Lawyer, governor. Edward Rutledge, the youngest son of Dr. John Rutledge and Sarah Hext, was born on November 23, 1749. He studied law under the direction of his older brother, John, and then continued his studies at the Middle Temple in London. He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in January 1773. His marriage on March 1, 1774, to Henrietta Middleton produced three children. After Henrietta’s death in 1792, he married Mary Shubrick Eveleigh on October 28, 1792.
One of Rutledge’s first cases in 1773 involved a successful habeas corpus petition that freed a printer jailed for contempt by the upper house of assembly. The reputation he gained in this politically charged case paved the way for his election to the Continental Congress in 1774. At first he hoped to achieve a settlement with Britain that would preserve colonial rights within the British Empire. Events, particularly the beginning of the war, moved him to support independence in principle by February 1776. In June, however, he opposed a formal declaration of independence because he believed that the colonies should first agree on a confederation and secure foreign aid. But when the final vote in favor of independence came, Rutledge swayed his South Carolina colleagues to support it “for the sake of unanimity.” He became the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Rutledge returned to South Carolina in December 1776 to assume his post as a captain in the Charleston Artillery. He also took his seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, where he worked with some success for a strong executive, military preparedness, and harsh sanctions against Loyalists. When the British captured Charleston in 1780, Rutledge became a prisoner of war on parole. Later that year he and other Charlestonians were arrested for allegedly plotting to organize resistance, a charge that Rutledge denied. The alleged plotters were held prisoner in St. Augustine, Florida, and their property was sequestered for the support of the British army. His war-time experience left Rutledge with a lasting bitterness toward Britain.
Rutledge was freed in a prisoner exchange in July 1781. The following January he returned to the state House of Representatives, where he served for the next thirteen years and became one of South Carolina’s most influential political leaders. Rutledge worked in the 1780s to promote the economic recovery of the state and to maintain the political dominance of lowcountry gentlemen. Both goals required concessions. A skilled conciliator, Rutledge found those concessions easier to make than did many of his compatriots. He played an important role in the postwar confiscation and amercement of Loyalist property and unsuccessfully opposed removal of the state capital from Charleston to Columbia. He later argued against constitutional revision and then helped to devise limited concessions to the upcountry that still preserved lowcountry control in the state constitution of 1790. Rutledge also supported what he considered to be the least objectionable of various plans for paper money and debt relief in order to pacify popular discontent.
As a delegate to the South Carolina ratifying convention in 1788, Rutledge was a leader in supporting ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He moved successfully for the endorsement of proposed constitutional amendments to conciliate the opposition. President George Washington twice asked Rutledge if he would accept appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1790s and also considered him for secretary of state and minister to France, but Rutledge’s personal and family circumstances prevented him from leaving South Carolina. Unable for the same reasons to seek election to Congress, he nevertheless had some influence in national politics because of his ties to national leaders and his power in his state. Rutledge supported Alexander Hamilton’s financial program but remained strongly anti-British in foreign affairs. He did not align himself completely with either of the two emerging national political parties during Washington’s administration.
Rutledge’s long tenure in the South Carolina House of Representatives ended in 1796, when he was elected to the state Senate. There Rutledge worked for military preparedness in the undeclared naval war with France that followed the XYZ Affair. He was now aligned with the Federalist Party, but his freedom from British attachments made him more acceptable to Democratic-Republicans than were most Federalists. Rutledge was elected governor in 1798 and continued to strengthen his state’s defenses in that capacity. He died in office during the night of January 23–24, 1800, after suffering a stroke. He was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard, Charleston.
Clow, Richard Brent. “Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, 1749–1800: Unproclaimed Statesman.” Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1976.
Haw, James. John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Smith, Dorothy Caroline. “The Revolutionary War Service of Edward Rut-
ledge, 1774–1782.” M.A. thesis, University of South Carolina, 1947.