Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, (1746-1825) South Carolina signer of the Constitution
If there ever was an American aristocracy, the Pinckney family of South Carolina headlined that social register. Charles Cotesworth’s father made millions growing indigo, a crop introduced to the colony by his mother. His younger brother Thomas served as Governor of South Carolina, U.S. House of Representatives, and member of George Washington’s diplomatic corps. His cousin Charles also served as Governor and as U.S. Senator and a diplomat for Jefferson’s administration. Charles Cotesworth would outshine them all.
Pinckney’s education suggested a successful and prosperous future. He attended Westminster School in England and learned the law at the Middle Temple. He polished off his education with courses in France and a stint at the Royal Military College at Caen. Every aspect of his learning would providentially come into play in his key roles in the early American Republic. He returned home to begin his law practice. To his own financial hurt, Cotesworth identified with the independence movement from the beginning, supporting South Carolina’s secession from Britain, and leading in the new state government as a legislator.
He also served as an officer in the 1st South Carolina Regiment, eventually becoming the Colonel. He defended Charleston against the English invasion force at Sullivan’s Island, then joined George Washington at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. In 1778, Pinckney returned south with his troops and fought in the battles for Florida, Savannah, and Charleston, where American General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his whole army to Lord Cornwallis in 1780. As a POW, Charles suffered from illness, but was not released till 1782. His twenty-nine year old wife died two years later. With the end of the war and the securing of independence, Pinckney set out to rebuild his life and fortune.
His law practice was probably the most lucrative in the state as his income ballooned to thousands of pounds per year. His law practice did not charge widows for legal services. South Carolina sent Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to the Constitutional Convention, where he joined his cousin Charles Pinckney. Cotesworth knew the law better than anyone and spoke strongly and with authority. He believed no senator should receive a salary, and he insisted on provisions to protect religious liberty. He also took a strong stand for counting all slaves for representative apportionment and he opposed any policy for Congress ending the slave trade before 1808, a stand for which he was successful. He finally agreed on a partial, 3/5 counting of slaves for state representation.
An advocate of a strong central government, with “checks and balances,” Pinckney signed the Constitution and led the ratification process in South Carolina. Although he retired from politics after the Constitution went into effect, rejecting several offers to serve in George Washington’s administration, he accepted the offer of Minister to France in 1796. Animosity had been building over French depredations on American shipping and Pinckney was not one to smooth things over. Two more representatives were sent by the new President, John Adams to help out and all three Americans were put in a position to take bribes by the French government. “Pinckney shouted No! No! Not a sixpence!” an incident known as the XYZ Affair. Upon his return home, Charles Cotesworth became the third leading general in case of war with France, behind Washington and Hamilton.
Pinckney ran for President of the United States as a Federalist and lost twice, in 1804 and 1808 to Jefferson and Madison respectively. He retired to Pinckney Island in South Carolina and spent his last years experimenting with horticulture and supporting the Bible Society’s distribution of Bibles to slaves. He died in 1825 at the age of 79, one of the last of the Founders who served in the army, politics, and diplomatic corps.