John Rutledge

September 17, 1739–July 23, 1800 — Patriot

John Rutledge was a successful lawyer from Charleston, South Carolina. He is important because he participated in key events that shaped the American Revolution, including the Stamp Act Congress, First Continental Congress, Second Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention.

John Rutledge, Portrait

Early Life

  • Rutledge was born in Charleston, South Carolina on September 17, 1739.
  • His father, Dr. John Rutledge, emigrated from Ireland to the colonies in 1735 and practiced medicine in Charleston.
  • His mother, Sarah Hext, was born in South Carolina and was 15 when John was born.
  • His father died when he was young.
  • His younger brother, Edward, signed the Declaration of Independence.


  • His uncle, Andrew Rutledge, took responsibility for his education after his father died.
  • He studied law with his uncle and James Parsons in Charleston.
  • He was sent to Britain to study law at Middle Temple in London.


  • On May 1, 1763, he married Elizabeth Grimke. They had 10 children together.
  • In 1792, his wife passed away. Afterward, he suffered a mental decline.

Professional Career

  • In 1760, Rutledge was admitted to practice law in Britain.
  • In 1761, he returned to Charleston, was admitted to the bar, and started a successful career as a lawyer.

Political Career

  • In 1761, he was elected to represent Christ Church Parish in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly. He served in the Assembly until 1776.
  • In 1764, the Royal Governor appointed him as the Attorney General for South Carolina for 10 months.
  • In 1765, he represented South Carolina at the Stamp Act Congress.
  • In 1774, he attended the First Continental Congress.
  • In 1775, he attended the Second Continental Congress.
  • In 1776, he was elected President of the General Assembly of South Carolina.
  • In 1779, he was elected President of the General Assembly for a second time.
  • In 1787, he attended the Constitutional Convention.
  • In 1789, he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
  • In 1791, he became Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions.
  • In 1795, he served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Delegate to the Stamp Act Congress

On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required a stamp to be placed on all legal documents and many printed materials in the colonies.

In May, news of the new law reached the colonies. There was immediate opposition, including riots in Boston, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Savannah, Georgia.

On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies, inviting them to send delegates to a congress in New York to discuss a unified response to the Stamp Act. The precedent for such a meeting had been set by the Albany Congress in 1754.

Nine of the 13 colonies, including South Carolina, chose to send delegates to the meeting, which was held in New York City. Rutledge was elected as a delegate from South Carolina, along with Thomas Lynch, Sr.,  and Christopher Gadsden.

The Stamp Act Congress convened on October 7, 1765. On October 19, the Stamp Act Congress issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Congress sent petitions to the King and both houses of Parliament and asked for the Stamp Act to be repealed.

Rutledge was Chairman of the committee that drew up the memorial and petition that was to be sent to the House of Lords. The other members of the committee were Edward Tilghman Sr. and Philip Livingston.

Rutledge voted in favor of the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, however, the delegates from South Carolina were not authorized to sign their names to the petitions that were sent to the King and Parliament.

On November 1, 1765, the Stamp Act took effect, but there were no stamp masters available to distribute the stamps. They had resigned or refused to perform their job due to violence and intimidation against them.

On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to protest from British merchants who believed it would damage their prospects of doing business in the colonies. However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared its ability to levy taxes on the colonies.

First Continental Congress

  • In 1774, Parliament passed five laws known collectively as the Coercive Acts. Four of them were intended to punish Boston and Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party and opposition to British policy.
  • The Virginia Committee of Correspondence called for another Congress to discuss how the colonies would respond. 12 of the 13 colonies, including South Carolina, chose to send delegates to the meeting.
  • On July 6, Rutledge was elected as a delegate from South Carolina, along with Henry Middleton, Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Lynch, Sr., and Edward Rutledge.
  • Rutledge was in favor of finding a peaceful resolution to the issues with Britain but insisted on defending the rights of the colonies.
  • On October 14, the Congress sent the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress to the King.
  • Before adjourning, Congress agreed to meet again in the spring of 1775 if Great Britain had not adequately addressed their complaints.

Second Continental Congress

  • On March 30, 1775, Parliament passed the New England Restraining Act, which did not address the concerns of the First Continental Congress, so the Second Continental Congress moved forward. 12 of the 13 colonies, including South Carolina, chose to send delegates to the meeting. Later on, Georgia sent delegates, so all 13 colonies were represented.
  • Rutledge was elected as a delegate from South Carolina, along with Christopher Gadsden, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Sr., Arthur Middleton, and his brother, Edward Rutledge.
  • The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10. 1775, less than a month after the American Revolutionary War began.
  • Rutledge was the Chairman of a committee that recommended the colonies set up their own governments, based on the argument that any governments that were conducting war on the citizens were violating the royal charters.
  • His brother, Edward, convinced the other South Carolina delegates to vote for independence.

Declaration of Independence

Charleston Committee of Safety

  • In 1776, he joined the local Committee of Safety.

South Carolina Constitution

  • In 1776, Rutledge served as the Chairman of the committee that drafted the new Constitution for South Carolina. Christopher Gadsden was also on the committee.
  • Rutledge represented the moderate side of the government, while Gadsden represented the radical side that favored independence.
  • On March 26, South Carolina passed its own Constitution. It was the second colony and the first southern colony to pass its own Constitution.

General Assembly of South Carolina

  • In March 1776, South Carolina set up a new government, which was called the General Assembly of South Carolina.
  • On March 27, Rutledge was elected President of the General Assembly of South Carolina, essentially Governor, and Commander-In-Chief of the military. Henry Laurens was elected Vice-President, or Lieutenant Governor.
  • In March 1778, he resigned as Governor, because he was unhappy with changes that were made to the Constitution.
  • On February 5, 1779, he was re-elected as Governor by an almost unanimous vote of the legislature.

American Revolutionary War

  • Rutledge served as Governor in some capacity through most of the war.
  • In April 1776, a British fleet arrived in the Cape Fear River, under the command of Sir Peter Parker. Rutledge ordered Colonel Wiliam Moultrie to build Fort Sullivan to help defend Charleston.
  • General Charles Lee wanted to abandon the fort, but Rutledge argued against it. Rutledge sent supplies to Moultrie along with a message that he was not to retreat without a direct order from him. He told Moultrie that he would “sooner cut off his right hand” than give that order. Moultrie and his men defeated the British.
  • In 1780, when the British besieged Charleston, he escaped to North Carolina where he spent most of his time with the Continental Army under the command of General Nathanael Greene. Charleston surrendered to the British on May 12, 1780.
  • The British seized all his property when they took control of Charleston.
  • After the British surrendered, he returned to South Carolina.

Return to South Carolina Politics

  • In January 1782, Rutledge resumed his duties as Governor and gathered the South Carolina Assembly at Jacksonborough.
  • In 1782, he retired as Governor and was elected to the Continental Congress.
  • In March 1784, he was appointed Chancellor of South Carolina.

College of Charleston

  • In 1785, he was named as one of the founding Trustees for the College of Charleston.

United States Constitutional Convention

  • In 1787, Rutledge participated in the Constitutional Convention,
  • He was Chairman for the Committee of Detail, which created the first draft of the Constitution, and served on four other committees.
  • He was an advocate of a strong central government.
  • He advocated the Federal Government should assume the debts of the States.
  • He proposed that Congress should elect the President.
  • He threatened the southern states would secede if the slave trade was prohibited.

Presidential Elector

  • In 1789, he served as a Presidential Elector.

Supreme Court Justice

  • President George Washington appointed Rutledge to the first Supreme Court as an Associate Justice. Washington thought about nominating Rutledge as the first Chief Justice of the United States but eventually selected John Jay.
  • In 1795, Washington put John Jay in charge of crafting a treaty with Britain. Rutledge served as the interim Chief Justice after Jay resigned.
  • Rutledge presided over one term of the Supreme Court. However, Rutledge publicly criticized Jay and the treaty, which offended members of the Senate, and the Senate subsequently did not confirm his appointment.

Slaves Save Rutledge from Drowning

  • Rutledge was so upset over his rejection by the Senate that he attempted suicide and tried to drown himself in Charleston Bay.
  • Two slaves saw him jump into the water and went in after him and saved him.


  • On July 23, 1800, he died in Charleston at the age of 60.
  • He was interred at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Charleston.


  • Over time, Rutledge amassed a fortune in plantations, which were worked by enslaved people.
  • During the Constitutional Convention, he said that South Carolina and Georgia would never “give up so important an interest” as slavery.


John Rutledge is important because he represented South Carolina in many of the most important political events that shaped the American Revolution, including the Stamp Act Congress, First Continental Congress, Second Continental Congress, and Constitutional Convention. However, like many other Patriots from the southern colonies, his legacy is tarnished due to his involvement in slavery.