John Rutledge of South Carolina is one of the most important men of the founding generation, but he has been lost to mainstream history. He is politically incorrect (most in the founding generation are) and his positions on the nature of federal power do not comport with modern nationalist interpretations of government.
At 25, Rutledge was sent by South Carolina as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. Later, he would be one of the more vocal advocates for independence in the South. He and his younger brother, Edward, served in the First and Second Continental Congresses, and contrary to their portrayal in the HBO miniseries John Adams, neither were the effeminate, sullen, waffling fools shown on film. Edward Rutledge would rot in the British prison ship during the War.
John Rutledge escaped his brother’s fate, but only barely. He had been elected governor of South Carolina and led from the saddle after the British sacked Charleston in 1780. This was not his fault. For much of the war, he had led a brilliant military effort. In 1776, he told William Moultrie the he would rather cut off his hand than bow to the wishes of the immoral scoundrel Charles Lee to abandon the fort on Sullivan’s Island. This led to one of the greatest victories of the war and the inspiration for the South Carolina State flag. But by 1780, smallpox had decimated Charleston and few men could show up for military duty.
When the British occupied the city in 1780, they burned Rutledge’s property and forced him to flee to North Carolina. Here, he helped organize bushwhacking operations and supported the efforts of Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter. It would be no stretch to say that the American War for Independence was won in the southern theater, mostly on the backs of the Carolinians.
Rutledge was always first and foremost a South Carolinian. During the proceedings of the First Continental Congress in 1774, Rutledge favored apportioning votes by colony rather than population. This was to him the logical move. Resolutions were non-binding and as Benjamin Franklin had made clear twenty years earlier, the people of the colonies were provincial and considered the local to be more important than a “national” consensus.
Not much had changed when Rutledge was sent to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Though he favored a stronger central government, Rutledge was one of the most jealous advocates for maintaining a federal republic of States, as under the Articles of Confederation. Rutledge wrote the so-called “Supremacy Clause” of Article VI, but he led the vote against a federal negative of State laws, saying, “this alone would damn, and ought to damn, the Constitution. Would any state ever agree to be bound hand and foot in this manner?”
Rutledge argued against the incorporation of inferior federal courts as a potential affront to State authority, fought against a proposal for federal control of elections, and while he supported a single executive, he feared placing too much authority in that office. The executive branch, he concluded, should not decide war and peace.
George Washington appointed Rutledge to the Supreme Court in 1789 but he never assumed his position on the Bench. In the same year, South Carolina appointed him Chief Justice of the South Carolina court system, a much more prestigious position in 1789 and one that meshed with Rutledge’s political philosophy of true federalism.
Washington again tapped Rutledge for the Supreme Court in 1795 recess appointment, this time as Chief Justice after the retirement of John Jay. Yet, a speech he made in opposition to the infamous Jay’s Treaty in 1795 torpedoed his chances of confirmation. The Senate narrowly defeated his appointment in 1795 and Rutledge returned to Charleston. There were rumors of mental illness and alcoholism and Rutledge attempted suicide in December 1795. He was distraught over the death of his wife, but the Federalist press trumped up the charges of mental incompetence after he publicly opposed their foreign policy objectives, namely giving up the farm to Great Britain.
Rutledge died in 1800. He had never recovered financially from the American War for Independence and his political opponents had dragged his reputation through the mud. But very few men had as profound an impact on the future of American government as John Rutledge. The Constitution was as much his as it was James Madison’s, if not more so. His resolute defense of true federalism and his love of State were hallmarks of the founding generation, particularly in the South. Rutledge led South Carolina from the saddle in 1780. He continued to do so for the rest of his life.