Merchant, planter, legislator, jurist. Pringle was born in Symington in the county of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1702. He came to South Carolina in 1725 from London, where he had been a clerk in a West Indian merchant firm. He first established himself in Charleston as a factor to London and New England merchants but soon became a merchant himself. He sold a variety of imported dry goods from his shop on Tradd Street and exported domestic produce. During the 1740s Pringle briefly participated in business partnerships, but in general he preferred to conduct his trade independently. An amateur botanist, Pringle was enthusiastic about the production of Carolina indigo and supported efforts to discover new cash crops. He personally experimented with the cultivation of olives and mahogany, and he grew oranges in sufficient quantities for exportation.
Pringle’s marriage on July 18, 1734, to Jane Allen, daughter of the wealthy Charleston merchant Andrew Allen, further enhanced his social standing and increased his property holdings. The marriage produced one son, who died in infancy. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Robert Pringle became one of the most prosperous merchants in the city. He built two elegant town houses on Tradd Street, in 1741 and 1774 respectively, both of which survived into the twenty-first century.
Following Jane’s death in 1746, Pringle left Charleston for his only journey back to Britain. Shortly after he departed in August 1747, a Spanish privateer captured his ship, and he was briefly imprisoned at St. Augustine, Florida. After his release, he traveled to England and Scotland, where in September 1748 the Council of Edinburgh Burgesses and Guild Bretheren awarded Pringle an honorary membership. He returned to Charleston in 1749. On April 19, 1751, Pringle married Judith Mayrant Bull, the widow of Stephen Bull, and the couple eventually had three children.
Back in Charleston, Pringle turned his energies from trade to public service. Early in his career he had served on the vestry of St. Philip’s Church, and as churchwarden he oversaw the distribution of aid after the disastrous Charleston fire of 1740. He was among the commissioners who oversaw the construction of St. Michael’s Church during the 1750s, and he served as its first churchwarden when it opened in 1761. More significantly, Pringle was recommended for a seat on the Royal Council in 1751, but he chose instead to serve in the Commons House of Assembly. He represented Prince William’s Parish during the 1752–1754 session and then St. James Santee Parish from 1755 to 1762. Although not trained in the law, Pringle was named an assistant judge of the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions in 1761. For several years he was the lone assistant judge serving under the unpopular chief justice Charles Shinner. During the Stamp Act crisis of 1765–1766, Pringle and three newly appointed assistant judges attempted to subvert Shinner and open the courts without stamped paper. Following this effort and Pringle’s later support of the Non-Importation Association, he was removed from the bench in 1770 and retired from public life. He died in Charleston on January 13, 1776. The surviving records of his business and political activities provide a valuable example of life in colonial South Carolina.
Edgar, Walter B., ed. The Letterbook of Robert Pringle. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.
———. “Robert Pringle’s World.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 76 (January 1975): 1–11.
Edgar, Walter, and N. Louise Bailey, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 2, The Commons House of Assembly, 1692–1775. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Pringle-Garden Family. Papers. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston.