John Rutledge

First Governor of the New State of South Carolina 1776 to 1778 and 1779-1782

Date Born: September, 1739 

Date Died: July 18, 1800

Place Born: Charles Town, SC

Place Buried: Charleston, SC

Residence: Charles Town, SC

Occupation: Lawyer


John Rutledge (September 1739 - July 18, 1800) was the first Governor of the newly-independent state of South Carolina, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and served on the U.S. Supreme Court (Chief Justice from August to December 1795). He was the elder brother of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Rutledge was born into a large family at or near Charles Town, South Carolina, and received his early education from his father, an Irish immigrant and physician, and from an Anglican minister and a tutor. After studying law at London's Middle Temple in 1760, he was admitted to English practice. But, almost at once, he sailed back to Charles Town to begin a fruitful legal career and to amass a fortune in plantations and slaves. Three years later, he married Elizabeth Grimke, who eventually bore him ten children, and moved into a townhouse in Charles Town, where he resided most of the remainder of his life.

In 1761, Rutledge became politically active. That year, on behalf of Christ Church Parish, he was first elected to the:
- 24th Commons House of Assembly that met in 1761
- 25th Commons House of Assembly that met in 1762
- 26th Commons House of Assembly that met from 1762-1765
- 27th Commons House of Assembly that met from 1765-1768
- 28th Commons House of Assembly that met in 1768
- 29th Commons House of Assembly that met from 1769-1771
- 30th Commons House of Assembly that met in 1772
- 31st Commons House of Assembly that met in 1772
- 32nd Commons House of Assembly that met in 1773
- 33rd Commons House of Assembly that met from 1773-1775

For ten months in 1764 he temporarily held the post of provincial Attorney General. When the troubles with Great Britain intensified about the time of the Stamp Act in 1765, Rutledge, who hoped to ensure continued self-government for the colonies, sought to avoid severance from England and maintained a restrained stance. He did, however, chair a committee of the Stamp Act Congress that drew up a petition to the House of Lords.

In 1774, Rutledge was sent to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he pursued a moderate course. After spending the next year in the Second Continental Congress, he returned to South Carolina and helped reorganize its government.

In 1775, he was first elected to represent Christ Church Parish in the:
- First Provincial Congress
- Second Provincial Congress

In 1776, he served on the Committee of Safety and took part in the writing of the state constitution. Also in 1776, he was elected to represent Christ Church Parish in the:
- 1st General Assembly

On March 26, 1776, this General Assembly elected him as South Carolina's first president (later changed to governor), and he took the oath of office two days later, on March 28, 1776. During this period, the new government met many stern tests.

In 1778, the conservative Rutledge, disapproving of democratic revisions in the state constitution, resigned his position. The next year, however, he was re-elected as governor. It was a difficult time. The British invaded South Carolina, and the military situation was desperate. Early in 1780, by which time the legislature had adjourned, Charles Town was besieged. On May 12th, it fell, the American army was captured, and the British confiscated Rutledge's property. He ultimately escaped to North Carolina and set about attempting to rally forces to recover South Carolina. In 1781, aided by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and a new Continental Army force, he re-established the government. He never recouped the financial losses he suffered during the war.

In January 1782, he resigned the governorship and took a seat in the SC House of Representatives, elected to serve St. Andrew's Parish in the:
- 4th General Assembly that met in 1782

In 1782-83, Rutledge was a delegate to the Continental Congress.

In 1783, John Rutledge was again elected to represent St. Andrew's Parish in the SC House of Representatives of the:
- 5th General Assembly that met from 1783-1784

In 1784, John Rutledge also sat on the state chancery court.

In 1785, John Rutledge was again elected to represent Christ Church Parish in the SC House of Representatives of the:
- 6th General Assembly that met from 1785-1786
- 7th General Assembly that met from 1787-1788
- 8th General Assembly that met from 1789-1790

One of the most influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where he maintained a moderate nationalist stance and chaired the Committee of Detail, he attended all the sessions, spoke often and effectively, and served on five committees. Like his fellow South Carolina delegates, he vigorously advocated southern interests.

The new government under the U.S. Constitution soon lured John Rutledge. He was a Presidential elector in 1789, and George Washington then appointed him as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but he served for only two years.

In 1791, he became Chief Justice of the SC Supreme Court. Four years later, President Washington again appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice of the United States to replace John Jay. But Rutledge's outspoken opposition to Jay's Treaty (1794), and the intermittent mental illness he had suffered from since the death of his wife in 1792, caused the Federalist-dominated Senate to reject his appointment and end his public career. Meantime, however, he had presided over one term of the SC Supreme Court.

Rutledge died in 1800 at the age of 60 and was interred at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Charleston. One of his houses, said to have been built in 1763 and definitely sold in 1790, was renovated in 1989 and opened to the public as the John Rutledge House Inn.


Biography from Benson J. Lossing in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution [with minor edits]:

John Rutledge was a native of Ireland, and came to America with his father in 1735. He studied law at the Temple of London and returned to Charles Town in 1761. He espoused the Republican cause at an early period of the dispute and was a member of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

When the temporary Constitution of South Carolina was adopted in the spring of 1776, he was appointed President and commander-in-chief of the colony. When the new and permanent Constitution was established two years later, he refused his assent because he thought it too democratic. His prejudices yielded, however, and in 1779 he was chosen governor under it, with the temporary power of a dictator due to the ongoing war.

He took the field at the head of the militia and with great skill and energy managed the affairs of the state until the fall of Charlestown in May of 1780. After the war, he was made judge of the Court of Chancery and in 1789 a judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was appointed Chief Justice of South Carolina in 1781,and in 1796 was elevated to the seat of chief justice of the United States. He died in July of 1800.


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