We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Rutledge, Edward (1749–1800), planter and revolutionary politician in America, was born on 23 November 1749 in Charles Town, South Carolina, the seventh and youngest child of the Irish immigrant John Rutledge (d. 1750) and his wife, Sarah Hext (1724–1792). His father, a physician and planter, died when Edward was one year old, but his young, wealthy mother employed a tutor to instruct him in the classical languages and allowed him to study law with his elder brother . Having trained in the law at the Middle Temple of the inns of court in London from 12 January 1767 to 3 July 1772, Edward was called to the English bar in 1772. He returned to South Carolina in 1773, accepted a 640 acre plantation from his mother, and quickly established himself in Charles Town society. On 1 March 1774 he married Henrietta Middleton (d. 1792), the daughter of Henry Middleton. They had three children.

A small man and a mediocre orator, Edward Rutledge was intelligent and had a charming personality that suited him for the role of mediator during the debates that led to American independence. After parliament imposed the ‘Intolerable Acts’ (1774) upon the colonies in response to the Boston tea party, he became the youngest of the five delegates from his state to the first session of the continental congress in 1774, joining his moderate brother John, Henry Middleton, Thomas Lynch senior, and the radical Christopher Gadsden. He made a poor impression upon John Adams, who found him ‘young and zealous, a little unsteady and injudicious, but very unnatural and affected as a speaker’ (Works of John Adams, 2.396). Offended by the arrogant Massachusetts statesman, Rutledge still worked for a bill of rights that would give British Americans permanent relief from taxes. He also favoured a complete cessation of trade with Britain, except for South Carolina's rice, if parliament did not repeal the objectionable laws. After the congress adjourned on 26 October 1774, he returned home to serve in the first and second provincial congresses of South Carolina in 1775 and 1776. The provincial congress of 1775 reappointed the same five men to return to the second session of the continental congress.

At the continental congress in May 1775, Rutledge spoke for reconciliation with Great Britain despite the growing military confrontation, but he changed his mind by the autumn. Early in 1776, after his brother John and Christopher Gadsden left the congress to participate in the war in South Carolina, he controlled the remaining South Carolina delegation. He persuaded them on 2 July to vote for independence. Distrustful of the New England radicals in the congress, he wanted a confederation rather than a strong central government.

In November 1776 Rutledge served as a captain in the Charles Town battery of artillery, and later saw action at Beaufort in February 1779. Meanwhile, in addition to his military career, his parish in Charles Town elected him to the state house of representatives in 1778. There he mediated between patriots and dissenters, a thankless task that preserved sufficient unity for the state to continue the war. The next year the state house returned him to the continental congress. Before he could leave South Carolina, however, the British captured Charles Town, arrested him, and imprisoned him at St Augustine, Florida. From September 1780 to July 1781 he languished in the old Spanish fort with other prominent military and civilian prisoners. After the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, his captors released him. He returned to the state house of representatives in January 1782, where he argued for lenient treatment of the loyalists.

A popular attorney after the war, Rutledge represented Charles Town (from 1783 Charleston) in the state house of representatives from 1782 to 1796, and in the state constitutional conventions of 1788 and 1790; in the latter he wrote the law abolishing rights of primogeniture. He became a national federalist and served as a presidential elector in 1788, 1792, and 1796. On 22 April 1792 Henrietta died. On 28 October of the same year Rutledge married Mary Shubrick (d. 1829?), widow of Nicholas Eveleigh, the comptroller of the currency for George Washington; they had no children.

Wealthy before the war, Rutledge lost most of his assets during the conflict, but rebuilt and enlarged his fortune in the 1790s. In 1794 he declined President George Washington's offer of an appointment as associate justice of the United States supreme court, because he needed to stay at home to tend to his expanding financial affairs. Nevertheless, he thought that men of virtue and means should render public service. In 1796 he broke with his party because he did not like its candidate, John Adams, and cast his vote for South Carolina's Thomas Pinckney and the democratic republican Thomas Jefferson. He remained politically active until the end of his life, and he served two terms in the state senate, 1796 and 1798. By the time he was elected governor in 1798, he was broken in health. He died, a hero, at his desk, in the governor's office in Columbia, on 23 January 1800.

A planter and slave owner, as well as an attorney, Rutledge had a particular interest in promoting agriculture, often serving on committees, experimenting with new crops, and carrying on lively correspondence with others on the subject. Active in numerous social and civic clubs, he joined the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, a South Carolina society for attorneys of Irish extraction that promoted educational and charitable activities, and served as a vestryman in St Michael's Church. He was buried on 25 January 1800 in St Philip's churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina.

E. Stanly Godbold Jr.


Duke U., Rutledge MSS · University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Caroliniana Library, Edward Rutledge papers · L. Cong., Edward Rutledge MSS · South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 17/1 (1916) · South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 22/1 (1921) · South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 31/1 (1930) · South Carolina Historical Magazine, 64/1 (1963) · Charleston inventories and wills, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia · J. Haw, John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (1997) · E. S. Godbold and R. H. Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American revolution (1982) · The works of John Adams, second president of the United States, ed. C. F. Adams, 10 vols. (1850–56) · E. C. Burnett, ed., Letters of members of the continental congress, 10 vols. (1921–36) · W. B. Edgar, N. L. Bailey, and A. Moore, eds., Biographical directory of the South Carolina house of representatives, 5 vols. (1974–92) · E. McCrady, The history of South Carolina in the revolution, 2 vols. (1901–2) · D. Ramsay, The history of South Carolina: from its first settlement in 1670, to the year 1808, 2 vols. (1809) · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000) · D. D. Wallace, The history of South Carolina, 4 vols. (1934) · M. L. Webber, ‘Dr John Rutledge and his descendants [pt 1]’, South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 31 (1930), 7–25 · South Carolina Gazette (7 March 1774) · South Carolina Gazette (25 Jan 1800) · State Gazette of South Carolina (1 Nov 1792)


Duke U., papers · L. Cong., papers · University of South Carolina, Columbia, papers


oils, Charleston Museum, South Carolina

Wealth at death  

wealthy; 600 acres; 230 slaves: Charleston inventories and wills, South Carolina Archives and History Center, Columbia