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Rutledge, John (1739–1800), revolutionary politician in America, was born in Charles Town, South Carolina, in September 1739, the oldest of the seven children of the Irish immigrant John Rutledge (d. 1750) and his fifteen-year-old wife, Sarah Hext (1724–1792). The senior Rutledge was a planter and physician who gained his wealth through his wife's dowry. Their youngest child, , signed the American Declaration of Independence and enjoyed a public career similar to that of his brother John. As a child John had three teachers—the Anglican minister of Christ Church parish, Charles Town, a tutor in the classics, and his father. He studied law at the Middle Temple in London from 1758, and was called to the English bar in 1760. He immediately returned to South Carolina, and soon thereafter used his knowledge of British law to argue for the rights of Americans within the empire. On 1 May 1763 he married Elizabeth (d. 1792), the daughter of Frederick Grimké, and they became the parents of ten children.

John Rutledge began his public career in 1761, when Christ Church parish elected him to the South Carolina Commons house of assembly. At the age of twenty-three he chaired the committee that indicted Governor Thomas Boone in the Christopher Gadsden election controversy, a dispute that elevated the power of a local assembly over that of the royal governor. At the Stamp Act congress of 1765 he chaired the committee that petitioned the House of Lords politely but firmly for redress of grievances, but he did not favour the severance of ties with the mother country.

Witty, an eloquent orator, tall, grave, and impatient, John Rutledge served with his brother Edward in the first session of the continental congress in 1774. Using English constitutional precedents, he argued for colonial self-government without independence. A staunch defender of the interests of the southern colonies, he successfully argued to exempt South Carolina's rice from the list of goods the colonists refused to sell to England until it repealed the ‘objectionable’ tax laws. At the second session of the continental congress in 1775–6, he supported the establishment of new governments in all of the colonies. He left Philadelphia on 5 November 1775 to assume leadership in his home province.

After Rutledge served on the committee that wrote the South Carolina constitution of 1776, the general assembly elected him president and commander-in-chief of South Carolina. A knowledgeable man of courage and dedication, but quick-tempered, he assumed this awesome task at the beginning of the colonies' war for independence. After a British attempt to capture Charles Town failed in June 1776, the state enjoyed two years of war-free prosperity under his leadership. In 1778, however, when democratic elements led by Rawlins Lowndes of the upcountry forced a revision of the constitution that instituted an elected senate and disestablished the Episcopal church, Rutledge resigned.

When the state faced invasion again in January 1779, it elected John Rutledge governor. His desperate attempts to raise troops for generals Benjamin Lincoln and William Moultrie borrowed time, but ultimately proved inadequate to repel the massive British invasion in the spring of 1780. Shortly before British troops occupied Charles Town in May, Rutledge slipped away to lead a government in exile and wage unrelenting war against them, thus escaping capture and imprisonment. By letter and in person, Rutledge begged General George Washington for help. Washington sent General Nathanael Greene to defend the southern colonies, but Rutledge also encouraged the South Carolinians Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and Francis Marion to wage guerrilla war against the British troops as they fanned upward across the state. In August 1781 he sold indigo in Philadelphia to buy military supplies, restored civilian government, pardoned many citizens who had supported the British, and called for the election of a legislature to meet in January 1782. That assembly honoured him by adopting all of his proposals, including one that called for the confiscation of the property of loyalists in lieu of harsher punishment. As president of his state from 1776 to 1778, during the controversial early years of independence, and as governor from 1779 to 1781, when the colonies finally achieved independence, he justly achieved the highest honour of any citizen in the history of his state. Ineligible to succeed himself, he left the governorship on 29 January 1782. He served in the state house of representatives until 1790, attended the continental congress from May 1782 to September 1783, and in 1784 was elected to the South Carolina chancery court.

John Rutledge helped to write the constitution of the United States and to establish the new nation. As chairman of the committee on detail at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, he argued points dear to the ‘aristocratic’ south. He wanted to protect the slave trade, make wealth the basis for representation, have the national government assume the state debts, and establish a legislature that would dominate the government. According to legend, during that hot summer in Philadelphia, he asked a slave to prepare him a cool drink. That slave's effort produced the south's first fabled mint julep, a concoction of sugar, crushed mint leaves, and straight bourbon whiskey over crushed ice. Once the new government took effect and George Washington became president, Washington appointed him senior associate of the supreme court.

Because of his declining health and the raging political disputes in South Carolina and the nation, John Rutledge's judicial career became more honorary than distinguished. He resigned from the supreme court before he actually served in order to become chief justice of South Carolina in February 1791. In 1795 he asked George Washington to appoint him chief justice of the United States to replace John Jay of New York, who was resigning. Washington made the appointment, but Rutledge soon found himself in the middle of a heated debate that would guarantee that he would not win confirmation by the United States senate. At a public meeting in St Michael's Church in Charleston (as Charles Town had been renamed in 1783) he vehemently and erratically attacked Jay's treaty of 1794 with Great Britain. He thought it discriminated against the south and should not be ratified. At Washington's request the senate ratified it anyway, but did not confirm Rutledge as chief justice. While waiting for confirmation he presided over one term of the supreme court, but the mental instability that had affected him since 1792 had become so obvious that his public career ended.

In private life John Rutledge owned plantations, slaves, and an elaborate town house in Charles Town, most of which he lost during the American War of Independence. Although he enjoyed watching his children grow into successful careers, his own declined in the 1790s. He was hopelessly bankrupt and finally devastated by the deaths of his mother and his wife, both in 1792. Plagued by bouts of melancholia and often suicidal, he had no chance to retrieve his fortune or public career. Unable to accept the death of his younger brother Edward on 23 January 1800, John Rutledge died at his home in Charleston of unspecified causes (possibly suicide) in a state of deep depression on 18 July 1800. Eulogists mentioned his extraordinary service during the revolution, but his funeral did not attract the elaborate public attention comparable to that of Edward, then governor, six months earlier. He was interred in St Michael's churchyard in Charles Town.

E. Stanly Godbold Jr.

Sources  

J. Haw, John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (1997) · E. S. Godbold and R. H. Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American revolution (1982) · H. Flanders, The lives and times of the chief justices of the supreme court of the United States, 2 vols. (1881) · R. W. Gibbes, ed., Documentary history of the American revolution, 3 vols. (1853–7) · W. E. Hemphill and W. A. Wates, eds., Extracts from the journals of the provincial congresses of South Carolina, 1775–1776 (1960) · E. A. Jones, American members of the inns of court (1924) · E. McCrady, The history of South Carolina in the revolution, 2 vols. (1901–2) · D. Ramsay, The history of the revolution in South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, 2 vols. (1785) · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000) · J. Drayton, Memoirs of the American revolution, 2 vols. (1821) · W. Moultrie, Memoirs of the American revolution, 2 vols. (1802) · R. M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: a history (1983) · M. L. Webber, ‘Dr John Rutledge and his descendants [pt 1]’, South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 31 (1930), 7–25

Likenesses  

portrait, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina

Wealth at death  

bankrupt: Charleston inventories D, 1800–10, South Carolina Archives and History Center, Columbia