John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. By James Haw. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
James Haw’s dual biography of John and Edward Rutledge traces the brothers’ involvement in both state and national affairs before and after the American Revolution. Haw’s exhaustive research clearly demonstrates the importance of the Rutledge family in shaping the governments of both South Carolina as well as the emerging United States. His is the sole biography of Edward Rutledge and the only one since a poor attempt in 1942 of the elder Rutledge, so it fills a significant gap in the historiography of the colonial South. A dearth of personal papers, however, makes Haw’s task difficult.
John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina paints an interesting portrait of South Carolina’s early legal and political atmosphere. Haw’s use of court documents, letters, and legislative records show a system dominated by a few privileged and interrelated families who saw themselves as a natural aristocracy. These landed gentlemen naturally sought to preserve their traditional power. During the late 1760s when the British government passed the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, the South Carolina elite fought back against what they saw as encroachments on their rights. Men like John and Edward Rutledge at first wanted to resolve the situation while remaining English citizens, but soon they advocated independence.
The bulk of the book follows the brothers during the period from Continental Congress to the end of the Revolutionary War. During this period both brothers grew increasingly antagonistic towards the British and played important roles in war effort. Edward was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence and creator of the Board of War, and as the President of South Carolina, John Rutledge led his state through dark hours of British occupation. The 1778 decision to focus the war in the South brought it right to the Rutledges’ door. Haw demonstrates the costs of the war to the state as well as to the Rutledges personally. He asserts that the enormous financial toll of the war on John Rutledge led to his long years of personal decline.
Haw also devotes considerable attention to the role of the Rutledge brothers in the writing and subsequent ratification of the Constitution. According to Haw, John Rutledge was one of the most influential crafters of the document. Rutledge favored a strong central government but not at the cost of southern sovereignty. Haw also demonstrates the brothers’ preference for government based on wealth and land ownership.
The later part of the book chronicles both the personal decline of John Rutledge, who suffered from financial problems and crippling depression, as well as the troubles Edward and his cohorts in state politics had in maintaining the dominance of the wealthy low-country families. Ultimately he tries to paint the brothers as men who held strong principles but were willing to compromise to promote the greater good of the country. Both remained active in state and national affairs until their deaths in 1800. Their interest in politics, Haw asserts stemmed from their adherence to the code of southern gentlemen (278).
While the book succeeds as a chronicle of the public lives of two indisputably important figures in colonial America, it falls short in the fundamental task of a biography—getting to know or understand a subject. Haw admits, “The public careers of John and Edward Rutledge can be satisfactorily chronicled but not always explained in detail. Their characters and personalities are harder to reconstruct from the surviving record” (275). Although Haw ably shows the brothers in their roles as lawyers, legislators, governor, president, judge, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and drafters of seminal documents, one is left, after almost 300 pages, without a real idea of who these men were.
Texas Christian University Amanda Bresie
James Haw John and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997)
In the 1730s two brothers of English ancestry, John and Andrew Rutledge, arrived in South Carolina to make a new start in Charleston. Andrew arrived first, and John, encouraged to come to America by the bleak prospects of their father in Ireland, arrived by 1735. Andrew practiced law and John practiced medicine, and married into one of South Carolina’s wealthiest families, the fourteen-year-old step daughter of his brother Andrew. At fifteen Rutledge’s wife gave birth to her first child, John Rutledge in 1739. She subsequently bore six other children, the youngest being Edward in 1749.
John Rutledge studied law and gained admission to the South Carolina bar at Charleston in 1761, and quickly rose to prominence as an orator and litigator. His skills proved such that soon he had more cases than any other attorney and individuals clambered to retain his services. While his brother spent time practicing law and playing the part of a surrogate father to his younger siblings, Edward Rutledge also rose to prominence in Charleston society in many of the social clubs of the day. Meanwhile, John made hardly an impression on the social scene.
John Rutledge quickly entered the political scene and served in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly and in the Stamp Act Congress. Rutledge jealously defended the rights of the South Carolina Colonial assembly against England, ironically defending in his view English rights from other Englishmen. From 1766 to 1744 John Rutledge remained politically active, and took the side of rebellious colonists as they resisted English tyranny in the taxes they levied against the American colonies.
Throughout the final crisis with the British and the first part of the American Revolution both John and Edward Rutledge took a prominent part in leading the rebellion against the Crown, and John Rutledge rose to prominence in the South Carolina Provincial Congress, where he was elected president in 1776. In 1778 South Carolinians adopted a new constitution, one that tended more toward democracy and less toward the influence of low country gentlemen, a move that Rutledge opposed. After the legislature passed the constitution anyway, Rutledge resigned his governorship.
John Rutledge did not remain out of politics for long, returning to an elected seat in the general assembly. In 1780 when British forces under General Clinton captured Charleston, Rutledge took command of some South Carolina militia and evacuated the city, moving inland with his troops while his brother Edward remained in the city under British occupation. Rutledge went to Philadelphia to lobby personally for troops to be sent to South Carolina to aid in its defense, and his cries did not go unheeded. After the recapture of Charleston, the financial fortunes of John Rutledge turned sour, with increasingly low crop turnouts, though he and his brother continued to be active in South Carolina politics.
In the post-Revolutionary war years, Edward Rutledge emerged in the South Carolina Assembly as a major power-broker. Despite their poor economic outlook after the war, the Rutledge’s and their faction gained power until by 1787 they stood at the pinnacle of their influence. When it came time to draft a new national constitution in the fall of 1787, and all three Rutledge brothers, John, Hugh and Edward, won seats in the convention. All three took the federalist side of the debates over the Constitution, favoring the document as written, but insisting on strong states rights and a defense of slavery. The Rutledge brothers worked in the convention and out to obtain ratification of the compact in their home state. Their efforts paid off as South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify the Constitution.
From 1789 to 1794 the fortunes of John Rutledge declined as Edward took the head of the family. During this period John’s mother and wife passed away, and his debts steadily mounted as his financial fortunes continued to decline. Despite his place as Chief Justice of South Carolina, Rutledge sank deeper and deeper into depression.
Meanwhile, the Jay Treaty, removing British troops from America, deeply split the Rutledge’s from their Federalist allies and destroyed the will of John Rutledge to live. Despite the removal of British troops, the treaty also gave Britain command of the seas, a move greatly resented in South Carolina. As such, the Rutledge brothers opposed the treaty, and John Rutledge grew jealous when Washington nominated John Jay, not himself, for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As a consolation, Washington nominated Rutledge for a position as an associate justice on the Court. Meanwhile, John Rutledge made a speech against the Jay Treaty in the United States Senate and this speech killed any hope of being confirmed to the Supreme Court. This nomination raised his spirits, but it also revealed his depression to the entire nation. This triggered a massive bout of depression and in December, 1795 he made an attempt on his own life, even though he failed in the attempt.
The physical health of Edward Rutledge also began to decline in his later years, and in January 1800 he suffered a stroke and died. John Rutledge fell into a deep melancholy and he too passed away in July 1800. Both brothers had served a prominent place in the turbulent years before and after the American Revolution and served their country well during its formative period.
John R. Lundberg
Texas Christian University