John Rutledge faithfully mirrored the beliefs and attitudes of the southern planter aristocracy. He subscribed to the idea of an ordered society that guaranteed the rights and privileges of men of property. At the same time, he was a fearless Patriot who sacrificed his own considerable wealth to the cause of independence. Well educated, Rutledge proved to be an able leader in a crucial era in the history of his state and nation. As governor of South Carolina during the Revolution and as an active delegate at the Constitutional Convention, he exhibited attractive and important qualities of leadership: tact, industry, courage, and political conviction.
CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Rutledge, the son of an Irish immigrant and physician, received his education at the hands of his father and private tutors. He also studied law at London's Middle Temple and was admitted to the English bar in 1760. Shortly thereafter he returned to Charleston where, pursuing business opportunities in agriculture, he quickly amassed a fortune in plantations and slaves. Typical of rising young men of the landowner class, Rutledge gravitated toward politics, winning election to the provincial assembly in 1761, where he represented Christ Church Parish until the Revolution. (He also served during most of 1764 as the colony's attorney general.) His political philosophy was typical of his class as well. He believed that those with wealth and social standing, men with the greatest stake in society, had the duty to govern. But he also reflected the teachings of the Enlightenment philosophers that he had imbibed during his studies in London. He believed that government was a contract between the people and their sovereign and that both had inalienable rights that could not be abridged by an act of Parliament.
Rutledge represented South Carolina in the Stamp Act Congress, organized by colonial leaders in 1765 in response to Parliament's efforts to impose an internal tax on the colonies, thereby intruding into the area of local self-government. Rutledge advocated a moderate policy, one that would avoid severing ties with the mother country while insisting on colonial self-government. He chaired the committee that drafted the congress' petition to Parliament seeking a repeal of the tax. Continuing as a leader of the moderate wing of the Patriot cause, he was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774. Again he advocated a nonviolent course, calling for an embargo on English goods and a boycott of English markets (although he fought successfully to keep rice, a South Carolina staple, off the embargo list). He returned to Philadelphia as a member of the Second Continental Congress (1775-76), until replaced by his younger brother Edward, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Back in South Carolina in 1776, John Rutledge also came to accept the need for independence. He joined the local Committee of Safety, the political arm of the Revolutionary cause, and helped write the state's first constitution. Elected to the state legislature (1776-78), he served as president of the lower house. He resigned in protest when the legislature insisted on making revisions to the new state constitution, including the disestablishment of the Anglican Church.
Rutledge served his state with distinction as its governor during those years of the Revolution when South Carolina was most threatened (1779-82). When Charleston was besieged by the British in 1780, the legislature granted him war powers ("to do anything necessary for the public good, except the taking away of a citizen without legal trial"). The city fell in May, the greatest defeat for American arms during the war, and Rutledge's property was seized, but he escaped to North Carolina, where he attempted to rally forces for the recapture of Charleston. His task was made especially difficult when General Gates' army of continentals and local militia, whom Rutledge had helped raise, suffered a devastating defeat at Camden, South Carolina. Despite protests that Camden heralded the death of the Revolution in the Carolinas, Rutledge worked undespairingly to raise a new force. This second army, under the command of General Nathanael Greene, regained control of most of the state in 1781 and restored civil government. Rutledge tried to unify the state by granting pardons to many Loyalists on the condition that they report for six months' militia duty within 30 days. With the end of the Revolution approaching in 1782, he resigned the governorship and reentered the lower house of the legislature where, except for brief stints in the Continental Congress (1782-83) and the state's chancery court (1784), he remained until 1790. He never recouped his personal financial losses suffered during the war.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Believing that the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation threatened the rights that had been won by the Revolution and guaranteed by provisions in the state constitutions, Rutledge cooperated closely with James Wilson in championing a strong central government. Rutledge was an influential delegate from the start of the Convention, when his proposal to conduct the sessions behind closed doors and submit all of the members to an oath of secrecy was accepted by all the delegates. His influence and activity continued throughout the Convention, where he served on five committees and chaired the important Committee on Detail that set the agenda of the meetings. He attended all sessions and spoke often and effectively, taking a nationalist position while supporting the social and economic interests of the southern states. He advocated wealth as a basis for representation, assumption of state debts, an unrestricted slave trade, election of the President by Congress, and election of Congress by state legislatures. Towards the end of the Convention, he was instrumental in drafting the final document, which was born out of a spirit of compromise that he, during one of the debates, had eloquently encouraged and praised, saying, "Is it not better that I should sacrifice one prized opinion than that all of us should sacrifice everything we might otherwise gain?" He returned home to play a key role in South Carolina's ratification process in 1788.
CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Rutledge served as a presidential elector in 1789, joining in the unanimous choice of George Washington. The final phase of his public career saw him in high judicial positions, first for one year as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and then as chief justice of the South Carolina supreme court (1791-95). He was nominated by Washington to replace Chief Justice John Jay in 1795, but the Senate refused to confirm him because of his vehement opposition to Jay's Treaty with Great Britain and because of recurring illness following the death of his wife in 1792, an illness that effectively ended his public career.
DATA BIRTH: September 1739 (exact date unknown), in Christ Church Parish, South Carolina
DEATH: 18 June 1800, in Charleston, South Carolina
INTERMENT: St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina