At the outbreak of war in 1775, Pinckney became a captain in the First South Carolina Continental regiment and was later promoted to major.
Governor, diplomat, congressman, soldier. Pinckney was born in Charleston on October 23, 1750, the son of Charles Pinckney and Elizabeth “Eliza” Lucas, and the brother of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. In 1753 the Pinckneys sailed to England to educate their sons. When their parents returned to South Carolina in 1758, the boys remained behind. Thomas Pinckney received a liberal education at Westminster School and Christ College, Oxford, and studied law at the Middle Temple in the Inns of Court. In addition, he briefly attended the Royal Military Academy in Caen, France, where he studied military science. After his return to Charleston in December 1774, he was admitted to the South Carolina Bar and commenced his law practice.
At the outbreak of war in 1775, Pinckney became a captain in the First South Carolina Continental regiment and was later promoted to major. He traveled to North Carolina and Virginia on recruiting missions and supervised the construction of fortifications. Much of his early service involved tedious garrison duty in Charleston harbor. At one point he wryly reassured his sister Harriott that she need not worry “for you may depend upon their being no fighting wherever I am.” Pinckney subsequently participated in the failed invasion of East Florida in 1778. When the British invaded South Carolina in May 1779, they burned Pinckney’s Aukland Plantation on the Ashepoo River. That fall Pinckney served as a liaison between American and French forces at the siege of Savannah. During a lull in the fighting, he married Elizabeth Motte on July 22, 1779. Their union produced six children. Three years after Elizabeth’s death, he married her sister, Frances, on October 19, 1797. Pinckney’s second marriage produced two children.
When the British laid siege to Charleston in 1780, Pinckney urged that the city be defended. Because General Benjamin Lincoln sent him to search for expected reinforcements, he avoided capture when the city surrendered in May. He then joined the remaining Continental troops in the Carolinas and became General Horatio Gates’s aide-de-camp. At the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, Pinckney’s leg was shattered by a musket ball and he was captured, ending his active service in the war. The British paroled him, and he spent time in Philadelphia and Virginia before returning to South Carolina. After the war, he publicly defended Gates’s strategic and tactical decisions.
Pinckney shifted his attention from practicing law to planting and politics. He represented the city parishes of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s in the state House of Representatives from 1776 until 1791. He was elected governor of South Carolina on February 20, 1787, and served two years. He submitted the federal Constitution to the state legislature and presided over the ratification convention that met in Charleston in 1788. Three years after leaving office in 1789, Pinckney accepted the prestigious and challenging appointment as U.S. minister to Great Britain on January 16, 1792.
As a diplomat, Pinckney was competent rather than brilliant. To his frustration, he was unable to secure compensation for slaves removed by the British or resolve disputes over British fortifications in the Northwest and American fishing rights off Newfoundland. When Britain and France went to war in 1793, the United States found its neutrality threatened. Hoping to avert war, President George Washington sent John Jay in 1794 on a special mission to Britain. Despite his disappointment at being temporarily superseded, Pinckney charitably supported the mission and approved the controversial treaty that Jay negotiated.
Pinckney’s moment did come, however, for in November 1794 he was appointed envoy extraordinary to Spain. From June to October 1795 Pinckney worked to settle territorial and commercial disputes between the United States and Spain. He considered indispensable the American right to deposit and ship goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River. To secure this point and end the diplomatic stalemate, he demanded his passport, which caused his counterpart, Manuel de Godoy, the prince of peace, to concede. The Treaty of San Lorenzo, signed on October 27, 1795, granted Americans the privilege (rather than the right) to use the port of New Orleans and established a clear boundary between the United States and West Florida. Pinckney’s mission to Spain proved to be the high point of a long public career. The treaty he negotiated paved the way for American settlement of the Southeast and for future territorial acquisitions from the French and the Spanish.
In 1796 Pinckney resigned his European post and returned to South Carolina. Before he arrived, the Federalists nominated him as their candidate for vice president. Because of political maneuvering, Pinckney finished behind Thomas Jefferson in the voting. In November 1797 Pinckney was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to complete William Smith’s unexpired term. In Congress he generally supported the Adams administration’s preparations for war with France, but he opposed the Sedition Act. He left Congress in 1801 and, except for another term in the General Assembly from 1802 to 1804, withdrew from public life.
His retirement ended during the War of 1812, when he was commissioned a major general and given command of the Southern Division of the U.S. Army. He worked to strengthen coastal fortifications and held overall command during the war with the Creeks, but he saw no action. After the war, Pinckney retired to his plantation on the Santee River, which he named El Dorado. Noted for his agricultural innovations, which included using dikes to reclaim saltwater marshes for rice cultivation and importing choice cattle from Europe, he contributed articles to the Southern Agriculturist and reports to the Agricultural Society. In 1825 he became president general of the national Society of the Cincinnati. On November 2, 1828, Pinckney died in Charleston. He was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard.
Bemis, Samuel Flagg. “The London Mission of Thomas Pinckney, 1792–1796.” American Historical Review 27 (January 1923): 228–47.
–––. Pinckney’s Treaty: America’s Advantage from Europe’s Distress, 1783–1800. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.
Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth. Life of General Thomas Pinckney. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895.
Williams, Frances Leigh. A Founding Family: The Pinckneys of South Carolina. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.