John Rutledge (1739-1800), American jurist and statesman, was Revolutionary War governor of South Carolina. He exemplified the conservative views of the mercantile and planter aristocracy.
John Rutledge was born in Charleston, S.C., into an affluent and politically active family. He was tutored at home and then went to England at 18 to study law. After being admitted to the English bar in 1760, he returned to Charleston, where he developed a successful practice. He served as the province’s attorney general (1764-1765), but as a member of the Commons House of Assembly (1761-1776), he was more often in vigorous opposition to the royal administration.
At the Stamp Act Congress, Rutledge vigorously defended American rights. In 1769 he fought for the Commons’ appropriation of funds in support of the English radical John Wilkes. In the general quarrel with Britain, however, Rutledge was a moderate. At the First Continental Congress he approved the Galloway Plan for a constitutional accommodation with the mother country, although he joined the movement for independence; in the Second Congress he urged the establishment of new state governments. He helped to frame the South Carolina constitution of 1776 and was immediately chosen president (governor) of the state, but his innate conservatism caused him to resign 2 years later.
When South Carolina was confronted by a British invasion in 1779, the state again chose Rutledge as governor,
and for the next 3 years he provided energetic leadership in the war effort, with such broad emergency powers that he was called “Dictator Rutledge.” Resigning in 1782, he was elected to the state legislature and in 1784 was named to the state’s chancery court. At the Constitutional Convention he resisted restrictions on the slave trade, urged property as a basis for representation, and sought election of the president by Congress, and of the Congress by state legislatures.
President George Washington named Rutledge to the Supreme Court when it was organized in 1789, but he resigned 2 years later, without ever having attended a single session of the Court, to become chief justice of South Carolina. In 1795 Washington appointed him chief justice of the United States, but Rutledge’s violent speech against the Jay Treaty resulted in a Senate rejection of the nomination, even though he had presided at one term of the court. The ferocity of his tirade was symptomatic of a mental deterioration which had commenced a few years earlier upon the death of his wife. He died on July 18, 1800.
Further Reading on John Rutledge
The only full-length biography of Rutledge is Richard H. Barry, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina (1942); it is based on extensive sources and is highly readable. His political career in South Carolina may be traced in Edward McCrady, History of South Carolina (4 vols., 1897-1902), and David D. Wallace, History of South Carolina (4 vols., 1934-1935; rev. ed., 1 vol., 1951). Rutledge’s career on the Supreme Court in discussed in Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1923; 2 vols., rev. ed. 1935), and in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789-1969 (4 vols., 1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Barry, Richard, b. 1881. Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1993.
Haw, James. Founding brothers: John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, Athens: University of Georgia, 1997.