Founding Fathers Friday: Edward Rutledge

by Derrick G. Jeter

The South Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress were all dandies—men of a certain class who could afford silk shirts, silk socks, and silk skivvies (if they had such a thing back in 1776). And the dandiest of the dandies was the young and dashing Edward Rutledge.

Rutledge was the youngest of seven children. His father was a successful physician. But the real money in the family came from his mother—which was a good thing because when she was 27 years old, Dr. Rutledge died, leaving Mrs. Rutledge a widow with seven small children. Fortunately for Rutledge and all the other little Rutledges mommy’s money kept them in high cotton.

Sent to London to study law at the prestigious Inner Temple, Rutledge returned to Charleston in late 1772. Admitted to the bar, he began practicing law in 1773, was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and somewhere in there married. All of this at a mere 25 years old.

Rutledge traveled to Philadelphia in 1774 with his brother John and his father-in-law Henry Middleton. But by the time Rutledge was packing his bag for a third trip to Philadelphia in 1776, retirements, illness, and the rush for South Carolina to create their own independent government, left the young man holding the Congressional bag. But he wasn’t left alone there in the City of Brotherly Love—South Carolina sent other young guns: Rutledge’s brother-in-law Arthur Middleton, Thomas Lynch Jr., and Thomas Heyward Jr. The four dandies from South Carolina made quite an impact in Congress, especially Rutledge.

John Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin, worked closely with Rutledge as members of a peace commission sent to Staten Island to meet with Lord Howe in the summer of 1776. Nothing came of the commission, but Adams did get a good look at the young South Carolinian and didn’t like what he saw. Adams described Rutledge as “a perfect Bob-o-Lincoln—a swallow, a sparrow, a peacock; excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady; jejune, inane and puerile.” And Adams threw in, just for good measure, that Rutledge was also “uncouth and ungraceful.”

Adams, ever the Puritan, probably chaffed under the silk finery of Rutledge. But the real burr under Adams’s saddle was the fact that Rutledge sided with John Dickinson, a man who broke his back to find a way toward reconciliation with England. Adams was a fire-breathing patriot and wanted independence immediately. Rutledge was a patriot but took a more courtly view toward independence. After all, what was all the rush about?

Because of that it was Rutledge, more than anyone else (except perhaps Dickinson), who postponed Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of independence from June 7 to July 2. And when the preliminary vote of July 1 was taken South Carolina voted against the measure. Rutledge may have been a dandy and young, but he was no fool. He could tell how the political winds were blowing: nine colonies voted yea for independence. Sometime after the vote of the 1st, Rutledge, who valued unanimity, informed Mr. Adams that South Carolina would support independence when the official vote came the next day—which they did.

Just because Rutledge and the South Carolina delegation voted in the affirmative on July 2, 1776, didn’t mean they automatically adopted ever jot and tittle of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s original draft included a scathing indictment against George III for the sin of slavery that stained the American soul. And this was too much for Rutledge.

Evidence does exist that Rutledge personally abhorred slavery, though he was a slave owner himself. Later in life, while back in private practice, an old biography noted that Rutledge “uniformly opposed every proposition for extending the evils of slavery.” In fact, this same biography asserts:

As a means of relief to those who, during the [Revolutionary] war, had lost a great many slaves, and were pressed for payment by those of whom they were purchased on credit, it was proposed to import a sufficient number, either from the West Indies, or from Africa direct, to make up the deficiency. All such evil propositions met no favor from Edward Rutledge.

Nevertheless, Rutledge led the charge, due to economic concerns for his colony, to strike the slavery language from the Declaration. It was. And slavery became be an issue for another time and another war.

Once Congress agreed on the language, Edward Rutledge signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776—the youngest to do so.

Rutledge left Congress in 1777 but returned in 1779. A year later, he was serving as a captain in the South Carolina militia defending his beloved city of Charleston. It was after the fall of Charleston and the capture of General Benjamin Lincoln and his patriot army that Rutledge’s early biographer wrote:

[General] Cornwallis became fearful of the influence of many citizens, and finally adopted a most cowardly measure. By his order, the Lieutenant Governor, (Gadsden), most of the civil and military officers, and some others of the friends of the republicans, of character, were taken out of their beds and houses by armed parties, and collected at the Exchange, when they were conveyed on board a guard-ship, and transported to St. Augustine. Mr. Rutledge was one of the number. His mother did not escape the persecutions of their masters. Cornwallis also feared her talents and influence, and compelled her to leave her country residence and move into the city [of Charleston], where she would be more directly under the vigilant eye of his minions.

At war’s end, Rutledge revived his fortune, served in the state legislature, and as a United States Senator. In 1798 he was elected South Carolina’s governor. He never finished his term. Rutledge died on January 23, 1800, either as a result of a severe cold contracted in a driving rain in Columbia or due to the death of George Washington, who had expired just a month before. It was said that Rutledge was gravely upset.

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