Thursday, December 21, 2006

Robert Barnwell Rhett

Today is the birthday of Robert Barnwell Rhett, born December 21, 1800, in Beaufort, South Carolina. Rhett was one of the most extreme "fire-eaters," a term for pro-secessionist southerners. He was upset when South Carolinians accepted the Compromise of 1850, which defused sectional tensions for a decade--he was ready to leave the Union then--and he spent the rest of the 1850s pushing for southern separation. (He is sometimes called "the father of secession.")

When others in S.C. caught up with his sentiments and voted to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Rhett wrote the "Address of the People of South Carolina to the Southern States," inviting them to join S.C. in a confederacy of the slaveholding states. In this document, Rhett compared the northern states to Great Britain a century earlier, exercising a growing despotism over the American colonies. He concluded with the following:
We rejoice, that other nations should be satisfied with their institutions. Contentment, is a great element of happiness, with nations as with individuals. We, are satisfied with ours. If they prefer a system of industry, in which capital and labor are in perpetual conflict--and chronic starvation keeps dow, the natural increase of population--and a man is worked out in eight years--and the law ordains, that children shall be worked only ten hours a day--and the sabre and bayonet are the instruments of order--be it so. It is their affair, not ours.

We prefer, however, our system of industry, by which labor and capital are identified in interest, and capital, therefore, protects labor--by which our population doubles every twenty years--by which starvation is unknown, and abundance crowns the land--by which order is preserved by an unpaid police, and many fertile regions of the earth, where the white man cannot labor, are brought into usefulness, by the labor of the African, and the whole world is blessed by our own productions. All we demand of other peoples is, to be let alone to work out our own high destinies. United together, and we must be the most independent, as we are among the most important, of the nations of the world. United together, and we require no other instrument to conquer peace, than our beneficent productions. United together, and we must be a great, free and prosperous people, whose renown must spread throughout the civilized world, and pass down, we trust, to the remotest ages.

(from A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett, ed. by William C. Davis)
Rhett died in Louisiana in 1876 and was returned to South Carolina for burial in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery.