Robert Barnwell Rhett, U.S. Senator, Southern "Fire-Eater"

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Robert Barnwell Rhett (Smith), I

Also Known As: "Smith", "Robert Barnwell Smith"
Birthdate: (75)
Birthplace: Beaufort, SC
Death: September 19, 1876 (75)
St. James Parish, Louisiana, United States
Place of Burial: Magnolia Cemetery Charleston Charleston County South Carolina
Immediate Family:

Son of James Harvey Smith and Marianna Barnwell Smith
Husband of Elizabeth Washington Rhett and Katherine Rhett
Father of Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr. (CSA); Col. Alfred M. Rhett, CSA; Lt. Robert Woodward Rhett (CSA); Elise Lewis; Sarah Taylor Roman and 5 others
Brother of James Hervey Smith Rhett; Edmund Rhett and Albert Moore Rhett

Occupation: US Senator, Attonery-General of South Carolina.
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Robert Barnwell Rhett, U.S. Senator, Southern "Fire-Eater"

Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. (December 21, 1800 – September 14, 1876), was a United States secessionist politician from South Carolina.


Born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort. 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 (soldier).

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.


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.

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 buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.

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

  • Robert Barnwell Rhett, Representative and a Senator from South Carolina; born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort, S.C., December 21, 1800....
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Robert Barnwell Rhett, U.S. Senator, Southern "Fire-Eater"'s Timeline

December 21, 1800
Beaufort, SC
February 25, 1828
Age 27
Charleston, Charleston County, South Carolina, United States
October 1829
Age 28
September 28, 1833
Age 32
Charleston, Charleston County, South Carolina, United States
Age 32
July 1, 1838
Age 37
Age 40
Age 43
Age 45
Age 48