Robert Rhett

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Robert Barnwell Rhett
Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr.gif
Deputy to the Provisional Confederate 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 W. Barnwell
Succeeded by William F. De Saussure
Member of the United States 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 F. Colcock
Member of the United States House of Representatives from South Carolina's 2nd Congressional District
In office
March 4, 1837 – March 3, 1843
Preceded by William J. Grayson
Succeeded by Richard F. Simpson
Attorney General of South Carolina
In office
November 29, 1832 – March 4, 1837
Governor Robert Young Hayne
George McDuffie
Pierce Mason 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 in Charleston, South Carolina
Political party Democratic
Profession Politician, lawyer

Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. (December 21, 1800 – September 14, 1876) was a United States secessionist politician from South Carolina. He owned the Charleston Mercury.[1]


Born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort. He was of English ancestry.[2] His name was originally Smith, but after entering public life he changed it for that of a prominent colonial ancestor Colonel William Rhett. He studied law and became a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1826.

His great-uncle was Congressman Robert Barnwell the father of Congressman Robert Woodward Barnwell. A cousin of the Barnwells was the wife of Alexander Garden.

After his state legislative service, Rhett was the South Carolina attorney general (1832), U.S. representative (1837–1849), and U.S. senator (1850–1852). Extremely pro-Southern in his views, he split (1844) with John C. Calhoun to lead the Bluffton Movement for separate state action on the Tariff of 1842. Rhett was one of the leading fire-eaters at the Nashville Convention of 1850, which failed to endorse his aim of secession for the whole South.

After the Nashville Convention, Robert B. Rhett, William Lowndes Yancey and a few others formed the short-lived Southern National Party in the City of Macon, Georgia on August 21, 1850.


When South Carolina passed (1852) an ordinance that merely declared a state's right to secede, Rhett resigned his U.S. Senate seat. He continued to express his fiery secessionist sentiments through the Charleston Mercury, edited by his son, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr.

During the 1860 presidential campaign, a widely credited report in the Nashville Patriot said that Rhett, along with William Lowndes Yancey and William Porcher Miles, was a leader of a Southern conspiracy to end the Union that began in May 1858 with a plan, hatched at the Southern Convention in Montgomery, Alabama, in May 1858, to split the Democratic Party along Northern and Southern lines.[3]

Rhett was a member of the South Carolina Secession Convention in 1860. In the Montgomery Convention which met to organize a provisional government for the seceding states, he was one of the most active delegates and was chairman of the committee which reported the Confederate Constitution.

Subsequently he was elected a member of the lower house of the Confederate Congress. He received no higher office in the Confederate government and returned to South Carolina, where he sharply criticized the policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

After the end of the War, he settled in Louisiana. While it was rumored that he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1868, 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, South Carolina.

The Robert Barnwell Rhett House was declared to be a National Historic Landmark in 1973.[4][5]


  1. ^ The Secession The News and Courier - December 18, 1960 The News and Courier
  2. ^ Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater By William C. Davis page 1
  3. ^ Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, vol. 1: The Improvised War, 1861-1862 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p. 28.
  4. ^ "Robert Barnwell Rhett House". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-03-16. 
  5. ^ Benjamin Levy (January 29, 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination:" (pdf). National Park Service.  and Accompanying two photos, exterior, from 1973 PDF (32 KB)

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]

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

External links[edit]

Confederate States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Position created
Representative to the Provisional Confederate Congress from South Carolina
Succeeded by
Position abolished
United States Senate
Preceded by
Robert W. Barnwell
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from South Carolina
Served alongside: Andrew P. Butler
Succeeded by
William F. De Saussure
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William J. Grayson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Richard F. Simpson
Preceded by
James Rogers
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 7th congressional district

Succeeded by
William F. Colcock