Lawyer, jurist, governor. Rutledge’s exact date of birth is unknown. The eldest son of Dr. John Rutledge and Sarah Hext, he studied law with his uncle Andrew Rutledge and with James Parsons in Charleston before attending the Middle Temple in London. Admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1761, he quickly became one of the most successful attorneys in the colony. On May 1, 1763, he married Elizabeth Grimké. They had ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.
Rutledge served in the Commons House of Assembly from 1761 to 1775 and became one of its leaders. He upheld the rights of the “country” in a series of disputes with successive royal governors and firmly opposed the Stamp, Townshend, and Tea Acts, representing his colony at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. As a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, he advocated a steadfast defense of American rights, but by means that would not impede reconciliation with the mother country. When events made reconciliation impossible, he reluctantly accepted independence as a necessity.
In the meantime, as royal authority dissolved in his own and other colonies, Rutledge supported a congressional resolution for the creation of new governments based on constitutions created by the people, not royal charters, until the crisis was resolved. He left Congress in November 1775 to carry that resolution to South Carolina. Rutledge was one of the drafters of the state constitution of 1776 and was elected president (governor) of South Carolina in March of the same year. Under his energetic leadership, the new state repulsed a British attack on Charleston in June 1776 and suppressed a Cherokee uprising later that summer.
Rutledge resigned as president in March 1778 to protest the adoption of a new state constitution of which he disapproved, but he was elected governor under that constitution in February 1779. When the British captured Charleston and overran South Carolina in 1780, Rutledge escaped to function as a one-man government in exile. He twice visited Philadelphia to seek increased aid for the South from Congress but spent most of his time with the southern Continental army organizing and trying to supply his state’s militia for continued resistance. Eventual military successes in the South allowed him to restore state government and turn over the governorship to his elected successor, John Mathewes, in January 1782.
After serving again in Congress from 1782 to 1783, Rutledge accepted appointment to the South Carolina Court of Chancery, and he remained a leader in the state legislature in the 1780s. His experience in Congress convinced him that the United States needed a stronger central government. He was chosen as one of South Carolina’s delegates to the constitutional convention in 1787.
Rutledge played a prominent role in writing the federal Constitution. He advocated a national government of greatly increased but still limited powers and entrusted to an executive and a Congress designed to consist of gentlemen made relatively independent of public opinion. As chairman of the committee of detail, he had a major role in the enumeration of congressional powers, the provision forbidding taxation of exports, and the ban on national prohibition of slave imports until 1808. Rutledge also promoted the constitution’s adoption as a member of the South Carolina ratifying convention.
In 1789 Rutledge reluctantly accepted appointment as one of the first justices of the United States Supreme Court. He resigned from that position in 1791 to become chief justice of South Carolina, an office he held until 1795. Since the Supreme Court was just getting organized during his tenure, he made no important rulings on the federal bench.
In the early 1790s John Rutledge became an emotionally troubled man. Large debts threatened the loss of all of his property. A serious illness in 1781, coupled with gout, had severely damaged his health. His wife’s sudden death in 1792 was the final blow, plunging him into deep depression.
Apparently unaware of Rutledge’s problems, President George Washington appointed him chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1795. However, before learning of his nomination, Rutledge made a speech denouncing the recently negotiated Jay Treaty with Britain. This speech outraged Federalists and, combined with reports of his “derangement” and financial problems, caused the Federalist-dominated Senate to reject his nomination. Probably before hearing of the rejection, a despondent Rutledge attempted suicide and then resigned from the South Carolina Supreme Court for reasons of health. Except for one term in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Rutledge remained in retirement until his death on July 18, 1800.
Haw, James. John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.