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."
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.
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.
RUTLEDGE, JOHN. (1739–1800). Member of the Continental Congress, governor of South Carolina. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1739, Rutledge studied law in Charleston before entering the Middle Temple in 1754, being admitted to the English bar in 1760. Returning to South Carolina, he built a thriving law practice, became a wealthy planter owning some thirty thousand acres and hundreds of slaves, served in the Commons House (1761–1775), attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, was a delegate to the Continental Congress (1774–1775), helped draft South Carolina's conservative state constitution of 1776, and became president of the South Carolina General Assembly (1776–1778). Objecting to the new constitution of 1778 as too democratic, Rutledge quit the assembly in March. In the desperate situation presented by the British invasion of the South, Rutledge was elected governor in January 1779, being the first Patriot to hold that post. (His predecessor, Rawlins Lowndes, had been the last to use the title of president of South Carolina.) When General Prevost menaced Charleston on 11-12 May 1779, the new governor favored the proposal by his council that the state should promise the British to remain neutral if Prevost would withdraw. The honor of South Carolina was saved by opposition to this deal from Gadsden, John Laurens, and Moultrie, and Lincoln arrived by forced marches, leading to Prevost's retreat from the state.
When Clinton closed in on Charleston in March 1780, the assembly adjourned after giving Rutledge virtual dictatorial powers. A month before Charleston's surrender, Rutledge slipped out of the doomed city to rally state resources in the interior. Tarleton was trying to capture him when the warning of Colonel Henry Rugeley saved the governor. Rutledge withdrew across the North Carolina border and joined the army of Gates in its move toward Camden. After that disastrous battle, he commissioned Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, and other militia officers to conduct partisan operations and went to Philadelphia to urge that American regulars be sent to liberate the South.
Returning to his state in August 1781, he tackled the tremendous economic, legal, and military problems left in the wake of Greene's successful campaign. On 20 November he called for election of members of a legislature to meet at Jacksonboro on 8 January 1782, where he oversaw the confiscation of Loyalist estates. His term as governor ended on 29 January, and he returned to the legislature, serving also as a delegate to Congress in 1781–1783. In 1784 he was appointed senior judge on the state chancery court. Rutledge played a prominent role at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, ensuring that slavery was protected by the new frame of government, and was appointed to the first U.S. Supreme Court by Washington. Objecting to the need to ride the circuit of the southern district, Rutledge quit the court in February 1791 to accept appointment as chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas. In response to Rutledge's request in June 1795 to succeed John Jay as Supreme Court chief justice, Washington immediately nominated him. At the same time, however, Jay's Treaty was published, and Rutledge killed his chances of Senate confirmation by leading a bitter attack on the treaty. Since the death of his wife, Elizabeth Grimké, in 1792, Rutledge had showed signs of mental instability. About the time the Senate rejected his nomination in December 1795, he was forced by his derangement to withdraw from public life. He died in Charleston on 18 July 1800.
SEE ALSO Rugeley, Colonel Henry.
Haw, James. John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
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.
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).
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. □