On Jefferies Boulevard in Walterboro, South Carolina there used to stand a house that was once owned by Robert Barnwell Rhett. It’s unfortunate that despite efforts to acquire the property by the Colleton County Historical and Preservation Society this house was ultimately torn down. All that is left now is the memory, a few photographs, and some information about what occurred in the home. It’s a testament to how important it is to save our local landmarks as important historical events have occurred all around us. It is a shame to lose the opportunity to touch a piece of history.
The house, which became known locally as The Nullification House, was occupied by Rhett when he traveled from his plantation into Walterboro to practice law. Rhett was a planter and a passionate supporter of South Carolina and states’ rights. He went on to become a representative in the state legislature, but his most important claim to fame historically is his delivery of what was called the “Colleton Manifesto” a speech supporting nullification of the protective Tariff of 1828.
Rhett became known as the “Father of Nullification.” Other people had developed the idea of Nullification as a legal theory that stipulated that a state had the sovereignty to nullify or ignore federal laws if they did not agree with them. Once the state had nullified a law if there was no successful retraction of the law at the federal level then the theory stipulates that the state has the right to secede from the union. Rhett believed wholeheartedly that the Tariff of 1828 was harmful to his constituents and neighbors in South Carolina as he felt that the Tariff was designed without consideration to how the economy worked in the South because there weren’t any industrialists or manufacturers of note in South Carolina in this time period.
The Nullification House is where he wrote and prepared for his infamous fiery speech delivered at the Colleton County Courthouse and was attended by several notable South Carolinians of the time including James Hamilton, Jr. and Robert J. Turnbull, proving how important that he was to state politics. Rhett was the first to come forward boldly and publicly in support of nullification as a way to protest what he felt was an unfair and undesirable federal law or mandate. Rhett was able to stir up a lot of sympathy and support for nullification among South Carolinians and he eventually became very active in federal politics and moved away from Walterboro and the Nullification House became his family’s summer retreat.
In 1863 Rhett disposed of his home in Walterboro and moved to Alabama and then ultimately ended up in Louisiana where he lived for the rest of his life. There is little known about the inhabitants of the house during and directly after the Civil War. It appears to have been owned and occupied by a family named Bissell who sold it to Caleb Saules who then leased it to Professor Benjamin Stuart, the headmaster of the Walterborough Academy. Professor Stuart lived there with his daughter, Claudia Stuart, who revitalized and became the librarian of the Walterboro Library Society.
It is unfortunate then that we have lost this piece of history. Had it been able to fall into the hands of a historical society it could have been preserved and used as a tool to educate our students and visitors about the historical events that have occurred here in Colleton County. Sometimes, it’s hard for people to believe that our small town was host to some nationally important events and The Nullification House was standing as proof of our importance in South Carolina and National history.
Written By: A. Karel Horn
November 17, 2014
Catherine de Treville, “The Nullification House,” The Press and Standard (Walterboro, SC), February 6, 1975