After leaving Congress, Rhett attended the Nashville Convention of 1850, where he denounced the Compromise of 1850 and again called on South Carolinians to leave the Union.
Congressman, U.S. senator. Rhett was born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort on December 21, 1800, the eighth child of James Smith and Marianna Gough. The Smith sons changed their surname to Rhett in 1837 to honor their ancestor Colonel William Rhett. Robert Barnwell Rhett attended Beaufort College and later read law in the Charleston office of Thomas Grimké. Rhett was admitted to the bar in 1821 and two years later formed a law partnership in Colleton District with his cousin Robert W. Barnwell. On February 21, 1827, he married Elizabeth Washington Burnet. The couple had eleven children. After the death of his first wife in 1852, Rhett married Catherine Herbert Dent on April 25, 1854. His second marriage produced three more children.
Rhett was elected to the state House of Representative by the voters of St. Bartholomew’s Parish in 1826. He proved himself an active, promising legislator and was returned to the next three sessions. Rhett also earned a reputation as one of South Carolina’s most vehement critics of the Tariff of 1828, the so-called “Tariff of Abominations.” In 1832 Rhett was elected to the nullification convention, which initially nullified the federal tariff law but rescinded the resolution after a compromise was worked out that reduced tariff schedules. Rhett opposed the compromise, believing that it failed to recognize state sovereignty. “A people, owning slaves, are mad, or worse than mad,” he declared, “who do not hold their destinies in their own hands.”
Rhett resigned from the legislature after his election as South Carolina attorney general in November 1832. His reputation as a passionate defender of state interests helped him in 1837 win a seat in the U.S. House Representatives, where he followed the political leadership of John C. Calhoun. However, as Rhett grew more radical, he broke with the more moderate Calhoun on several occasions. In 1844 Rhett led what became known as the Bluffton Movement, which called for state action against the tariff and the unwillingness of northern congressmen to admit Texas to the Union. The movement failed but left Rhett as the recognized leader of the immediate secessionists, or “fire-eaters,” in South Carolina. Rhett’s career in the House of Representatives ended in 1849 when he chose not to seek reelection.
After leaving Congress, Rhett attended the Nashville Convention of 1850, where he denounced the Compromise of 1850 and again called on South Carolinians to leave the Union. The convention accomplished little, but radical majorities in the South Carolina legislature elected Rhett to the U.S. Senate in December 1850. With strong initial support at home, Rhett again called for South Carolina and the other slaveholding states to secede if their grievances were not addressed. However, in elections held in October 1851 for delegates to yet another southern congress, the secession faction in South Carolina was soundly defeated by cooperationists, and Rhett resigned his Senate seat on May 7, 1852.
For the next seven years Rhett tended his private affairs and kept his distance from politics. Together with his son Barnwell Rhett, Jr., he acquired the Charleston Mercury, which became a leading advocate of secession. On July 4, 1859, at Grahamville, Rhett made his first public speech in seven years and called upon his state to secede if a Republican won the 1860 presidential election. After South Carolina left the Union on December 20, 1860, it was Rhett who suggested that the remaining southern states meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to establish a new nation. Rhett played a prominent role at the Montgomery Convention, serving as chair of the foreign affairs committee and actively participating in the creation of the Confederate constitution. He introduced the six-year presidential term and sections banning protective tariffs and most government-sponsored internal improvements. But other proposals were not adopted, including recognition of the right of secession and the requirement that future Confederate states must permit slavery within their borders. Rhett also failed to remove the section that declared the foreign slave trade illegal.
After the Provisional Confederate Congress adjourned in 1862, Rhett never again held public office. Even before he left the congress, Rhett began a concerted campaign against Jefferson Davis and his administration. Through the Mercury, Rhett attacked Davis with the same vitriol he used against the national Democrats before the war. The war ruined Rhett financially, and he was physically weakened by skin cancer. He died at the plantation of his son-in-law near New Orleans on September 14, 1876. In an obituary, the Charleston News and Courier described Rhett as “the paramount advocate of that secession of South Carolina which, through him, more than any other, became an accomplished fact.” Rhett was buried at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston.
Davis, William C. Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Rhett, Robert Barnwell. A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett. Edited by William C. Davis. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Walther, Eric H. The Fire-Eaters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
White, Laura A. Robert Barnwell Rhett: Father of Secession. 1931. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965.