Robert Barnwell Rhett

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

We’ve got ourselves a good ol’ fashioned fire-eater here. And like fire itself, this brand of demagogue was a useful tool only until it burned its wielder.

A lawyer by trade, Rhett entered public service in 1826 as a South Carolina state legislator and continued as state attorney general, U.S. representative, and U.S. senator. Rhett came out loudly against President Jackson’s “Tariff of Abominations” in the 1830s, pushing secession before acceding to a “tyrannical” government:

Aye – disunion, rather, into a thousand fragments. And why, gentlemen! would I prefer disunion to such a Government? Because under such a Government I would be a slave – a fearful slave, ruled despotically by those who do not represent me … with every base and destructive passion of man bearing upon my shieldless destiny.

This, mind you, coming from a man who owned actual slaves. Rhett pushed for secession so hard that even John “Slavery Is A Positive Good” Calhoun wasn’t radical enough for him, which is like someone calling Ron Paul a moderate. But as this great New York Times profile of Rhett shows, that wasn’t even the guy’s best stuff. Through the Charleston Mercury, a newspaper he owned that was run by his son, Rhett spewed all kinds of obloquial, borderline slanderous “Rhett-oric” at Lincoln, Hannibal Hamlin, and the African slaves.

His secessionist dreams finally materialized in 1860 when South Carolina disunited itself after Lincoln’s election, prompting Rhett to help convene the Montgomery Convention that established the Confederate government and made Rhett a delegate. But like many a fire-eater who runs head first into the messy business of governing, Rhett soon became disillusioned by Jefferson Davis’ administration (Not seceded enough! Not fighting the Union enough! Wah!) and I’m guessing pretty pissed off by the war’s outcome. Though probably not as pissed off as dying from facial cancer in 1876.

Up next on CCWN, the traveled T. Morris Chester.

(sources: 1, 2)

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