Soldier, statesman, diplomat. Pinckney was born in Charleston on February 14, 1746, to Charles Pinckney, a lawyer and member of the provincial council, and Elizabeth Lucas, who helped introduce indigo cultivation in South Carolina. In 1753 Pinckney accompanied his family to London, where his father served as the colony’s agent until 1758. Young Pinckney received private tutoring before entering the prestigious Westminster School in 1761. Three years later he matriculated at both Christ Church College, Oxford, and at the Middle Temple, the London legal training ground. While at Oxford he attended lectures by the famed legal scholar Sir William Blackstone and listened to debates in the House of Commons pertaining to the American colonies. Pinckney was admitted to the English Bar in January 1769. Following a tour of Europe, he returned to South Carolina, where he began a successful legal practice.
Pinckney entered public service in 1769 with election to the Commons House of Assembly, where he represented St. John’s Colleton Parish during the remainder of royal rule. Pinckney also served in the local militia, eventually attaining the rank of colonel. In 1773 he was made attorney general for the judicial districts of Camden, Cheraws, and Georgetown. That same year, on September 28, he married Sarah Middleton, daughter of the wealthy and well-connected Henry Middleton. The marriage produced four children. Through this marriage Pinckney became closely affiliated with some of the province’s leading radicals in America’s contest with Great Britain, such as Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge, and William Henry Drayton. By early 1775 Pinckney was a member of all the important revolutionary committees, from which he advocated aggressive measures, including stealing royal arms from the Statehouse, penning inflammatory epistles to backcountry inhabitants, and planning the defense of Charleston against a possible British attack. At the same time, Pinckney served in the extralegal Provincial Congress, where he assisted in creating and training a rebel army and chaired the committee responsible for drafting a temporary frame of government for the province.
Once hostilities erupted with Britain, Pinckney switched his role as a politician to that of a soldier. Appointed commander of the First Regiment of South Carolina troops, he assisted in the successful defense of Charleston at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in June 1776. When the British moved north following this defeat, Pinckney followed to serve as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington. He participated at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown before rejoining the southern army to command a regiment in the expedition to East Florida and at the siege of Savannah. During the defense of Charleston he commanded Fort Moultrie and made a futile attempt to convince General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the southern army, to defend the capital at all costs. When Charleston fell, the British placed Pinckney under house arrest and made a hapless attempt to lure him away from the American cause. The British later sent Pinckney to Philadelphia, where he was exchanged in 1782. He rejoined the southern army but saw no further action. Pinckney’s first wife, Sarah Middleton, died in 1784, and he married Mary Stead in 1786.
Following the war, Pinckney devoted his efforts toward rebuilding his law practice and his rice plantations. In 1787 he served as a delegate to the constitutional convention, where he ardently and ably defended the exporting and slaveholding interests of southern planters. A staunch Federalist, Pinckney was important in South Carolina’s ratification of the federal Constitution in 1788. He later helped draft the state’s 1790 constitution. Over the next several years Pinckney rejected President Washington’s numerous offers to serve in federal office—as commander of the army, as associate justice of the Supreme Court, as secretary of war, and as secretary of state—explaining that he needed to remain at home to restore his fortune. However, in 1796 Pinckney accepted Washington’s offer to serve as minister to France. The next year President John Adams appointed him as one of three commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the French government. When French diplomats demanded a bribe from their American counterparts to facilitate discussions, Pinckney is credited as having exclaimed “no! no! Not a sixpense” and urged his government to raise “millions for defence but not one cent for tribute.” In 1798 President Adams, anticipating war with France, appointed Pinckney commander of the southern department of the United States Army. He was discharged from military service in 1800.
Pinckney returned to politics in the election of 1800 as the Federalist Party’s vice-presidential candidate. In 1804 and 1808 he was the Federalist candidate for president, but realizing that he had little chance of winning, he never actively campaigned. Instead, Pinckney devoted the remainder of his life to agricultural experiments (he was a member of the South Carolina Agricultural Society) and civic service. He helped establish South Carolina College in 1801 and served on its first board of trustees. He also busied himself as president of numerous organizations, including the South Carolina Jockey Club, the Society for the Relief of Widows and Orphans of South Carolina, the Charleston Bible Society, the Charleston Library Society, the South Carolina Society of the Cincinnati, and the national Society of the Cincinnati. Near the end of his life Pinckney campaigned against dueling in South Carolina. He died in Charleston on August 16, 1825, and was buried in the cemetery of St. Michael’s Church.
Rogers, George C. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1980.
Williams, Francis Leigh. A Founding Family: The Pinckneys of South Carolina. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Zahniser, Marvin R. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: Founding Father. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.