William C. Davis’s Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Times of a Fire-Eater is a biography of Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, the man who has been sometimes labeled, the “Father of Secession.”
The men who led the Confederacy 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 conservative moderate.
The Confederacy was like a version of the Third Reich where Hitler and Goebbels had been marginalized, Heinrich Bruning had hijacked the movement, and General Erwin Rommel had superseded everyone in popular acclaim and memory.
Is it profitable to compare Rhett to Hitler and Southern Rights to National Socialism? Perhaps, but not in the usual liberal way, which is just to demonize with false analogies:
(1) There had been a disunionist movement in South Carolina and the Lower South for thirty years prior to the triumph of secession.
The Confederacy represented the institutional triumph of Southern Rights ideology. In much the same way, the Third Reich represented the institutional triumph of National Socialism.
Rhett was the face of Southern Rights ideology.
(2) There had been a Southern Rights faction (often but not always aligned with the Southern Democratic Party) within South Carolina and other Southern states for decades before secession.
Rhett and Yancey were the two most well known figures involved in the movement. Unlike Hitler’s Germany, Anglo-Celtic Southerners were quarrelsome and individualistic, and after the death of Calhoun no single personality was able to dominate the movement.
(3) Like Hitler, Rhett was a revolutionary vanguardist who ventured far beyond the boundaries of the political mainstream, but he was also a mainstreamer in the sense that he spent most of his political career as a loyal subordinate of Calhoun.
(4) Like Hitler, 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 negroes).
(5) Like Hitler, Rhett believed that the South needed lebensraum for slavery and envisioned the conquest of Mexico, Cuba, Central America, and the Caribbean.
The “Golden Circle” would be a classical bulwark of Roman-style slave states against the encroachment of liberal modernist civilization emanating from Britain and the Northern states.
Insofar as there are similarities with National Socialism, Southern Rights was a revolutionary ideology, 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, ethnonationalism, and expansion.
The differences between Southern Rights and National Socialism are arguably more striking though:
(1) Southern Rights was not anti-Semitic. The Jews, who at the time were a typically commercial people, were not perceived as the misfortune of the South. Sephardic Jews were not iconoclasts like the Ashkenazi Jews who would come over later from Germany, Russia, and Poland.
Instead, radical egalitarianism in the form of “Black Republicanism” and the mortal threat it posed to Souhern civilization was associated with Yankee abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.
The Yankee was the ethnic antagonist of the Southron.
(2) Rhett and Hitler were both anti-liberal and anti-democratic revolutionaries, but the same can be said of Hitler and Che, or Stalin and 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.
National Socialism was anti-democratic in 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.
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.
(3) Rhett was the exact opposite of the Fuhrer in that he never dominated the Southern Rights movement in the way that Hitler did with National Socialism.
Insofar as Rhett attempted to assert leadership like Calhoun, his perceived extremism usually had the effect of backfiring and derailing momentum toward secession.
(3) By all accounts, Rhett was a devout Christian 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.
So what is Rhett’s legacy? In what sense is Rhett responsible for bringing about secession and forging the Confederacy? This is why a comparative perspective 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 succeded in dominating their respective revolutions:
(1) Rhett spent more than twenty years of his political life in the shadow of 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 split the Union.
(2) In the end, it was Yancey 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. 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 succeded in splitting the Democracy along regional lines if Rhett’s doctrine that the territories were the common property of the Union had not been ascendant?
(3) What was the cumulative impact of Rhett’s influence on the Southern wing of the Democratic Party?
(4) Even though Rhett had been rejected in 1844 and 1852, it was Rhett who stood for separate state action over cooperative secession, and it was Rhett’s doctrine of separate state action that ultimately destroyed the Union.
(5) Even the people who hated Rhett personally like Hammond didn’t necessarily disavow his doctrines.
(6) For years, it was Rhett who agitated all the core ideas 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.
(7) 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:
“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.”
William C. Davis has done us a service in reviving the memory of Robert Barnwell Rhett: the forgotten man who destroyed America, who refused to “swallow the dog,” and who always looked forward to the distant day when future generations of Southerners would finish what he had started.
In the life of Rhett we can see the archetype of the perfect Southern revolutionary firing on all four cylinders: populist, conservative, racialist, and libertarian.
There is a blending in Rhett’s rhetoric that has been regrettably lost in the modern disunionist 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 the only way to save the White race? The only way to preserve what’s still good about America? The only check on the growth 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.