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Rutledge, John

RUTLEDGE, JOHN

Few justices of the U.S. Supreme Court combined outstanding achievement with mishap and tragedy to the extent of John Rutledge. Rutledge's career spanned three decades of public service during the early years of the nation. From 1761 until the 1780s, he enjoyed success as a lawyer, politician, Revolutionary War leader, and judge in South Carolina. His prominence at the Constitutional Convention—and his role in opposing British rule—brought him national fame and made him a favorite of President george washington. Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court twice, first in 1789 and again in 1795.

Born in September 1739 to a prominent family in Charleston, South Carolina, Rutledge was groomed for success. His wealthy physician father died when he was eleven, and thereafter his uncle, Andrew Rutledge, guided Rutledge's education. Andrew Rutledge, a lawyer and speaker of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, saw to it that his nephew was prepared for a legal and political career: the teenager was sent to England to study law at the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court, and in 1760 he was admitted to the English bar. At the age of twenty-one, Rutledge returned home, instantly won a seat in the state Assembly, and began a successful legal practice. Within a few years, Rutledge and two other lawyers were handling the affairs of South Carolina's wealthiest businessmen.

Rutledge's rise in politics was aided by his involvement in the growing revolutionary movement. In 1765 he attended the emergency conference held in New York City to discuss the colonists' anger at Britain's imposition of the Stamp Tax. Rutledge wrote an official declaration to the British House of Lords opposing the tax. When the Revolutionary War came, he led the defense of South Carolina. Rutledge's performance in the war cemented his growing national reputation, and a string of successes followed.

In 1775 Rutledge helped write the constitution for South Carolina, and a year later, he was elected president of its new state assembly. He was elected governor in 1779. From 1782 to 1784, he served in the U.S. Congress under the articles of confederation and then as chief judge of a court of chancery in South Carolina. He was one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

"So long as we mayhavean independent Judiciary, the great interests of the people will be safe."
—John Rutledge

At the national level, President Washington was Rutledge's chief political sponsor. He

offered Rutledge a federal judgeship and appointment as minister to the Netherlands, which he declined. He accepted when Washington named him to the Supreme Court in 1789 (though not, as Rutledge had hoped, as its chief justice). The Court heard no cases during its first two years, but Rutledge traveled great distances to fulfill his duties as a judge on the southern circuit. The position did not suit him, however. Bored and upset that he was merely an associate justice, he quit the Court in 1791 and returned to South Carolina, where he became chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas.

By June 1795 Rutledge was ready to return to the Supreme Court. john jay, the chief justice, was resigning, and Rutledge wrote to Washington suggesting that he should have the position. The president agreed and promptly nominated him. Over the next six months, while awaiting Senate approval of his nomination, Rutledge, as acting chief justice, heard his only two cases and wrote his only opinion: Talbot v. Jansen, 3 U.S. 133, 1 L. Ed. 540 (1795), an unimportant decision concerning goods captured at sea.

In the interim Rutledge undid his career. At a meeting in Charleston in July 1795, he spoke out wildly against Jay's Treaty, a controversial postwar agreement between the United States and Britain. The treaty was highly unpopular across the nation, but Rutledge went too far, denouncing it as "prostitution" and declaring that the president should die rather than sign it. Indeed, since the death of his wife in 1792, Rutledge had been depressed, and reports of insanity had begun to spread. His supporters—Washington among them—disbelieved the rumors, but Rutledge's enemies seized on them and blocked his confirmation in the Senate in December 1795. Upon hearing the news, he jumped off a wharf into Charleston Bay. Although two passing slaves foiled his suicide attempt, Rutledge's public career was over. Seldom seen again, he died five years later, on June 21, 1800.

further readings

Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1995. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.

Holt, Wythe. 1999. "How a Founder Becomes Forgotten: Chief Justice John Rutledge, Slavery, and the Jay Treaty." The Journal of Southern Legal History 7 (annual): 5–36.

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John Rutledge

John Rutledge

John Rutledge (1739-1800), American jurist and statesman, was Revolutionary War governor of South Carolina. He exemplified the conservative views of the mercantile and planter aristocracy.

John Rutledge was born in Charleston, S.C., into an affluent and politically active family. He was tutored at home and then went to England at 18 to study law. After being admitted to the English bar in 1760, he returned to Charleston, where he developed a successful practice. He served as the province's attorney general (1764-1765), but as a member of the Commons House of Assembly (1761-1776), he was more often in vigorous opposition to the royal administration.

At the Stamp Act Congress, Rutledge vigorously defended American rights. In 1769 he fought for the Commons' appropriation of funds in support of the English radical John Wilkes. In the general quarrel with Britain, however, Rutledge was a moderate. At the First Continental Congress he approved the Galloway Plan for a constitutional accommodation with the mother country, although he joined the movement for independence; in the Second Congress he urged the establishment of new state governments. He helped to frame the South Carolina constitution of 1776 and was immediately chosen president (governor) of the state, but his innate conservatism caused him to resign 2 years later.

When South Carolina was confronted by a British invasion in 1779, the state again chose Rutledge as governor, and for the next 3 years he provided energetic leadership in the war effort, with such broad emergency powers that he was called "Dictator Rutledge." Resigning in 1782, he was elected to the state legislature and in 1784 was named to the state's chancery court. At the Constitutional Convention he resisted restrictions on the slave trade, urged property as a basis for representation, and sought election of the president by Congress, and of the Congress by state legislatures.

President George Washington named Rutledge to the Supreme Court when it was organized in 1789, but he resigned 2 years later, without ever having attended a single session of the Court, to become chief justice of South Carolina. In 1795 Washington appointed him chief justice of the United States, but Rutledge's violent speech against the Jay Treaty resulted in a Senate rejection of the nomination, even though he had presided at one term of the court. The ferocity of his tirade was symptomatic of a mental deterioration which had commenced a few years earlier upon the death of his wife. He died on July 18, 1800.

Further Reading

The only full-length biography of Rutledge is Richard H. Barry, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina (1942); it is based on extensive sources and is highly readable. His political career in South Carolina may be traced in Edward McCrady, History of South Carolina (4 vols., 1897-1902), and David D. Wallace, History of South Carolina (4 vols., 1934-1935; rev. ed., 1 vol., 1951). Rutledge's career on the Supreme Court in discussed in Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1923; 2 vols., rev. ed. 1935), and in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789-1969 (4 vols., 1969).

Additional Sources

Barry, Richard, b. 1881. Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1993.

Haw, James. Founding brothers: John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, Athens: University of Georgia, 1997. □

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Rutledge, John

John Rutledge, 1739–1800, American jurist and political leader, 2d chief justice of the United States, b. Charleston, S.C.; brother of Edward Rutledge. After studying law in London he began practice in Charleston, S.C., in 1761. He rose to prominence when quite young, was a member (1762) of the provincial assembly, attorney general of South Carolina (1764–65), and a delegate (1765) to the Stamp Act Congress. He twice (1774–76, 1782–83) was a member of the Continental Congress and meanwhile held strong sway as president (1776–78) of his state and later (1779–82) as governor. As delegate (1787) to the Constitutional Convention, Rutledge played an important role in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, and then (1788) was a member of the state ratifying convention. After serving (1789–91) as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court he was chief justice of South Carolina. In July, 1795, he was appointed interim chief justice of the United States and presided at the August term of the Supreme Court, but the Senate (Dec., 1795) refused to confirm the appointment because of his bitter attacks on Jay's Treaty.

See biography by R. H. Barry (1942, repr. 1971).

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Rutledge, John

Rutledge, John (1739–1800) US politician. He was a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress (1765) and two Continental Congresses (1774–76, 1782–83). He played a key role at the federal Constitutional Convention (1787) and was an associate justice on the US Supreme Court (1778–91) until he resigned to become chief justice of the South Carolina supreme court (1791–95).

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