|Former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court|
From: July 1, 1795 – December 28, 1795
|Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court|
From: September 26, 1789 – March 5, 1791
John Rutledge (September 17, 1739 - July 18, 1800) was an American statesman and judge. He was the first Governor of South Carolina following the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For a time, he held dictatorial powers in that state. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and he signed the United States Constitution. He served as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and was the second Chief Justice of the Court from August to December 1795. He was the elder brother of Edward Rutledge, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
"In the friendly competitions of the states for the comparative merits of their respective statesmen and orators," says Dr. Ramsay, "while Massachusetts boasts of her John Adams - Connecticut of her Ellsworth - New York of her Jay - Pennsylvania of her Wilson - Delaware of her Bayard - Virginia of her Henry - South Carolina rests her claims on the talents and eloquence of John Rutledge."
John Rutledge Jr. was the son of Dr. John Rutledge, who, with his brother Andrew, both natives of Ireland, settled in Carolina about the year 1735. Dr. Rutledge married Miss Sarah Hext, who became the mother of two Founding Fathers starting in the 15th year of her age. This lady became a widow at an early period, and adds another example to the number, already noticed in this work, of illustrious matrons, who, by devotion to their maternal duties, have been honored and rewarded in the virtues and eminence of their offspring.
The early education of John Rutledge was conducted by David Rhind, an excellent classical scholar, and one of the most successful of the early instructors of youth in Carolina. After he had made considerable progress in the Latin and Greek classics, he entered on the study of law with James Parsons. A few years later he left for London and was afterwards entered as a student at Middle Temple, and proceeding barrister, came out to Charleston and commenced the practice of law in 1761. One of the first causes in which he engaged was an action for breach of a promise of marriage. The subject was interesting, and gave an excellent opportunity for displaying his talents. It was improved, and his eloquence astonished all who heard him.
Instead of rising by degrees to the head of his profession, he burst forth at once the able lawyer and accomplished orator. Business flowed in upon him. He was employed in the most difficult causes, and retained with the largest fees that were usually given. The client in whose service he engaged, was supposed to be in a fair way of gaining his cause. He was but a short time in practice, when that cloud began to lower, which, in the course of ten or twelve years, burst forth in a revolutionary storm. In the year 1764 Governor Boone refused to administer to Christopher Gadsden the oaths which the law required every person returned as a member in the commons house of assembly to take before he entered on his legislative functions. This kindled the indignation of the house, as being an interference with their constitutional privileges as the sole judges of the qualifications of their own members. In rousing the assembly and the people to resist all interferences of the royal governors in deciding who should, or who should not be members of the commons house of assembly, John Rutledge kindled a spark which has never since been extinguished.
This controversy was scarcely ended when the memorable Stamp Act was passed. The British Colonies were then detached from each other, and had never acted in concert. A proposition was made by the assembly of Massachusetts to the different provincial assemblies for appointing committees from each to meet in congress as a rallying point of union. To this novel project many objections were made; some doubted its legality, others its expedience, and most its efficiency. To remove objections, to conciliate opposition, and to gain the hearty concurrence of the assembly and the people, was no easy matter. In accomplishing these objects, the abilities of John Rutledge were successfully exerted. Objections vanished—prejudices gave way before his eloquence. The public mind was illuminated, and a more correct mode of thinking took place. A vote for appointing deputies to a Continental congress was carried in South Carolina at an early day, and before it had been agreed to by the neighboring states. Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Lynch, and John Rutledge, were appointed.
On May 1, 1763, John married Elizabeth Grimke, and together they had a large family of 10 children: Martha, Sarah, John Jr., Edward, Frederick, William, Charles, Thomas, Elizabeth, and States.
Rutledge was the youngest of the three, and had very lately began to tread the threshold of manhood. When the Stamp Act Congress met in New York in 1765, the members of the distant provinces were surprised at the eloquence of the young member from Carolina. In the means of education that province was far behind those to the northward. Of it little more was known or believed than that it produced rice and indigo, and contained a large proportion of slaves and a handful of free men, and that most of the latter were strangers to vigorous health, all self-indulgent, and none accustomed to active exertions either of mind or body. From such a province nothing great was expected. A respectable committee of its assembly, and the distinguished abilities of one of them who was among the youngest members of the congress, produced at this first general meeting of the Colonies more favorable ideas of South Carolina than had hitherto prevailed.
After the repeal of the Stamp Act, John Rutledge was for some years no further engaged in politics than as a lawyer and a member of the provincial legislature. In both capacities he was admired as a public speaker. His ideas were clear and strong—his utterance rapid but distinct—his voice, action, and energetic manner of speaking, forcibly impressed his sentiments on the minds and hearts of all who heard him. At reply he was quick—instantly comprehended the force of an objection—and saw at once the best mode of weakening or repelling it. He successfully used both argument and wit for invalidating the observations of his adversary: by the former he destroyed or weakened their force; by the latter he placed them in so ludicrous a point of light that it often convinced, and scarcely ever failed of conciliating and pleasing his hearers. Many were the triumphs of his eloquence at the bar and in the legislature; and in the former case probably more than strict impartial justice would sanction; for judges and juries, counsel and audience, hung on his accents.
In or after the year 1774 a new and more extensive field was opened before him. When news of the Boston port-bill reached Charleston, a general meeting of the inhabitants was called by expresses sent over the state. After the proceedings of the British parliament were stated to this convention of the province, sundry propositions were offered for consideration. To the appointment of delegates for a general congress no objection was made. But this was followed by propositions for instructing them how far they might go in pledging the province to support the Bostonians. Such a discordance of opinions was discovered as filled the minds of the friends of liberty with apprehensions that the meeting would prove abortive. In this crisis John Rutledge, in a most eloquent speech, advocated a motion which he brought forward to give no instructions whatever; but to invest the men of their choice with full authority to concur in any measure they thought best; and to pledge the people of South Carolina to abide by whatever they would agree to. He demonstrated that any thing less than plenary discretion to this extent would be unequal to the crisis. To those who, after stating the dangers of such extensive powers, begged to be informed what must be done in case the delegates made a bad use of their unlimited authority to pledge the state to any extent, a laconic answer was returned: "Hang them."
An impression was made on the multitude. Their minds were subdued by the decision of the proposed measure, and the energy with which it was supported. On that day and by this vote the Revolution was virtually accomplished. By it the people of Carolina determined to be free, deliberately invested five men of their choice as their representatives with full powers to act for them and to take charge of their political interests. Royal government received a mortal wound, and the representative system was planted in its stead. The former lingered for a few months and then expired. The latter instantly took root, and has ever since continued to grow and flourish. An election immediately followed. The mover of this spirited resolution, his brother Edward Rutledge, Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Lynch, and Henry Middleton, were elected. Furnished with such ample powers, they took their seats in congress under great advantages, and by their conduct justified the confidence reposed in them. John Rutledge was continued by successive elections a member of congress till the year 1776.
President of South Carolina
After serving in both the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress, he returned to Charleston in the beginning of that year and was elected president and commander-in-chief of Carolina on the 26th of March 1776. His duties henceforward were executive. He employed himself diligently in arranging the new government, and particularly in preparing for the defence of the state against an expected invasion by the British. Their attack on Sullivan's Island (now Fort Moultrie) has been already related. On this occasion John Rutledge rendered his country important service. General Charles Lee, who commanded the Continental troops, pronounced Sullivan's Island to be a "slaughter pen," and either gave orders or was disposed to give orders for its evacuation. The zeal of the state, and the energy of its chief magistrate, prevented this measure. Carolina had raised troops before congress had declared independence. These remained subject to the authority of the state, and were at this early period not immediately under the command of the officers of congress. To prevent the evacuation of the fort on Sullivan's Island, John Rutledge, shortly before the commencement of the action on the 28th of June, 1776, wrote the following laconic note to General Moultrie, who commanded on the island. "General Lee wishes you to evacuate the fort. You will not without an order from me. I would sooner cut off my hand than write one. J- Rutledge."
The consequences which would probably have followed from the evacuation of the fort, may in some measure be conjectured from the events of 1780; when the British, grown wiser, passed the same fort without engaging it. Additionally, "Carolina Day" is celebrated on June 28th every year to mark the event, and the current "Palmetto Flag" of South Carolina contains the moon crescent symbol that is also seen on the Moultrie Flag.
John Rutledge continued in the office of president till March 1778, when he resigned. This did not diminish his popularity. Of this the legislature gave the strongest proof; for the next election he was reinstated in the executive authority of the state, but under a new constitution, and with the name of Governor substituted in the place of President.
Governor of South Carolina
He had scarcely entered on the duties of this office, when the country was invaded by the British General Prevost. Governor Rutledge made great exertions to repel this invasion—to defend Charleston in the years 1779,1780 —to procure the aid of congress and of the adjacent states—to drive back the tide of British conquest—to recover the state, and to revive its suspended legislative and judicial powers. On the close of his executive duties in 1782, he was elected and served as a member of congress till 1783. In this period he was called upon to perform an extraordinary duty. The surrender of Lord Cornwallis in October, 1781, seemed to paralyze the exertions of the states. Thinking the war and all danger to be over, they no longer acted with suitable vigor.
Congress, fearing that this languor would encourage Great Britain to re-commence the war, sent deputations of their members to rouse the states to a sense of their danger and duty. On the 22d of May, 1782, John Rutledge and George Clymer were sent in this character, and instructed "to make such representation to the several states southward of Philadelphia as were best adapted to their respective circumstances and the present situation of public affairs, and as might induce them to carry the requisitions of congress into effect with the greatest dispatch." They were permitted to make a personal address to the Virginia assembly. In the execution of this duty, John Rutledge drew such a picture of the United States, and of the danger to which they were exposed by the backwardness of the particular states to comply with the requisitions of congress, as produced a very happy effect. The addresser acquitted himself with so much ability that the Virginians, who, not without reason, are proud of their statesmen and orators, began to doubt whether their Patrick Henry or the Carolina Rutledge was the most accomplished public speaker. Soon after the termination of Mr. Rutledge's congressional duties, he was appointed minister plenipotentiary from the United States to Holland, but declined serving.
In the year 1784 he was elected a judge of the court of Chancery in South Carolina. The events of the late war had greatly increased the necessity for such a court. John Rutledge draughted the bill for organizing it on a new plan, and in it introduced several provisions, which have been very highly commended as improvements on the English court of the same name. Mr. Rutledge's public duties hitherto had been either legislative or executive. They were henceforward judicial. If comparisons were proper, it might be added that he was most at home in the latter. His knowledge of the law was profound; but the talent which preeminently fitted him for dispensing justice was a comprehensive mind, which could at once take into view all the bearings and relations of a complicated case. When the facts were all fairly before him, he promptly knew what justice required. The pleadings of lawyers gratified their clients, but rarely cast any light on the subject which had not already presented itself to his own view. Their declamations and addresses to the passions were lost on him. Truth and justice were the pole-stars by which his decisions were regulated. He speedily resolved the most intricate cases, pursued general principles through their various modifications till they led to the fountain of justice. His decrees were so luminous, and the grounds of them so clearly expressed, that the defeated party was generally satisfied.
In the year 1787 he was called upon to assist in framing a national constitution at the Constitutional Convention, in lieu of the advisory system of the confederation. In arranging the provisions of that bond of union, and in persuading his countrymen to accept it, he was eminently useful. Other members of the South Carolina delegation to the Convention were Charles Pinckney, Pierce Butler, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
As soon as it was in operation, he was designated by President Washington as an associate justice of the Supreme court of the United States. In this office he served till 1791, when he was elected chief justice of South Carolina. He was afterwards appointed chief justice of the United States. Thus for more than thirty years, with few and short intervals, he served his country in one or other of the departments of government; and in all with fidelity and ability. This illustrious man closed his variegated career in the year 1800.
- Ramsay's history of South Carolina, from its first settlement in 1670 to the year 1808, by David Ramsay
- The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, Volume 4
- John & Edward Rutledge of South Carolina
- Palmetto Society Overview
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