John Rutledge was born into Charleston’s elite in 1739 and by April 1775 had established himself as a defender of English rights in the colonies. A British-educated lawyer, he served in South Carolina’s General Assembly and represented the colony in the Stamp Act Congress, the First Continental Congress, and the early days of the Second Continental Congress. No radical, he aligned himself with moderate revolutionaries like John Dickinson and favored rapprochement with England rather than more aggressive moves toward independence. But, as events unfolded, he edged toward the radical camp. After Rutledge returned to South Carolina in the winter of 1775-1776, two issues dominated his role in the Revolution: governance and three separate British invasions.
Like many colonies, South Carolina was in the process of transforming itself into a de facto state during 1775, creating governing institutions outside of British authority. It was an evolutionary process and the organization of civil authority went through several iterations before the end of the war. Rutledge played a critical role throughout. While Rutledge attended the First Continental Congress, South Carolina’s ad hoc “general meeting” evolved into a more formal Provincial Congress, led by a General Committee in competition with the colony’s lieutenant governor and colonial General Assembly. Many of Charleston’s elite belonged to both groups: the Provincial Congress and the General Assembly, the latter of which rarely met because it would not bow to the lieutenant governor, William Bull, Jr., or the governor, Lord William Campbell, after he arrived in 1775. Questions about the Provincial Congress’s legitimacy persisted and it eventually raised those issues with the Second Continental Congress: questions that Rutledge had already taken a lead in answering for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Rutledge’s formulation in those instances reflected both his moderation and the practical necessities on the ground as British authority collapsed. He stressed that new governments could be legally constituted as temporarymeasures because British authorities had essentially vacated their offices by failing to adhere to colonial charters. Rutledge brought that position with him when he returned to South Carolina and took his seat in the Provincial Congress. He was behind the curve.
The South Carolina Provincial Congress had already voted to raise troops, adopt a bill of rights, issue paper money, and had taken steps to prepare for war. But, dominated by coastal elites, the body’s legitimacy and authority were still questionable. On February 10, it took up the Continental Congress’s advice about forming a new government that was widely representative. During the debate, a more radical member of the Congress, Christopher Gadsden, produced a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, already electrifying opinion in the mid-Atlantic and New England colonies. Gadsden used the pamphlet to argue in favor of setting up a new government and moving toward independence, throwing the entire body into an uproar. Rutledge heatedly condemned Gadsden’s proposal, announcing he was ready to ride night and day to Philadelphia in an effort to reconcile with the mother country. The next day, the Provincial Congress appointed an ideologically diverse committee, including Rutledge and Gadsden, to sort through the issue and draft a new constitution. Rutledge’s fingerprints were all over the final product.
Debate remained fraught with tension, with many opposing this more formal establishment of government. But, in the midst of the argument, word of Parliament’s 1775 Prohibitory Act weakened the moderates and Rutledge took up the pen to indict British policy in the preamble. In addition to accusing Parliament of violating English rights and colonial charters, the preamble argued that the inability or unwillingness of South Carolina’s British authorities to perform their civil duties necessitated the establishment of a new government “until an accommodation of the unhappy differences between Great Britain and America can be obtained, (an event, which though traduced and treated as rebels, we still earnestly desire).” Indeed, the new legislative body, now renamed after its English predecessor, the “General Assembly,” with a Legislative Council (elected by the General Assembly from among its own members) replacing the colonial Privy Council and a President and Vice President selected from the Assembly performing some executive functions. In short, the outcome mirrored Rutledge’s position in the Continental Congress; new governments were temporary and expedient institutions necessitated by the functional failures of colonial government and only meant to exist until Great Britain and its colonies were reconciled. On March 26, the Provincial Congress adopted the new constitution, dissolved itself, and then reconvened as the new General Assembly, which elected two moderates, John Rutledge and Henry Laurens, as President and Vice President.
Rutledge had gotten his way. A majority of the General Assembly adopted his view, noting the temporary nature of their body in congratulating the new President. To further stress the point, he replied, “Let it be known that this Constitution is but temporary, till an accommodation of the unhappy differences between Great Britain and America can be obtained; and that such an event is still desired by men who yet remember former friendships and intimate connections, though for defending their persons and properties they are stigmatized and treated as rebels.” But, the words on paper did not change the facts on the ground or the prominence of pro-independence leaders. William Henry Drayton, a radical aligned with Gadsden, was elected Chief Justice. In his charge to a grand jury for the colony, Drayton reviewed a laundry list of Britain’s abuses of its American subjects, compared them to acts that had led Britons to change kings, and then announced, “the Almighty created America to be independent of Britain,” further declaring that failure to establish institutions sufficient for that object was an act of impiety! The General Assembly adjourned in April 1776.
Fighting soon sharpened distinctions and eroded the middle ground that Rutledge had seized. At the end of May, word arrived that a large number of British vessels had been spotted north of Charleston. The flotilla grew as different squadrons commanded by Sir Peter Parker and carrying Maj. Gen. Henry Clinton’s troops rendezvoused. War had come to John Rutledge barely two months after his election. Continental Maj. Gen. Charles Lee arrived on June 4, shortly after the British fleet, but he brought just 1,000 Continentals—compared to South Carolina’s 2,000 regulars and some 2,700 militiamen that Rutledge had mobilized. Still, he was welcome. Col. William Moultrie, commanding Charleston’s defenses on Sullivan’s Island, noted:
his presence gave us great spirits, as he was known to be an able, brave, and experienced officer, though hasty and rough in his manners, which the officers could not reconcile themselves to at first: it was thought by many that his coming among us was equal to a reinforcement of 1000 me, and I believe it was.
Despite his welcome, Lee caused problems and it fell to Rutledge to sort them out. On June 8, the Continental officer started issuing orders to South Carolina’s troops, over whom he had no legal authority. That belonged to Rutledge, who smoothed over Lee’s arbitrariness by ordering South Carolina’s troops to follow Lee’s orders. But, it wasn’t long before the question of command authority again reared its head.
In an early tour of Charleston’s defenses, Lee was dissatisfied with the incomplete state of Fort Sullivan. He proposed abandoning it. Rutledge indignantly rejected the idea. Lee would not let the issue rest and throughout June devised plans and means by which Fort Sullivan might be abandoned. Simply, he did not think it, or the men defending it, would withstand an assault by the Royal Navy. Meanwhile, Rutledge focused on supplying the fort with gunpowder and Moultrie sought to strengthen it, albeit without the energy the task demanded.
On June 28, 1776 the British finally attacked. Still believing the fort could not withstand a gunnery duel and aware of its gunpowder limits, Lee wrote Moultrie “If you should unfortunately expend your ammunition without beating off the enemy or driving them on ground, spike your guns and retreat with all the order possible.” Indeed, Moultrie frequently had to slacken his fire. Those limits eventually led him to write Lee. “I believe we shall want more powder. At the rate we go on, I think we shall. But you can see that. Pray, send us more if you think proper.” The South Carolinian was essentially telling Lee that the conditions needed to satisfy his earlier directive had been met. Thus, Lee had grounds to withdraw Moultrie. But the letter did not make its way to the major general, who could not immediately be found. Instead, it found its way to President Rutledge, who promptly sent over 500 pounds of powder with the encouragement “Honor and Victory, my good sir, to you, and our worthy countrymen with you . . . P.S. Do not make too free with your cannon. Cool and do mischief.”
Later historians exaggerated the differences between Lee and Rutledge, asserting that Rutledge wrote Moultrie, “General Lee wishes you to evacuate the fort. You will not do so without an order from me; I will sooner cut off my hand than write one.” Moultrie, however, made a point of noting that at several times during the battle Lee intended to reinforce Sullivan’s Island and was also seeking to scrounge powder for the fort. For that matter, William Henry Drayton, who often crossed political swords with Rutledge over the latter’s moderation, rose to Lee’s defense over the general’s concern about Fort Sullivan’s acknowledged inadequacies. The Americans eventually won the battle. While there is no doubt Rutledge did not want to surrender the fort, it is possible that reports of his obstinance and Lee’s desire to abandon the fort reflected political and historical spin. Indeed, Rutledge and Lee continued to clash over strategy after the British attack, with Lee seeking to dispatch state troops throughout the state and Rutledge preferring to focus on Charleston. Rutledge got along better with Lee’s replacement, Continental Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, but tensions remained between Continental authorities and the government of South Carolina. The latter exerted more authority over military affairs in the state than General Howe believed acceptable, but he lacked the ability to do much about it.
The Declaration of Independence shortly after the battle of Fort Sullivan and the adoption of the Articles of Confederation increasingly rendered South Carolina’s 1776 constitution moot. It was, after all, premised as contingent. When the General Assembly reconvened in January 1778, Rutledge called upon it to adopt those means necessary to finance the ongoing war. A fire had recently run through Charleston and trade was suffering mightily from British raiders operating offshore. (Some British ships blockading Charleston’s harbor reportedly managed to surreptitiously resupply themselves from loyalists in town.) Rutledge thought a board of trade was necessary to address these issues.
The General Assembly, which had long been criticized for being unsatisfactorily representative, went further than Rutledge wanted and proposed revising the 1776 Constitution to adjust to the new circumstances. At the time, the extended Rutledge family held a substantial, structural advantage in South Carolina politics, with family members holding important executive, legislative, and judicial positions. The revisions also may have been intended to curb the family’s authority. Still, two particular changes rose to the fore: disestablishing the state-sponsored church and replacing the Legislative Council with a directly-elected upper legislative chamber: a Senate. Both actions would have shifted power away from coastal elites. An alliance of conservatives led by Rawlins Lowndes and radicals led by Christopher Gadsden came together around a bill to make those changes, which the General Assembly passed and sent to Rutledge for his signature.
The President vetoed the bill on the grounds that the General Assembly had overstepped its authority under the 1776 constitution, and he lacked the authority to sign such a bill. Then, he critiqued the substance. Proceeding from the questionable assertion that the General Assembly was truly representative, he opposed creating a Senate by direct election, arguing the people had vested the General Assembly with responsibility for selecting an upper Legislative Council from among its own members. To change that system with a new form of selecting members to a Senate was undemocratic—despite the fact that the new method required direct election. At best, the two separate, elected bodies, a General Assembly and a Senate, would become duplicative and competitive with one another. Moreover, a new constitution should not be adopted until there was a final resolution of the circumstances that had led South Carolina to adopt its temporary constitution of 1776, that is, the dispute between Great Britain and the new United States of America. Some critics might argue that Rutledge’s notion of a final “accommodation” with Great Britain might mean reconciliation, but Rutledge’s actions indicate he more likely had a peace treaty recognizing American independence in mind. Then, he acknowledged he could not change the Assembly’s collective mind on the matter and resigned. Thus, Rutledge removed himself as the obstacle to a new constitution. The General Assembly considered his argument, but with Rutledge gone, adopted the new constitution without him on March 19, 1778. Despite any lingering tensions, the new legislature applauded and thanked him for his service. Rutledge might have lost a political battle, but his reputation remained intact. Against that backdrop, Rutledge retired from public life to focus on his private affairs. It would prove to be a brief interlude from politics.
John Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution from its Commencement to the Year 1776, Vol II (Charleston: A.E. Miller, Printer, 1821), Appendix No. 4, “A Constitution, or Form of Government, Agreed to, and Resolved upon, by The Representatives of South-Carolina,” 186-197; “The Provincial and State Government in SC During the American Revolution,” J.D., Lewis, Carolana.com, www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/sc_revolution_provincial_government.html; Walter Edgar, Partisans & Redcoats, special preservation ed. (New York: William Morrow, 2001), 29.
Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution from its Commencement to the Year 1776, 2: 186-197; John Haw, John & Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 80.
Ibid., 1: 136; C.L. Bragg, “Why the British Lost the Battle of Sullivan’s Island,” Journal of the American Revolution, September 5, 2016, allthingsliberty.com/2016/09/british-lost-battle-sullivans-island/.
Quoted in James B. Longacre, The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, Vol IV(Philadelphia: James B. Longacre, 1839), 4; Cecil B. Hartley, Heroes and Patriots of the South (Philadelphia: G.G. Evans, 1860), 220.
McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1: 162. McCrady is particularly guilty of this, describing the battle as a great victory only behind Lexington and Yorktown and crediting it to Rutledge and Moultrie, leaving Lee out of the picture.
McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1: 239-241; Henry Flanders, The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), 551; Haw, John & Edward Rutledge, 107.