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Pinckney, Charles (1757–1824), planter and politician in the United States of America, was born in Charles Town, South Carolina, on 26 October 1757, the son of , a prominent planter and politician, and Frances Brewton (1733–1795). Educated in Charles Town, from 1773 Pinckney read law with his father, and was admitted by correspondence to the Middle Temple in London, but did not attend. He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1779.

Elected to the South Carolina general assembly in 1779, Pinckney served intermittently in that body until 1814. As a junior officer in the Charles Town regiment of militia, he also took part in the unsuccessful American patriot siege of British-occupied Savannah in October 1779. On 12 May 1780 British forces captured Charles Town, and Pinckney—like other defenders of the city—became a prisoner of war. A year later, British authorities confined Pinckney and other militia men aboard prison ships. But they soon released him and sent him to Philadelphia probably in mid-1781; he was certainly there in 1782 when the South Carolina legislature punished loyalists, including Pinckney's father who had sworn allegiance to the crown while Britain was winning the war. Thus after his father's death later in 1782, Pinckney inherited an estate reduced by a 12 per cent amercement. What he received was, however, still sufficient for him to remain a rich planter and the owner of 111 slaves by 1790, though his circumstances were considerably reduced by the time of his death.

From 1784 to 1787 Pinckney represented South Carolina in the continental congress. While there he opposed any arrangement, such as that negotiated in 1785 by John Jay and the Spanish minister Don Diego de Gardoqui, whereby the United States might surrender the right of navigating the Mississippi River. Pinckney was also involved in formulating plans for governing the west, and he designed the official seal for the north-west territories (which was modelled on South Carolina's). His interest in the area suggests that he probably helped to engineer the compromises whereby the South Carolina delegation reversed its position regarding slavery in the territories and voted for the Ordinance of 1787, which barred the institution of slavery north of the Ohio River.

Pinckney also advocated a stronger national government and as early as 1783 wrote a pamphlet calling for revisions in the articles of confederation, the interim document binding the United States, to increase the powers of congress in regard to taxation and commerce. In 1786 he persuaded the New Jersey legislature to rescind its refusal to pay its quota to congress; and shortly thereafter he became chairman of a congressional committee that recommended appropriate amendments. Although the decision to scrap the articles of confederation in favour of a new constitution rendered these recommendations moot, Pinckney became prominent as a reformer. Princeton University accordingly awarded him (like James Madison) an honorary degree in 1787.

Chosen as one of the South Carolina delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787, Pinckney—like Madison—offered a detailed plan for a stronger federal government. Madison's plan initiated the discussion; Pinckney's wound up in the hands of the committee of detail. Chaired by another South Carolinian, John Rutledge, this committee compiled the first draft of the constitution. No contemporary copy of Pinckney's plan has survived but it is believed to have contained up to forty-three provisions that appeared in the final document, though Pinckney's draft was not necessarily the original source. Nevertheless he was one of the more active members of the convention, speaking frequently and often cogently, though not always consistently. In general he wanted an aristocratic republic and an energetic central government with a single executive and a bicameral legislature that would elect the president. He also advocated high property qualifications for officials and extensive powers for congress, which would enable it to regulate commerce and even veto state laws. State legislatures, he believed, should nevertheless elect members of the national lower house as well as the senate, and state representation should proportionally reflect the whole population of slave and free inhabitants. Although more nationalistic than his colleagues from South Carolina, he was still a staunch defender of slavery and the slave trade. More surprising given his generally élitist assumptions and ownership of slaves, he recognized and celebrated ‘a greater equality’ in America ‘than among inhabitants of any other nation’ (Hutson, 115).

Pinckney's view of this guided much of his later career, and in the state ratifying convention he tailored his remarks in support of the constitution to political neophytes. Brief service in the state privy council and general assembly followed, and in 1789 he began his first two-year term as governor, during which he presided over the state constitutional convention of 1790. He was re-elected three times, in 1791, 1796, and 1806. During his third term he requested that the legislature establish public schools, and in his fourth favoured amendments to the state constitution that increased representation of western regions in the legislature and provided for white adult male suffrage. He became the most prominent local figure in the nascent Republican Party when he opposed the Jay treaty (1794) with Britain, which attempted to ease British–American post-war tensions; and his selection as a United States senator in 1798 gave him a platform from which to denounce federalist policies. Lobbying state legislators (who would choose presidential electors in 1800) and publishing numerous newspaper essays under the pen-name A Republican, he campaigned hard for republicans, though his cousin Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was running as the federalist vice-presidential candidate. Thomas Jefferson won the presidency and in 1801 rewarded Pinckney by appointing him minister to Spain. While there Pinckney successfully sought Spanish acquiescence in the US purchase of French Louisiana but failed when he exceeded his instructions and demanded that Spain make a similar cession of Florida. He returned to South Carolina in 1805.

Again serving as governor in 1806, Pinckney supported the Jeffersonian trade embargo designed to compel Britain to recognize US claims to neutrality during the Napoleonic wars. After service in the state legislature during the Anglo-American War he sought to retire, but entered the congressional race in 1818 to forestall a federalist opponent. He won, and in 1820 took part in the famous debates over the admission of Missouri as a state with legal slavery. Having been there, he could claim that the members of the constitutional convention of 1787 had agreed that congress was not ‘authorized to touch the question of slavery’ (Williams, 357), and, right or wrong, his words presaged later southern arguments.

On 27 April 1788 Pinckney had married Mary Eleanor Laurens (1770–1794); they had three children before she died. Thereafter if not before, Pinckney developed a somewhat unsavoury reputation as a man with an eye for women and one who was slow to pay his debts. But he was able, energetic, and perceptive. In the 1780s he believed that a society of uniquely equal white men needed a stronger national government to realize its potential; by 1820 he thought South Carolina provided an appropriate model in which élite men like himself led a presumably harmonious, democratic political system. Faith in such an arrangement enabled him to appeal to newly empowered men, and he thereby became one of the founders of the Republican Party and of a new style of politics in South Carolina. Known as Blackguard Charlie, he died of dropsy in Meeting Street, Charleston (as Charles Town had been renamed), on 29 October 1824, estranged from the large Pinckney clan, most of whom were by then federalists. He was buried the following day at St Philip's Church.

Robert M. Weir

Sources  

M. Farrand, ed., The records of the federal convention of 1787, rev. edn, 4 vols. (1937); repr. (1966) · J. H. Hutson, ed., Supplement to Max Farrand's ‘The records of the federal convention of 1787’ (1987) · M. Kaplanoff, ‘Charles Pinckney and the American republican tradition’, Intellectual life in antebellum Charleston, ed. M. O'Brien and D. Moltke-Hansen (1986) · F. L. Williams, A founding family: the Pinckneys of South Carolina (1978) · R. M. Weir, ‘Pinckney, Charles’, ANB · C. Pinckney, Three letters addressed to the public chiefly in defense of a permanent revenue for the continental congress of confederation (1783) · Journals of the South Carolina house of representatives, South Carolina Archives and History Center, Columbia · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000) · W. C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the continental congress, 1774–1789, 34 vols. (1904–37) · wills, South Carolina Archives and History Center, Columbia, F (1818–26), 609–10 · State Gazette of South Carolina · Columbian Herald [Charleston, SC] · Charleston Morning Post · D. E. Huger Smith and A. S. Salley, eds., Register of St Philip's parish, Charles Town (Charleston, SC, 1927); repr. (1971) · W. B. Edgar, N. L. Bailey, and A. Moore, eds., Biographical directory of the South Carolina house of representatives, 5 vols. (1974–92), vol. 3 · J. H. Easterby, ‘Pinckney, Charles’, DAB · E. C. Reinke, ‘Meliorum lapsa locavit: an intriguing puzzle solved’, Ohio History, 64 (1985), 68–74 · T. W. Lipscomb, ‘In search of the Charles Pinckney library’, University of South Carolina ex libris, 1998–1999 (1999) · R. M. Weir, ‘South Carolinians and the adoption of the U.S. constitution’, South Carolina Historical Magazine, 89 (1988), 73–89 · G. C. Rogers, Evolution of a federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston, 1758–1812 (1962) · P. A. Horne, ‘Forgotten leaders: South Carolina's delegation to the continental congress, 1774–1789’, PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 1988

Archives  

South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, family MSS |  Duke U., C. C. Pinckney MSS · South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, F. L. Williams MSS


Likenesses  

attrib. G. Stuart, portrait, 1787?, American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, New York City

Wealth at death  

substantial; owned at least two plantations and 111 slaves in 1790: Bailey and Edgar, eds., Biographical directory, vol. 3