Sunday, June 7, 2009

Robert Barnwell Rhett - The Father of Secession

Known as the “Father of Secession,” Robert Barnwell Rhett was born December 21st 1800 most probably in the Elizabeth Barnwell Gough house and was raised there by his grandmother until her death in 1817.

Like his grandmother and her grandfather before her, Robert Barnwell Rhett is known as one of Beaufort’s more colorful personalities. One of the earliest and most ardent and voices for States’ Rights and Nullification, he played a major role in eventually propelling South Carolina into the vanguard of the Secessionist Movement. One of the last of the Barnwell family to wield tremendous wealth and political influence, his single minded devotion to the cause helped to bring on a war that would end five generations of Barnwell reign.

Admitted to the bar in Charleston in 1822, he practiced law briefly with his cousin Robert Woodward Barnwell, before launching his high profile political career. In 1837, along with five brothers, he changed his last name from Smith to Rhett to honor his paternal great-great grandfather Colonel Rhett of Charles Town whose name had died out.His long political career included twelve years in Congress and chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He was a delegate to the Nullification Convention of 1832 and a US senator before resigning in 1852.

A powerful and compelling public speaker, he was known by his contemporaries as a “fire eater.” Praised for his honesty and high standards of conduct, he was alternately described as impulsive and rash – his colorful personality not unlike his grandmother’s.
The traits that made Robert Barnwell Rhett one of Beaufort’s most famous antebellum figures may well have been instilled at 705 Washington Street by a strict disciplinarian grandmother who once had been a fiery tempered, impulsive young woman.

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