John Rutledge, (1739-1800), South Carolina Signer of the Constitution
Charleston native John Rutledge, like two of the other three signers of the Constitution from South Carolina, built his wealth through a law practice. Like the other three signers he earned and inherited extreme wealth, claimed membership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church, and held a substantial number of slaves. He joined the Patriot cause early on and served in one capacity or another until just after the Constitutional Convention. Some historians consider Rutledge the most eloquent and most brilliant of the South Carolina grandees who autographed the two great documents of the Republic.
The oldest child of seven, John was primarily educated by his father until latter teen years when he studied under a tutor and began to read law. Sent to England and the Middle Temple, he absorbed the English legal history and practice and even won a few cases in the English courts. He returned to Charleston, began a lucrative law practice, added his primogeniture fortune, and married, eventually fathering ten children. At twenty-one he was a member of the legislature and at twenty-five the South Carolina attorney general.
In 1765, Rutledge was the youngest in attendance of the first significant cross-colonial assembly called the Stamp Act Congress, in New York City, along with Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. In 1774, the governor of the colony dismissed the legislature, so Rutledge and Gadsden helped form the subversive Committee of Public Safety. Later that year, he was chosen to attend the Continental Congress where John Adams described him as a man of “reserve, design, and cunning.” As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Rutledge served on many committees. He returned to Charleston, however, due to increasing tensions between loyalists and patriots. In the event, his brother Edward went on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
When the British attacked Fort Sullivan on Sullivan’s Island, Rutledge refused permission for General Moultrie to evacuate the American army, over the protestations of Major General Charles Lee. He opined “I would rather cut off my hand than issue the order [to evacuate]. The patriots beat off the attack by the English navy, an early major victory for the Americans. He was soon elected first Governor of South Carolina and served until 1782, after which he became a judge in the chancery court. He barely escaped to North Carolina when the British later captured Charleston.
Rutledge returned to the national scene in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. “He spoke often and convincingly, often in defense of the slave trade.” As a major player at the Convention, he served on the Committee of Detail which drafted the final form of the United States Constitution. He was not above compromise, and projected stability and unity in the give and take of the debates. South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify after a strong defense of the document by Rutledge.
Upon the retirement of John Jay as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutledge served an interim appointment, made by George Washington when the Senate was not in session. When a post-war treaty with Great Britain, known as Jay’s Treaty, came before the Senate, Rutledge joined the forces of rejection, against George Washington, and loudly proclaimed that it was a terrible mistake. He was not confirmed as justice. Upon his return to Charleston, he faced the loss of his wife and younger brother, financial ruin, and deteriorating health. In deep depression, he twice tried to kill himself, but died of kidney failure at the age of sixty-one in 1800. Charles Rutledge, however, would be remembered as a patriot without reservation, and public service that defined the last thirty-seven years of his life. His sons would carry on his legacy into the future.