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Robert Barnwell Rhett

Robert Barnwell Smith (later Rhett) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. He studied law and became involved in politics, first as a state legislator and later as attorney general of South Carolina (1832). In 1837, his family changed its name from Smith to Rhett to honor a Revolutionary War ancestor. Rhett's national reputation was made in the House of Representatives (1837-49) and briefly in the U.S. Senate (1850-52) where he succeeded John C. Calhoun. He was one of the vocal and confrontational “fire-eaters,” strident defenders of slavery and proponents of secession; Rhett went so far as to advocate for resumption of the slave trade, an extreme position among his peers. The Charleston Mercury, run by his son, was a frequent vehicle for these extremist political views. Rhett was such a relentless advocate of his causes that he eventually drove away many who were sympathetic to his views. Rhett was a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention in 1860. He worked on a committee to draft a constitution for the Confederacy, but never held high office under that government. Rhett was a vocal critic of Jefferson Davis’ conduct of the war.