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Robert Barnwell Rhett, Southern nationalist

January 13, 2011

Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876), a South Carolinian statesmen who was elected to the US House and Senate and eventually the Confederate House, was dubbed the “Father of Secession.” He was one of the “Fire Eaters” who advocated Southern independence and promoted Southern unity in the 1830s, 40s and 50s long before the Palmetto State seceded in 1860. In her famous diary, Mary Chesnut called Rhett “the greatest of seceders.” The arguments that Rhett made against the continuation of the Union between the Northern and Southern States were quite radical. Rhett and the more conservative John C. Calhoun parted ways politically in 1844 when Rhett and other Fire Eaters started the Bluffton Movement (named for the location of their meeting in Bluffton, SC – a town that today is unfortunately the target of massive Yankee migration) which called for separate State action against the Tariff of 1842 (which was supported by Northern industrialists and their allies in the Whig Party and raised the tax on imports from 20% to 40%, having the effect of reducing imports by half over the next two years until the tariff was repealed in 1846 and replaced by the Walker Tariff which reduced rates by 25-35%). So radical was Rhett in his defense of the South that Chesnut wrote of him:

One can scarcely understand the action of the people of South Carolina in 1860 without including in his ken the remarkable activities of one man, whose eloquent and fiery preaching of the gospel of liberty and self government and of revolution to achieve these ends, beat upon their ears in season and out of season for over 30 years…. This propagandist was Robert Barnwell Rhett, the enfant terrible of South Carolina politics.

Robert Barnwell Rhett helped form the short-lived Southern National party in Macon, Georgia with fellow Fire Eater William Lowndes Yancey in 1850 and even though this party was a failure, Rhett continued to travel and speak around the South in favour of States’ rights, Southern identity and independence. He argued that Southerners, who were a minority in the Union, were paying the vast majority of the Federal tariff and were becoming slaves to Washington, DC. In a famous address to the people of the Southern States Rhett referred to Northerners and Southerners as two separate people and laid out his powerful arguments against the South staying in the Union:

The Government of the United States is no longer the government of a confederate republic, but of a consolidated democracy. It is no longer a free government, but a despotism. It is, in fact, such a government as Great Britain attempted to set over our fathers, and which was resisted and defeated by a seven years struggle for independence.

The revolution of 1776 turned upon one great principle, self-government, and self-taxation the criterion of self-government. Where the interests of two people united together under one Government are different, each must have the power to protect its interests by the organization of the Government, or they cannot be free. The interests of Great Britain and of the colonies were different and antagonistic. Great Britain was desirous of carrying out the policy of all nations toward their colonies of making them tributary to their wealth and power. She had vast and complicated relations with the whole world. Her policy toward her North American colonies was to identify them with her in all these complicated relations, and to make them bear, in common with the rest of the empire, the full burden of her obligations and necessities. She had a vast public debt; she had a European policy and an Asiatic policy, which had occasioned the accumulation of her public debt, and which kept her in continual wars. The North American colonies saw their interests, political and commercial, sacrificed by such a policy. Their interests required that they should not be identified with the burdens and wars of the mother country. They had been settled under charters which gave them self-government, at least so far as their property was concerned. They had taxed themselves, and had never been taxed by the Government of Great Britain. To make them a part of a consolidated empire the Parliament of Great Britain determined to assume the power of legislating for the colonies in all cases whatsoever. Our ancestors resisted the pretension. They refused to be a part of the consolidated Government of Great Britain.

The Southern States now stand exactly in the same position toward the Northern States that our ancestors in the colonies did toward Great Britain. The Northern States, having the majority in Congress, claim the same power of omnipotence in legislation as the British Parliament. “The general welfare” is the only limit to the legislation of either; and the majority in Congress, as in the British Parliament, are the sole judges of the expediency of the legislation this “general welfare” requires. Thus the Government of the United States has become a consolidated Government, and the people of the Southern States are compelled to meet the very despotism their fathers threw off in the Revolution of 1776.

The consolidation of the Government of Great Britain over the colonies was attempted to be carried out by the taxes. The British Parliament undertook to tax the colonies to promote British interests. Our fathers resisted this pretension. They claimed the right of self-taxation through their Colonial Legislatures. They were not represented in the British Parliament, and therefore could not rightfully be taxed by its Legislature. The British Government, however, offered them a representation in the British Parliament; but it was not sufficient to enable them to protect themselves from the majority, and they refused it. Between taxation without any representation, and taxation without a representation adequate to protection, there was no difference By neither would the colonies tax themselves. Hence they refused to pay the taxes paid by the British Parliament.

The Southern States now stand in the same relation toward the Northern States, in the vital matter of taxation, that our ancestors stood toward the people of Great Britain. They are in a minority in Congress. Their representation in Congress is useless to protect them against unjust taxation, and they are taxed by the people of the North for their benefit exactly as the people of Great Britain taxed our ancestors in the British Parliament for their benefit. For the last forty years the taxes laid by the Congress of the United States have been laid with a view of subserving the interests of the North. The people of the South have been taxed by duties on imports not for revenue, but for an object inconsistent with revenue — to promote, by prohibitions, Northern interests in the productions of their mines and manufactures.

There is another evil in the condition of the Southern toward the Northern States, which our ancestors refused to bear toward Great Britain. Our ancestors not only taxed themselves, but all the taxes collected from them were expended among them. Had they submitted to the pretensions of the British Government, the taxes collected from them would have been expended on other parts of the British Empire. They were fully aware of the effect of such a policy in impoverishing the people from whom taxes are collected, and in enriching those who receive the benefit of their expenditure. To prevent the evils of such a policy was one of the motives which drove them on to revolution. Yet this British policy has been fully realized toward the Southern States by the Northern States. The people of the Southern States are not only taxed for the benefit of the Northern States, but after the taxes are collected three-fourths of them are expended at the North. This cause, with others connected with the operation of the General Government, has provincialized the cities of the South. Their growth is paralyzed, while they are the mere suburbs of Northern cities. The bases of the foreign commerce of the United States are the agricultural productions of the South; yet Southern cities do not carry it on. Our foreign trade is almost annihilated. In 1740 there were five shipyards in South Carolina to build ships to carry on our direct trade with Europe. Between 1740 and 1779 there were built in these yards twenty-five square-rigged vessels, beside a great number of sloops and schooners to carry on our coast and West India trade. In the half century immediately preceding the Revolution, from 1725 to 1775, the population of South Carolina increased seven-fold.

No man can for a moment believe that our ancestors intended to establish over their posterity exactly the same sort of Government they had overthrown….

The Constitution of the United States was an experiment. The experiment consisted in uniting under one Government different peoples, living in different climates, and having different pursuits of industry and institutions. It matters not how carefully the limitations of such a government are laid down in the constitution — its success must at least depend upon the good faith of the parties to the constitutional compact in enforcing them. It is not in the power of human language to exclude false inferences, constructions, and perversions, in any constitution; and when vast sectional interests are to be subserved involving the appropriation of countless millions of money it has not been the usual experience of mankind that words on parchment can arrest power. The Constitution of the United States, irrespective of the interposition of the States, rested on the assumption that power would yield to faith — that integrity would be stronger than interest, and that thus the limitations of the Constitution would be observed. The experiment has been fairly made. The Southern States, from the commencement of the Government, have striven to keep it within the orbit prescribed by the Constitution. The experiment has failed.

Rhett believed that the only way to form an independent South was to have a ‘Black Republican’ elected. He felt that with Seward (he was the leading candidate at the time) as President at least three southern states would secede” and so Rhett set out to split the Democratic Party in the hopes of getting a Northern Republican elected US president and thereby pushing the Cotton States to secede. Ultimately, this strategy was successful, Abraham Lincoln was elected in the political chaos of 1860 and South Carolina voted to leave the Union that December. After the other Southern States seceded from the US in 1861, Robert Barnwell Rhett was considered one of the leading candidates for President of the Confederate States. In the end he was viewed as too radical for the position and the more conservative Jefferson Davis was selected as chief executive.

In 1862, Barnwell Rhett proposed for the Confederate flag “a yellow sun in a blue shield with a ray for each state. It would eliminate the stars and the red, white, and blue combinations of the Yankee flag.” Rhett was critical of the Confederate Government for many reasons, including government intervention in the economy (Rhett was a strong defender of the free market). He had previously envisioned a Confederacy that also included the Caribbean and even Brazil, but the Confederate States didn’t live up to Rhett’s dream. He criticised Richmond as strongly as he had once criticised Washington, DC. The feisty South Carolinian survived the Federal conquest of the South in 1865, refused to apply for a Federal pardon and lived until cancer took him in 1876. Rhett is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.

Online sources: WikipediaGreat American History, Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail, Robert Barnwell Rhett Biography and SC Address.

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  • Chris

    Wow, Mr. Rhett, didnt stop after the the southern states seceded. He went at the Confederate Goverment. You have to admired that. because the guy didnt trust one single goverment it seems like and that is a good thing. Any goverment can become opressive of anything. Rhett is a good man and a freedom lover. I take my hat off to him.


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