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Robert Barnwell Rhett

ardent supporter of slavery and of secession

Robert Barnwell Rhett

Robert Barnwell Smith was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on December 21, 1800. Although his formal schooling was scarce, he was able to secure admission to the South Carolina Bar at age 21, and commenced practice in Beaufort. In 1837, he and his brothers changed the family surname to honor an illustrious ancestor, William Rhett. He had by that time already established himself as a successful plantation owner, and by the early 1850's he owned two plantations, almost 200 slaves, and a town house in Charleston.

Elected to the State House of Representatives for St. Bartholomew’s Parish in 1826, Rhett soon earned a reputation for his strident attacks on the protective tariff, and for his vigorous support of a state's right to nullify within its borders any federal law it disagreed with. He was re-elected to the State House in 1828, 1830, and 1832. He was elected Attorney General of South Carolina in 1832, and served in that capacity until 1836.

As a Democratic member of the U. S. House of Representatives from March 4, 1837 to March 3, 1849, Rhett continued his opposition to protective tariffs and support of nullification. He was also an ardent supporter of the extension of slavery into new territories.Rhett took the lead in calling for the South to repudiate the Compromise of 1850, and from the time of the Nashville Convention in June 1850 he made disunion his basic goal. His initial efforts met with disappointment, however, when secessionists were defeated in the South Carolina elections for a state convention. That same year the South Carolina Legislature elected him to fill the U. S. Senate seat vacated by the death of John C. Calhoun, and he ultimately served from December 18, 1850 to May 7, 1852. He resigned his seat after the South Carolina Legislature contented itself with simply affirming the right of secession rather than voting for actual secession.After leaving the Senate, Rhett took over ownership of the Charleston Mercury, through which he continued his campaign for secession. His "dream" was finally realized when the State Legislature enacted an Ordinance of Secession (which he had helped to draft) on December 20, 1860. He then had the pleasure of preparing the Address to the Slaveholding States inviting other states to join South Carolina's led. He served as a delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress in 1861, but was otherwise denied an opportunity to serve in any office in the Confederacy. An early critic of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government in general, Rhett was regarded by most of his contemporaries as too extreme in his views, too conceited, and too intolerant of others' views.

Rhett moved to St. James Parish, Louisiana, in 1867, and died there on September 14, 1876. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston.

See Also

Charleston
John C. Calhoun
Jefferson Davis

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The Robinson Library >> South Carolina

This page was last updated on September 14, 2018.