Rhett, Robert Barnwell, 1800–1876, American politician, b. Beaufort, S.C. His family changed its name from Smith to Rhett (after a colonial ancestor) in 1837. A lawyer, he was a state legislator, state attorney general (1832), U.S. representative (1837–49), and senator (1850–52). Extremely pro-Southern in his views, he split (1844) with John C. Calhoun to lead the movement for separate state action on the tariff. Rhett was one of the leading fire-eaters at the Nashville Convention of 1850, which failed to endorse his aim of secession for the whole South. When South Carolina passed (1852) an ordinance merely declaring the state's right to secede, he resigned (1852) his seat. He continued to express his rabid secessionist sentiments through the Charleston Mercury, edited by his son. Rhett was a member of the South Carolina secession convention in 1860. Receiving no office in the Confederate government, he returned to South Carolina, where he sharply criticized the policies of President Jefferson Davis.
See W. C. Davis, A Fire-Eater Remembers: The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett (2000).