In Congress, Pinckney quickly made a name for himself. He became friends with James Monroe and served with the Virginian on a committee responsible for presenting Thomas Jefferson’s ordinances regarding the Northwest Territory.
Planter, legislator, governor, statesman. Pinckney was born in Charleston on October 26, 1757, the son of Charles Pinckney and Frances Brewton. Little is known of his childhood. In 1773, while still in his teens, he enrolled in the Middle Temple in London, but the Revolution prevented him from attending. As a result, he received most of his education in Charleston, first under the tutelage of Dr. David Oliphant and later in the law office of his father.
In 1779 Pinckney entered public service as a representative to the General Assembly from Christ Church Parish, home of his family’s country estate, Snee Farm. During the Revolution he joined the Charleston militia and saw action at the siege of Savannah (September–October 1779) and was captured at the fall of Charleston in May 1780. After being confined on board the prison ship Pack Horse, Pinckney was eventually paroled in a general prisoner exchange in the summer of 1781. Following his release, he went to Philadelphia. After his father died in September 1782, Pinckney returned to South Carolina the following year to assist his mother in settling the estate and to resume his political career. In 1784 Pinckney reentered the General Assembly and, later that year, was elected to the Confederation Congress.
In Congress, Pinckney quickly made a name for himself. He became friends with James Monroe and served with the Virginian on a committee responsible for presenting Thomas Jefferson’s ordinances regarding the Northwest Territory. Pinckney also spoke forcefully regarding negotiations with Spain, stressing that securing navigation rights to the Mississippi River for the United States was imperative to southern interests. In 1786 Pinckney was one of three members appointed to persuade the New Jersey assembly to pay their share of Confederation taxes. In his address, Pinckney suggested that if they did not agree with the operation of the government, they should call a convention to try to make necessary improvements. Making a similar call two months later in the Confederation Congress, Pinckney submitted a plan for amending the Articles of Confederation to give more power to the national government, especially in the regulation of commerce. His plan was put aside, however, when word came from Annapolis that a call had been made for a convention of the states to reconsider the powers of the federal government. Because of his outspoken belief that the Articles of Confederation were defective and his eloquence regarding the subject, the South Carolina General Assembly elected Pinckney as one of the five South Carolinians to attend the May 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, where he became one of the convention’s most active delegates.
On the third day of the convention he submitted what came to be known as “The Pinckney Draft,” which was similar to the “Virginia Plan” of Edmund Randolph. Pinckney’s proposal called for a strong central government consisting of three “separate and distinct” branches. The legislative branch would consist of a Senate and a House of Delegates. The House would be elected proportionately to the white population, with slaves being counted as three-fifths of a person toward representation. To fill the Senate, the states would be divided into districts according to size. The larger the size of the state, the more senators it would have. The legislature would be responsible for national defense, “regulating the Trade with the several States as well with Foreign Nations as with each other,” forming a post office, regulating Indian affairs, coining money, “ordering the Militia of any State to any Place within the U.S.,” choosing the president, and “instituting a federal judicial Court.” The president would serve for a term of seven years and be responsible for informing the legislature “at every session of the condition of the United States.” In other words, the president would deliver what have come to be known as “State of the Union Addresses.” The president would also be the commander in chief of the military and would inspect the various departments within the government. He would have the power to call members of the legislature into emergency session and to dismiss them “when they cannot agree as to the time of their adjournment.” The House of Delegates would have power of impeachment, with senators and federal judges holding the power to try the executive. The judicial branch, appointed by the legislature, would hear cases brought against United States officers and settle matters between states and between a state and the federal government. There would also be a court of admiralty. Judges would be appointed for a term of “good Behavior,” although the manner of appointment was not specified. Pinckney even attached a small “Bill of Rights” to his document, which provided for “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus–the trial by jury in all cases, criminal as well as civil–the freedom of the press and the prevention of religious tests as qualifications to offices of trust or emolument.” Although his plan was not adopted in its entirety, dozens of Pinckney’s proposals found their way into what would become the United States Constitution.
One of the most important moments for Pinckney during the convention came on June 25. Speaking to his fellow delegates, he made a forceful case for the unique quality of America and the importance of seeking original solutions for a new government. The address was redolent with republican ideology, such as calling for a nation led by an aristocracy based on merit, not birth, as well as themes that influenced Jacksonian democracy in the next century.
After the convention, Pinckney returned to South Carolina and married Mary Eleanor Laurens, daughter of Henry Laurens, on April 27, 1788. The following month he served at the state ratifying convention, speaking in support of the new constitution he had helped to create and reiterating the themes of his June 25, 1787, speech in Philadelphia. In doing so, he sought to placate backcountry delegates, who feared that the document would benefit the state’s lowcountry elite and the northern states at the expense of their liberty. Supporters of the document, however, outweighed the opposition, and South Carolina ratified the Constitution by a vote of 149 to 73.
Pinckney was elected governor in 1789 and became the first to serve at the new capital of Columbia, basing his political operations from his plantation Greenwich, on the Congaree River just south of town. He also presided over the state constitutional convention of 1790. Using his considerable political influence, he organized backcountry dissidents into a voting bloc that, ten years later, would back his support of Thomas Jefferson’s bid for the presidency. In supporting Jefferson, Pinckney broke with his economic base, his geographic roots in the lowcountry, and his family (his cousin Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was Jefferson’s opponent) in order to unite the state and insure the election of his ideological peer.
When U.S. Senator John Hunter resigned from Congress in November 1798, Pinckney was appointed to serve out his term. However, after Jefferson’s election as president in 1800, Pinckney was named minister plenipotentiary to Spain. From 1801 to 1805 he attempted to conduct foreign affairs but found himself hampered by an arrogant Spanish court and a secretary of state, James Madison, who believed Pinckney to be inept in diplomatic matters. Returning to South Carolina in 1806, Pinckney was reelected governor in December and served a record fourth term. Although he may have alienated his family and his socioeconomic peers, as well as some in his own party, the majority of the people in South Carolina respected his ability and his willingness to reach across class and geographic lines in order to unite the state. He served in various state offices until 1814, when he retired from public life. The respite was brief, however, and in 1819 Pinckney was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. There he spoke in opposition to the Missouri Compromise, claiming that it threatened southern interests, particularly slavery, and paving the way for later southern advocates such as John C. Calhoun. Declining reelection in 1821, Pinckney left the public arena for good.
On October 29, 1824, Pinckney died in Charleston, and he was buried in the graveyard at St. Philip’s Church. He was survived by a daughter, Mary Eleanor Pinckney, and a son, Henry Laurens Pinckney, whose birth had claimed the life of his mother in 1794. Another daughter, Frances Henrietta Pinckney, had predeceased her father. Scorned by his class and his family for much of his latter life, Pinckney was also dismissed by some historians as vain, arrogant, and too willing to take credit for the work of others. He was actually an important transitional figure at both the state and national levels. He succeeded in uniting his state across class and geographic lines to insure Jefferson’s election in 1800 and, in doing so, earned distinction as a founder of the Democratic Party in South Carolina. On a national level, he bridged the generation gap between the founding fathers of the revolutionary period and their successors in the age of Andrew Jackson.
Kaplanoff, Mark D. “Charles Pinckney and the American Republican Tradition.” In Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, edited by Michael O’Brien and David Moltke-Hansen. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Matthews, Marty D. Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
Williams, Frances Leigh. A Founding Family: The Pinckneys of South Carolina. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.