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Robert Barnwell Rhett

April 9, 2012

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’ and called the ‘Lone Star of Disunion’ by his enemies in the Whig Party. 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.’  Rhett helped form the short-lived Southern National Party in Macon, Georgia with fellow Fire Eater William Lowndes Yancey in 1850. 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. 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.




The Bluffton Movement vs the Cooperationist Party

Rhett: Abstractions & fanatics against the South

GC: Rhett vs Davis on Confederate foreign policy

Rhett, Southern independence & the Golden Circle

Bluffton Secession Tree: The roots of Southern nationalism

Rhett: The peace & salvation of the South

Calhoun, Rhett & Davis in 1850

Robert Barnwell Rhett: Our Cause is not dead

Robert Barnwell Rhett, Southern nationalist

Consolidated despotism; Union & States destroyed

Rhett on the South’s ‘naked submission’

Rhett & secession as a life’s policy

Rhett’s vision of a vast Southern-led confederation

GC: Rhett’s proposed Confederate flag

The Bluffton Boys & the summer of 1844

Podcast: Rhett vs Southern conservatives

Rhett & the Golden Circle

Rhett on race and responsibility

Rhett proposes a ‘happy termination’ to the Union

Rhett: ‘Disunion rather than a consolidated government’

Rhett on the corrupt bargain between Hamilton and Jefferson

The birth of Southern nationalism: Rhett emerges from the Lowcountry

The Fire-eaters and our tradition

The Lower South moves towards confederation

Conservatives prevail in Confederate Congress

Rhett & the Lower South’s secession



‘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…. The experiment has been fairly made. …The experiment has failed.’

‘The South must be free, or the South must perish.’ (1851)

‘It cannot be believed that our ancestors would have assented to any union whatever with the people of the North if the feelings and opinions now existing among them had existed when the Constitution was framed.’ (1861)

‘My uncompromising Southernism and anti-Tariffism, I suppose, renders me unfit for the councils of the Provisional [CSA] Government.’ (25 February 1861)

‘I see but one course left, for the peace and salvation of the South, – a dissolution of the Union. …Wealth, honor, and power, and one of the most glorious destinies which ever crowned a great and happy people await the South, if she but control her own fate.’ (1850)

‘The people of the reunited States – South and North – are the heaviest taxed civilized People in the world; and their Government, one of the most despotic and corrupt, staining its annals. Does not hypocrisy and contempt, usually go together? And will the echoes of Revolution throughout the land ever die away, until the South is independent; or the South is free?’ (from his memoir)

‘A political union can only exist, between independent political entities. Such was the Union constituted by the Constitution of the United States, “between the States.” But this Union – a Union of independent political entities – a Union of free-will and choice -, is gone; and the connexion now existing themselves what were formerly States, is no union at all; but is the operation of the different parts of a central consolidated power, held together by fear and force.’ (from his memoir)

‘No one can understand the nature of a Consolidated Government, without perceiving, that it is only the first step to Imperialism.’ (from his memoir)

‘Since the foundation of free governments, no constitution has been ever preserved by the mere faith of those who had power over it; and it has been preserved only by the resistance of those who are mainly interested in its limitations. Men – not inanimate parchments – living men, not dead abstractions – have enforced free governments.’ (1860)

‘The Government is not a Government whose powers “will be exercised mostly in time of war.” Defense against foreign nations is not its characteristic – but internal aggression. It is a sectional despotism. Mr. Madison being the witness, the Constitution of the United States, is an utter failure.’ (1860)

‘If our rights are victorious in the next Presidential election, we may consider it as a kind augury of a more auspicious future. If they are overthrown, let this election be the last contest between the North and South; and the long, weary night of our dishonor and humiliation be dispersed at last, by the glorious day-spring of a Southern confederacy.’ (1859)

‘To submit to the encroachments of this vulgar crew of plunderers and fanatics, is a degradation no other free people than the people of the South ever endured; but to submit to their rule will be the desperation of a weak and conquered race – conquered without a fight.’ (1859)

‘It has been in vain, that those in the North who respect the constitution and the rights of the South, have proclaimed, from time to time, that the South would resist, and the Union be dissolved. We have justified the contempt of our enemies; not the good opinion of our friends. The South has not resisted. The Union is not dissolved; and our aggressors, triumphing in our submission, hold place and power for our harassment, and their exaltation and aggrandizement.’ (1859)

‘Is not a whole life of endurance of unconstitutional oppression, enough for any wisdom in delay – too much, for safety or honor? How long shall we stand, the resistless and despised victims of Northern fanaticism and rapacity? How long shall we cry “wait!” whilst the North advances in power and insolence; and each successive year brings her nearer to the consummation of her policy of domination over us, and over this continent?’ (1859)

‘I have counselled but one policy to the South; yield not one inch, but meet the question here and elsewhere with firm, uncompromising, and unflinching resistance.’ (1847)

‘The spirit which yields one position will yield another, until at length, self-respect and self-confidence is gone, and a conscious degradation prepares the people to be the victims of corrupt and traitorous demagogues.’ (1847)

‘War is always an enormous crime, often on both sides – always on one.’ (1846)

‘The Bluffton Boys have been silenced, not subdued… The fire is not extinguished; it smolders beneath, and will burst forth in another glorious flame that shall overrun the State and place her light again as of old, upon the watch tower of freedom.’ (1845)

‘I know that there is no danger in our people being too hot. The danger is the other way. I will keep up the fire, if like a lost hunter in a prairie, I have to kindle it alone, with my gun flint, and watch by the blaze, rifle in hand to keep off the wolves.’ (1845)

‘My constituents have sent for me; and I go in a few days to meet them, and tell them a story of wrongs which their Fathers would have died rather than bear.’ (1844)

‘The only hope of the South is in resistance.’ (1844)

‘If you value your rights you must resist.’ (1844)

‘I fear, that there is no longer any hope or liberty for the South, under a Union, by which all self-government is taken away.’

‘If we are true to ourselves, a glorious destiny awaits us, and the South will be a great, free and independent people!’

‘The South must dissever itself from the rotten Northern element.’

‘From the beginning of time, liberty has been acquired but at the price of blood, and that blood shed in revolution.’

‘You are the vassals and slaves of a consolidated empire.’

‘We have to deal with erring man.’

‘Universal suffrage will give those who have no property, the absolute control of the property and legislation of the country… in all its horrors… the despotism of numbers may be the most terrible that can scourge a fallen people.’

‎’I am a nullifier and will never consent that more power should be given to this government than strictly belongs to it.’

‘Do you tell me of “Union,” when I have seen the cannon of ships and fortresses pointed at your towns, and the insolent soldiery of an angry tyrant lording it in your streets? …I can not love, I will not praise that which, under the abused names of Union and liberty, attempts to inflict upon us every things that can curse and enslave the land.’

‘The star-spangled banner no longer waves in triumph and glory for me. …If a Confederacy of the Southern States could now be obtained, should we not deem it a happy termination – happy beyond expectation, of our long struggle for our rights against oppression?’

‘The Union must be dissolved under its present course of administration. It requires no conspiracy to destroy – no exertion on our part to drag it to its dissolution. It goes down with the inevitable weight of its own gravitation, into that dark abyss of anarchy and ruin, where all tyrannies have fallen.’

‘If to think, to speak, to feel such sentiments as these, constitute me a disunionist and a traitor, according to the English language as now understood in Carolina, then gentlemen, I am a Disunionist! – I am a Traitor!’

‘Give me disunion rather than a consolidated government. Aye – disunion, rather into a thousand fragments… 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 – love of domination – avarice – long rankling jealousy – and, worst of all, the fell spirit of bigotry, which would exult over my dwelling in flames, and my children given to slaughter.’

‘From the commencement of the Government of the United States, the money power of the North, controlled the North, and hovered over the Government like a vulture seeking its prey.’

‘I am a secessionist – I am a disunionist. Others may submit: I will not. I will secede, if I can, from this Union. I will test, for myself and for my children, whether South Carolina is a State or an humbled and degraded province, existing only at the mercy of an unscrupulous and fanatical tyranny.’

‘The long, weary night of our humiliation, oppression and danger is passing away and the glorious dawn of a Southern Confederacy breaks on our view.’

‘Be prepared to meet all the usual troubles and sacrifices of revolutions. For thirty-two years, have I followed the quarry. Behold! it at last, in sight! A few more bounds, and it falls – the Union falls; and with it falls, its faithless oppressions – its insulting agitations – its vulgar tyrannies and fanaticism. The bugle blast of our victory and redemption is on the wind; and the South will be safe and free.’

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  • The New Silence Dogood

    All interesting.

    Thank you Michael.

  • Michael

    Thank you, TNSDG. You’ll notice I’ve done pages like this for Rhett, Davis and Dr Hill so far (linked on top right of site). I’ll eventually do more of the Fire-Eaters as we put together articles on them (I’ve ordered several books on the subject). And I’ll continue to add to these pages as we post more material on Rhett, Davis and Dr Hill. One thing, I’m going to work on is a ‘quotes’ section for each.

  • Sebastian

    I’d also like to thank for this very interesting article. One question: Where does the term “fire-eater” come from? I know fire-eaters in the circus, but since when is it used for radical (or consequent: pick your favorite) Southern politicians?

  • Michael

    Sebastian, I’m not exactly sure where the term came from but you’re right that it was used for radical southerners. I’ve ordered several books on the Fire-eaters which should be here in the next few days. I’m hopeful that at least one of them will speak about the exact origin of the term.

  • http://confederatepapist.blogspot.com/ Confederate Papist

    “‘Universal suffrage will give those who have no property, the absolute control of the property and legislation of the country… in all its horrors… the despotism of numbers may be the most terrible that can scourge a fallen people.’”

    How prophetic was that quote?!?!

  • http://confederatepapist.blogspot.com/ Confederate Papist

    “‘I am a secessionist – I am a disunionist. Others may submit: I will not. I will secede, if I can, from this Union. I will test, for myself and for my children, whether South Carolina is a State or an humbled and degraded province, existing only at the mercy of an unscrupulous and fanatical tyranny.’”

    This begs the question, is this a confederation of 50 States or a group of provinces under a central government? To wit, courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary Online:


    Pronunciation: /steɪt/
    – a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government:
    Germany, Italy, and other European states
    – an organized political community or area forming part of a federal republic:
    the German state of Bavaria
    (the States)informal term for United States.
    – the civil government of a country:
    services provided by the state



    Pronunciation: /ˈprɒvɪns/
    – a principal administrative division of a country or empire:
    Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province
    (the Province) British Northern Ireland:
    all-party talks on the future of the Province
    Christian Church a district under an archbishop or a metropolitan.
    Roman History a territory outside Italy under a Roman governor.
    – (the provinces) British the whole of a country outside the capital, especially when regarded as lacking in sophistication or culture:
    I made my way home to the dreary provinces by train

    Makes one wonder nowadays.

  • Michael

    CP, I’m happy to see that you took a close look at those quotes. Your points are right on, by the way.

  • The New Silence Dogood

    Hey great comments and observations by all (I’ll have to say that I’ll have to pay closer attention to certain things Mr.Rhett says because they are very profound).

    Not to change the subject, but I like the “New/Old” picture Michael.

    I hope you’ve got a sense of humor because I have to ask ya’ if that’s a picture from back in your hippie days :-)

  • The New Silence Dogood


    You weren’t smokin’ any of that ganja weed over in Spain were ya’? :-)

  • Michael

    Ever met a radical Right-wing hippie, TNSDG? lol I suppose that is what I was – and still am to some degree. That particular picture is from Belém, Portugal, just on the outskirts of Lisbon.

  • The New Silence Dogood


    Hey, seriously, cool picture.

    I wish I could use pictures of my old former self.

    I don’t even recognize the person staring back at me in the mirror anymore! :-)

  • http://confederatepapist.blogspot.com/ Confederate Papist

    Michael et al, thanks.

    More surprising is how applicable they are today…everything Rhett and the others talked against regarding the Yankee empire has come true, and then some.

    I just got done reading Sam Dickson’s “Shattering the Icon of Abraham Lincoln” which should be required reading in all Southern Schools. I’m going to have my kids read it and we’ll be discussing it, too.


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