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Two Secessionists

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

Robert Barnwell Rhett: Father of Secession. By Laura A. White. New York: The Century Company. $5.00. Little Aleck. A Life of Alexander H. Stephens. By E. Ramsey Richardson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company. $3.50.

Students of American history, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the general reader, have long regretted that so little has been written by scholars in interpretation of the motives, feelings, and purposes of the Southern leaders in the period of sectional controversy which was finally to end in war. There has been of course a good deal written on the subject of the war. Political writers in time past have had a good deal to say about the leaders in general. Davis and Stephens have been studied quite fully, it may perhaps be said adequately, and lesser leaders have inspired biographies here and there, not all of which by any means are entirely satisfactory. Lee, Jackson, and a considerable number of smaller military figures have basked in biographical radiance. But of analytical biographies, based on close study of adequate authorities by competent investigators, there have been all too few.

The recent past shows that this is changing. Every year adds to the list of new works about Southern individuals of importance, and while there is too great a tendency to select old subjects rather than new, progress is being made in this field of national portraiture. Mr. Craven’s “Edmund Ruffin,” to my mind one of the outstanding books of the year, has already been noticed in the Virginia Quarterly. Two others, dealing with the same period, now call for attention.

Miss White’s study of Robert Barnwell Rhett has been long awaited. It is the first biography yet undertaken of one whom she aptly calls “the father of secession,” even if she does not satisfactorily prove her case. But he was beyond any dispute one of the earliest and for many years the most persistently active and consistent of the advocates of secession, and an adequate life of him is, therefore, an important addition to the literature of the movement.

To this biography Miss White has given years of devoted and extensive study. In its preparation, as her citations clearly show, she has employed all the known and available sources and authorities relating to Rhett, his time, and his locale, and she knows what she is writing about. She is fortunate, too, in having so interesting a figure for a subject.

Entering public life in 1826, Rhett in 1828 “launched his career as a crusader and a revolutionist.” He was a radical in the nullification movement, although out of sympathy with its illogical moderation, and in the convention asked the bald question whether his colleagues were attached to the Union and if a separate Southern Confederacy would not be regarded as a happy termination of the struggle. In the House from 1837 to 1849 and in the Senate from 1851 to 1852, he was a Southern radical of the most extreme sort. In 1844 he was the originator of “the Bluffton movement” for separate state action on the tariff, in 1850 he “openly and without reservation proclaimed himself a disunionist,” and in 1851 and 1852, opposing so-called “co-operation,” he strenuously advocated secession by South Carolina, resigning from the Senate when his program was rejected by the convention. As one of the editors of the Mercury he continued the struggle and in 1860 was a member of the secession convention and, after happily voting for disunion, wrote the “Address to the Slaveholding States.” He served in the Provisional Congress and took active part in the debates on the Constitution. Obviously out of sympathy with Davis, and in fact distrusting him, he was overlooked by him in the organization of the administration and was his bitter critic during the war and thereafter. The war wrecked Rhett, but his religion, so he said, saved him from the fate of Ruf-fin and he survived, not unhappily in spite of the further blows of fate, until 1876.

The work is primarily a narrative rather than an interpretative study and Miss White’s meticulous research and abundant knowledge have betrayed her in one respect. It is almost impossible to see the forest because of the trees. So great is the mass of detail that the man Rhett scarcely emerges at all, and many important facts of his life lack the clear-cut emphasis they deserve. It is, nevertheless, a highly valuable contribution to the story of the secession movement.

Unfortunately the same approval cannot be given to Mrs. Richardson’s “Little Aleck.” It adds little to the sum of knowledge of Stephens. Written with some vigor and in a distinctly interesting way, it deals with material largely familiar, quotes extended conversations, a thing calculated in itself to cause doubt of authenticity, and cites no authority for any statement. There is much of obvious striving for dramatic effect. An unpleasant impression is given by the familiarity with which the author treats her subject. Surely if Stephens was the man of power he is supposed to have been—and was—and if he merits another biography, he deserves to be called something else than “little Aleck,” or “Aleck,” until the reader winces at the very repetition. It serves well enough for light and popular reading, but it is no such worthwhile contribution to American historical literature as Miss White’s volume.


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