Founding Fathers - Edward Rutledge

Edward Rutledge

Born: November 23, 1749 (Charleston, South Carolina)

Died: January 23, 1800 (Charleston, South Carolina)

This week we return our focus to the gentlemen who signed the Declaration of Independence by traveling once again to one of the southern colonies.  As the last of seven children born to a wealthy aristocrat named Dr. John Rutledge and his wife, Sarah, Edward Rutledge got used to being the youngest early in life.  His father had immigrated to South Carolina from Ireland some 14 years before Edward's birth, and as a young man he was educated by a private tutor named David Smith before eventually following his older brothers to study in England.  Like two of those older brothers, one named John after their father and the other named Hugh, Edward chose to study law and after graduating from Oxford he was admitted to the English bar in 1772 at the age of 22.  The following year he returned to Charleston to begin his legal practice alongside his partner, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and was admitted to the South Carolina bar as well.

Success in business came quickly for Edward Rutledge, as he gained acclaim from one of his earliest cases.  A newspaper printer named Thomas Howell had been arrested for the publication of an article that was critical of the colony's upper legislative house, and despite being a young attorney Rutledge was able to successfully argue for his release.  A positive outcome in such a politically charged case elevated his social status in Charleston and made him especially popular among Whigs at a time when several of South Carolina's leaders were nearing the end of their times of service.  It also made him an attractive suitor and on March 1, 1774, Rutledge married the sister of his law partner, Henrietta Middleton.  The couple would eventually have three children together.

In 1775, as conflict with Britain grew, Edward Rutledge was chosen at the remarkably young age of 26 to serve alongside his older brother John Rutledge Jr. and father-in-law Henry Middleton as delegates to the First Continental Congress.  He was the most junior of the five men representing South Carolina but continued to garner respect until he was elected to represent Charleston in the House of Representatives.  Soon thereafter a series of circumstances led to the younger Rutledge suddenly becoming the leader of the delegation - two senior delegates retired, one suffered a serious stroke, and his brother returned home to serve as the new Governor of South Carolina.  Although they favored colonial rights, both John and Edward thought the timing of declaring their split from the Crown was premature.  Favoring a plan to further unify the colonies while improving relationships with foreign powers, Edward initially led his delegation to oppose the vote for independence.  When nine other colonies approved the motion, however, Rutledge secured a temporary postponement of proceedings in order to confer with other dissenters.  When the vote was brought up a second time, Rutledge led South Carolina to switch their vote in favor of independence, and at just 36 years of age he became the youngest signer of the document.  Alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, he was chosen to attempt a final reconciliation at a meeting with British Lord Admiral Richard Howe, but the meeting was fruitless and the American Revolution was allowed to proceed.

As the war began to spread, Edward Rutledge resigned his seat in Congress to join the fight.  He rose to the rank of Captain while fighting in the Charleston Battalion of Artillery, while also winning elections to the state assembly despite his inability to attend.  After participating in a number of important engagements, Rutledge was captured by British forces in 1780 together with fellow signers Thomas Heyward and Arthur Middleton, and held as a prisoner of war in St. Augustine, Florida, for nearly a year.  His release ended his military career but he was then free to return to politics as a member of South Carolina House of Representatives, where he served until 1786.  During this time his wife, Henrietta, died and Rutledge remarried in 1782, but had no children with his second wife, Mary.  Family circumstances prevented him either from accepting requests from President Washington to be considered for the Supreme Court, or to consider running for national office.  He continued to serve South Carolina at home, however, and in 1796 he was elected to the state Senate while also serving as one of the state's electors during the first presidential contest after Washington's decision to not seek re-election.  Just two years later he followed in older brother John's footsteps one last time as he was elected South Carolina's 39th Governor, but died of complications of gout in 1800 before he was able to complete his term.  He was just 50 years old and was given significant honors during his funeral by the people of Charleston, where he is now buried at St. Philip's Churchyard.

The signature of Edward Rutledge can be found as the fourth name on the second column beneath the Declaration of Independence.



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