be impossible for the North to leave the South in peace on July 4, 1858. He felt that an independent South held the best future for the Southern states and he proposed extending the borders of the nation further south to include the Caribbean and Brazil. He also pointed out that the North would try to impose its will on the South. When John Brown struck at Harper's Ferry Barnwell Rhett's words seemed prophetic.
It also seemed to be destiny that the 1860 Democratic National Convention was scheduled to be in Charleston. Rhett believed that the only way to form an independent South was to have a "Black Republican" elected. He felt that with Seward (he was the leading candidate at the time) as President at least three southern states would secede and set out to influence others, specifically William Porcher Mills and William Lowndes Yancey to do the dirty work. Rhett wrote Mills and openly declared the goal of the fire-eaters should be to splinter the Democratic Party. Mills agreed and began working to that end.
Yancey resurrected his Alabama Platform, a southern response to the Wilmot Proviso first introduced at the Democratic Convention of 1848, and had it passed by the rules committee making it the majority platform. When it reached the floor Douglas supporters voted the platform down, which was enough to send Yancy storming out of the convention with delegations of 7 southern states behind him. Rhett served as a member of the South Carolina delegation to the Richmond Convention. Delegates in Richmond decided to return to a new Democratic Convention that June in Baltimore and see it anything had changed. The Alabama Platform was rejected and once again Southerners walked out. They selected John C. Breckinridge as the Southern Democratic candidate in Richmond later in June.
No one could have been happier with the outcome of The Election of 1860, nor with the reaction of South Carolina than Rhett. Soon six states had seceded and decided to meet in Montgomery, Alabama. The Convention of Seceding States had Rhett in an unusual position. With the exception of the Georgia delegates (Alexander Stephens, Howell Cobb and Robert Toombs), Rhett was the best known man at the convention. He held that the state had not given the delegation the authority to create a country.
Although he lost that battle (even his own cousin, South Carolina delegate Robert Barnwell, disagreed) he proposed a series of changes to the Confederate Constitution. Each was rejected in turn. When discussions turned to who would be President of the Confederacy Rhett's name was one discussed, but his radical fire-eater views made him unacceptable to many. In the end, the new Confederacy had very little of Robert Barnwell Rhett in it.
Rhett did continue commenting on the Confederacy, and of course, Jefferson Davis. A purist on all things Confederate, early in the war the Senate voted to appropriate money to build an important link in the railroad system. In Rhett's mind, that was not a function of government but of free enterprise.
Returning to South Carolina, Rhett began to discover that the new country really didn't need his radical views. He ended his political career in June, 1862. Following his retirement he attacked the Confederate government as he had the United States. His most frequent target continued to be Davis. After the war he tried to continue writing, but little was ever published. In 1876 he succumbed to cancer, that had spread from the small tumor on his nose to throughout his body. After his death in Louisiana his body was returned to Charleston, where it is buried today in an unmarked grave.
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Robert Barnwell Rhett was last changed on - November 19, 2009
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