Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876)
Robert Barnwell Rhett was born Robert Barnwell Smith to an aristocratic South Carolina family on December 21, 1800. He completed preparatory studies, studied law, and was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Beaufort in 1824.
As one of the earliest secession advocates in South Carolina, he was a supporter of Nullification during the Jackson Administration.
Rhett was elected to the State house of representatives for St. Bartholomew's Parish in 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1832. He was elected attorney general of South Carolina in 1832 and then elected as a Democrat to the 25th and to the five succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1837 - March 3, 1849).
Rhett changed his name to Robert Barnwell Rhett in 1838. He was a member of the Nashville convention in 1850.
Rhett was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of John C. Calhoun and served from December 18, 1850, until his resignation effective May 7, 1852.
He spent much of his life working for an independent South. He expressed his rabid secessionist sentiments through the Charleston Mercury, edited by his son.
Convinced that only a Republican victory in the presidential race of 1860 would bring about an independent southern nation, he and other southern political leaders labored hard to bring this about. After Lincoln won the presidential nomination in 1860, he drafted South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession and was delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress in 1861. He was chairman of the committee which reported the constitution of the Confederate States.
Rhett gained for himself the title of the "Father of Secession." His politics were considered too extreme for the presidency, though, and the more moderate Jefferson Davis was selected in his place.
As one of the owner-editors of the Charleston Mercury, he became a harsh critic of the Davis administration. By 1863, his fire-eater secessionism had been recognized as too extreme, and he was defeated in a race for a seat in the Confederate Congress.
When the Civil War ended, he refused to apply for a pardon.
He died in St. James Parish, La., September 14, 1876. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C.