Southern History Series: Review: Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater

Editor’s Note: As I have repeatedly said, the goal of the historicist is to understand history and enlighten the present generation by excavating and recovering an accurate memory of the past. In this case, I would like you to compare and contrast Rhett with the modern day cuckservative.

William C. Davis, Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater

William C. Davis’s Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater is a biography of Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina who has sometimes been labeled the “Father of Secession.”

“Aristocrat, conservative, populist, revolutionary – he would have been a familiar figure in Paris in 1789, or Petrograd in October 1917, or most especially perhaps Germany in 1933, not because he was evil or bloodthirsty – which he certainly was not – but because he had a genius for stirring the passions and the prejudices that could compel millions to uprising. He was a man familiar in all times and all nations, the perfect revolutionary.”

The men who led the Confederate States of America were not the men who tore down the Union: Jefferson Davis left the U.S. Senate with tears in his eyes, Alexander Stephens voted against secession in Georgia, every other member of the Davis cabinet had been a moderate conservative.

The historical Confederacy was like a version of the Third Reich where Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels had been marginalized, Heinrich Brüning had hijacked the movement and General Erwin Rommel had superseded everyone in popular acclaim and memory of Nazi Germany.

Is it profitable to compare Robert Barnwell Rhett to Adolf Hitler and Southern Rights to National Socialism? We’ve always enjoyed being edgy and iconoclastic on this website so we will go there. Perhaps we can profit by examining the parallels as well as the differences, but not in the usual liberal way, which is almost never to understand the past, but merely to demonize and sermonize about it:

  • There had been a disunionist movement in South Carolina and the Deep South for thirty years prior to the triumph of secession. The Confederate States of America represented the institutional triumph of Southern Rights ideology. In much the same way, the Third Reich represented the institutional triumph of National Socialism in Germany. Robert Barnwell Rhett, the editor of the Charleston Mercury, was the public face of Southern Rights ideology.
  • There had been a Southern Rights faction often, but not always, aligned with the Democratic Party within South Carolina and other Southern states for decades before secession. Robert Barnwell Rhett and William Lowndes Yancey were the two most well-known figures involved in the movement. Unlike Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Anglo-Celtic Southerners were quarrelsome and individualistic and after the death of Sen. John C. Calhoun in 1850 no single personality had the presence to command the respect to dominate the movement as its leader.
  • Like Adolf Hitler in Germany, Robert Barnwell Rhett was a revolutionary vanguardist who ventured far beyond the boundaries of the political mainstream (for example, he hoped that slavery would be abolished in Washington, DC to radicalize Southerners), but he was also a mainstreamer in the sense that he spent most of his political career as a loyal subordinate of Calhoun.
  • Like Adolf Hitler in Germany, Robert Barnwell Rhett was an ethnonationalist (he believed Southerners were a distinct people like Hungarians who ought to have their own state), a racialist (he believed in the existence of racial differences) and a white supremacist (he believed it was morally right and natural for whites to rule over black slaves).
  • Like Adolf Hitler in Germany, Robert Barnwell Rhett believed that the South needed lebensraum for slavery and envisioned an independent Southern Confederacy expanding southward into the tropics and conquering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The Knights of the Golden Circle wanted to unite the American South with the other plantation states of the Caribbean and South America to create the “Golden Circle” as a bulwark of classical Roman-style agrarian capitalist slave states against the creeping encroachment of modern liberal industrial free-market capitalism emanating from Britain and the Northern states.

Insofar as there are similarities with National Socialism, Southern Rights was a revolutionary ideology, Robert Barnwell Rhett was an important leader in the revolutionary vanguard, the Southern Rights faction within the Democratic Party was a revolutionary party, Southern Rights was anti-liberal and anti-democratic and there was a shared commitment to racialism, white supremacy, social conservatism, ethnonationalism and imperial expansion. The differences, however, between the Southern Rights movement and National Socialism are arguably more striking though:

  • Southern Rights was not anti-Semitic. The Jews were not perceived as a misfortune in the Old South because they were also pro-slavery and pro-white supremacy. Sephardic Jews were not iconoclasts like the Ashkenazi Jews who would come over later to the American North from Germany, Russia and Poland. Sen. Judah Benjamin of Louisiana and Sen. David Yulee of Florida supported secession. Instead, radical egalitarianism and the mortal threat it posed to Southern civilization was associated with Yankee abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. The Yankee was perceived as the ethnic antagonist of the Southron.
  • Robert Barnwell Rhett and Adolf Hitler were both anti-liberal and anti-democratic revolutionaries, but the same can be said of Hitler and Che Guevera or Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini. Their revolutions did not share the same political objectives.
  • Rhett’s vision of “Free Government” was driven by his hatred of “consolidationism.” He wanted to tear down the central state and diffuse political power from the federal government to the states, cities and counties. In Rhett’s worldview, the best type of government was local government tied down by a strict constitution in which the natural aristocracy among the local oligarchy ruled over the deferential masses of White yeoman farmers and black slaves.
  • National Socialism was anti-democratic in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s sense that a leader could embody the general will of the people. Southern Rights was anti-democratic in the sense that its model was Greco-Roman classical republicanism fused with a sort of Radical Whig states rights ideology that favored the disintegration of the Hegelian State.
  • In antebellum South Carolina, the state legislature elected the governor, appointed senators and chose presidential electors. The franchise was restricted to White male property owners. Democracy was kept on a short leash. Rhett had no use for mass rallies, uniforms, haranguing the masses and other types of fascist theatrics which he would have considered beneath his dignity, but he was an excellent propagandist and the proprietor of the Charleston Mercury.
  • Rhett was like the exact opposite of the Führer in that he never dominated the Southern Rights movement in the way that Adolf Hitler did with National Socialism. Insofar as Rhett attempted to lead like John C. Calhoun, his perceived extremism usually had the effect of backfiring and derailing momentum toward secession.
  • By all accounts, Rhett was a devout Christian and a Chad and a virile tiger in the bedroom who fathered no less than 15 children by two wives. Davis gives Rhett credit as a devoted father and husband. He was also the model of a kind and patriarchal slaveowner. His slaves continued to work for him long after abolition. Hitler never had children.

So what is Robert Barnwell Rhett’s legacy? In what sense is Rhett responsible for bringing about secession and forging the Confederate States of America? This is why a comparative perspective here is so useful. It will suffice to say that there is far more ambiguity in Rhett’s case than in the case of Hitler, Mussolini or Lenin who succeeded in dominating their respective revolutions whereas Rhett tended to shape the language and course of the movement while alienating everyone else around him.

  • Rhett spent more than twenty years of his political life in the shadow of John C. Calhoun. It was Calhoun who doused the flames of secession in 1832 after the compromise tariff and again during the short lived Bluffton movement in 1844.
  • In spite of this, these were crucial formative years for Rhett and the nascent Southern Rights movement: Calhoun and Rhett “mainstreamed” the ideas of nullification and secession in the Southern wing of the post-Jackson Democracy and Calhoun adopted Rhett’s doctrine that the territories were the common property of all the people of the states, which was the rock that Yancey would later use to split the Democratic Party and the Union.
  • In the end, it was William Lowndes Yancey who while equally radical was a more pragmatic tactician who fatally split the Democratic Party in Charleston, which resulted in the election of Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina. Rhett played almost no role in South Carolina politics in the climatic years of the secession crisis. After purity spiraling, he had entered “profound retirement” after the rejection of secession and the death of his first wife in 1852. But what impact did Rhett have on Yancey? Could Yancey have succeeded in splitting the Democracy along regional lines if Rhett’s doctrine on squatter sovereignty that the territories were the common property of the Union had not been ascendant in Southern Democratic circles in 1860?
  • What was the cumulative impact of Rhett’s influence on the Southern wing of the Democratic Party? Even though Rhett had been rejected in 1844 and 1852, it was Rhett who carried the flag for separate state action over cooperative secession and it was Rhett’s doctrine of separate state action that ultimately destroyed the Union. Even the people who hated Rhett personally like James Henry Hammond didn’t necessarily disavow his doctrines.
  • For years, it was Rhett who agitated all the core ideas and created the discourse that destroyed the Union: state sovereignty, unjust taxation and federal spending, the territories being the common property of the Union, the threat posed by abolitionist fanatics, the incompatibility of the sections, separate state action, etc. When the crisis finally came to a head between 1856 and 1860, Rhett had retreated from the public spotlight, but his doctrines were alive and well among other men.
  • Rhett was honored for his leadership role in bringing about secession: it was Rhett who wrote the Address to the Slaveholding States, Rhett who was the leader of the South Carolina delegation in Montgomery, and it was Rhett who had the greatest impact of all the delegates on revising the Confederate Constitution.

Revolutions aren’t made without revolutionaries.

In 1861, most people in the South believed that fire-eaters like the “Rhetts and Yanceys” had brought about secession, but were ill-suited to carry the revolution forward to the next level. They turned to establishment moderate conservatives like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.

Here was the scene at the greatest moment in Rhett’s life:

“They had been at it for almost ninety minutes, and then at last the crowd heard the name they had been waiting for.

“Robert Barnwell Rhett.”

At once the greatest shout went up as a sixty-year-old man, slim and erect at six feet began to walk down the aisle. Blue eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles acknowledged the accolades of the multitude and saw the shimmering away of white silk handkerchiefs as he nodded a well-formed, balding head at those he knew. Before him on the stage he saw Governor Francis Pickens; his old friend David Jamison, the president of the convention; the clerk; and behind them the scenes of Southern industry and culture painted by the nephew of another toiler for freedom, the Italian liberator Garibaldi. They were all together now, at last.

Red-faced as usual, with a small white plaster covering an annoying pimple beside his nose, he reached the simple two-drawered table on which the ordinance of secession lay for his signature. Suddenly he fell to his knees, lifted his hands upwards toward the heavens, and bowed his head in prayer. It was high drama, and high theater as well, and the crowd exploded in cheers as he said his silent thanks. Everyone else arose, men took their hat in their hands, and the handkerchiefs went to their eyes tearing over at the emotion of the moment. Then he stood, took the pen, and wrote his name midway down the fourth column of signatures, immediately to the right of his old friend Maxcy Gregg’s. That done, he returned to his seat, no doubt mildly chagrined that the next to be called was his old enemy Christopher G. Memminger, whose name would go right below his own. Memminger would bear watching, not only for who he was, but the danger he and his kind posed to the great movement.

After half an hour and it was done. Jamison stood to say, “I proclaim the State of South Carolina an Independent Commonwealth,” and as the poured out of Institute Hall the cannon and bells commenced in a symphony that lasted long into the night. A few blocks away at the office of the Charleston Mercury, Rhett’s editor son printd an extra, a broadside proclaiming “THE UNION IS DISSOLVED!”

William C. Davis has done us a service in reviving the memory of Robert Barnwell Rhett: the forgotten revolutionary whose fiery rhetoric set the Union ablaze, who refused to “swallow the dog” and who during Reconstruction always looked forward to the distant day when future generations of Southerners would revive the cause of Southern independence and finish what he and others had started.

“They published a special broadside as “A Farewell to the Subcribers of the Charleston Mercury.” Though the son signed the statement, in fact his father wrote it for him, and it echoed all of the elder Rhett’s ideas and spirit.

The South now lived under a despotism of consolidation, the states and their sovereignty abused by Washington. With universal male suffrage it would only get worse. “Swelling the multitude of voters” would not make liberty but be its downfall, while the military Reconstruction now in place attempting “to put the half-savage negro over the civilized Caucasian, may not be forgotten or forgiven.” History would remember it as an act of abject hatred and bigotry. The South, a more tolerant and congenial region, did not like change and revered the past, while the North, “fond of novelties, misnamed “progress,” was the slave of its own dogmatism.

“There is no ground for forgetfulness – no possibility of forgiveness, with these black, moving memorials of our wrongs, polluting our sight, crossing us in all walks of life, and vaunting their consequence as the tools of our tyrants,” the newspaper’s “Farewell” concluded as it condemned “a despotism of vagrant white men, and ignorant, filthy negroes.” Even Kentucky was now feeling the heel of Reconstruction, her sympathy with the other Southern states greater than ever before, and a spirit of resistance was growing throughout the old Confederacy, refueling “the hatred and regional unity that will one day regain Southern freedom and power in national counsels.” The Union was destined to fall apart from its own corruption one day, and then “the people of the Southern states will be a free and great people.”

“Grant won the election, of course, which convinced Rhett now more than ever that, “the blessings of Free Government can only be obtained by the Southern people ruling themselves.” All of the governmental offices in the South were filled with corrupt Republican partisans, he believed … He wanted to see in the region a Southern party condemning the old Constitution, with its now perverting amendments proscribing former Confederates from holding office while giving the right to vote to the blacks, and instead organizing Southern power for a day of deliverance. They should stop submitting voluntarily to Reconstruction laws…

The South would rise again, not just to achieve its own independence but to save free government and political liberty for the world. They had but to will it to see it accomplished. For this reason among others he would never be one of the thousands taking an oath of allegiance and seeking the return of his full civil liberties.”

“There never had been and never would be a people of the United States, but rather two distinct peoples, Northern and Southern. Democracy existed only in the states themselves and not in the national government. The Union had no sovereignty, republican free government was dead in America, and despotism reigned.

When the South fell, so did that free government that he always capitalized

All his life Robert Barnwell Rhett had seen a “yonder star” that others would not see, and his dream had died. Yet to the end he expected that those who followed him would one day see his vision anew and take up his cause to make it a reality. The South would rise again, and it would be free and independent and dedicated to principles that would vindicate him and his struggle.”

In the life of Robert Barnwell Rhett we can see the archetype of the perfect Southern revolutionary firing on all four cylinders: populist, conservative, racialist and libertarian. Even as a Hegelian populist, I can’t but admire the way he crafted his rhetoric and the discourse!

There is a blending in Rhett’s rhetoric that has been regrettably lost in the modern day Southern Rights movement. A revival of this type of voice might one day prove to be the most important legacy of the “father of secession.” Isn’t secession and independence the only way to save the White South? The only way to preserve what’s still good about America? The only way to check the growth and tyranny of the central state? The only way to return power from.Washington to the people of the States?

Robert Barnwell Rhett has a lot to teach us.


“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 Blufton 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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  1. I will have to read up on this man. I like his thinking but I do tend to favor the true Southern mind.

  2. I do not remember the days of the freedom riders or segregation. I went to integrated schools from first grade on up. But in all honesty I would not want to live in a Southern Confederacy that expanded to include Cuba, the Caribbean, and Central America in its political union.What do you do with those people once slavery is ended? Give them citizenship in the Confederacy? What I do see now in the American south is white families adopting Negro or Asian kids which can be seen at any restaurant or public place. I wonder where all the white teenagers have gone because in my high school years all the fast food places has white teenagers working. Now it is all black where ever you go in the South be it McDonalds, Sonic, KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King, Dairy Queen, or where ever! Is that caused by white flight or are white Southerners just not having children anymore? By the way let us be hip and edgy and adopt the term Southlanders instated of Southerners or Southrons (which just sounds stupid) as our term of choice.

    Highly recommend a book entitled can The South Survive which explores the psycho-sexual degeneracy of the freedom riders who descended upon the Southland in mass!

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