Religious Convictions of America's Founders: Edward Rutledge
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
An Episcopalian, Edward Rutledge was born in Charleston, South Carolina on November 23, 1749. He was the youngest son of Dr. John Rutledge, who emigrated from Ireland to South Carolina about the year 1735. Edward’s mother was Sarah Hert, a “lady of respectable family, and large fortune.”
At age 26, he was the youngest delegate to sign the Declaration of Independence. (The accomplishments of Edward’s older brother, John Rutledge, rivaled those of Edward’s. John was an early delegate to the Continental Congress, President of South Carolina from 1776 to 1778, Governor of South Carolina in 1779, a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1789 to 1791 and was appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by President George Washington in 1795.)
Education and Law Practice
Edward, the subject of this article, was placed under the tutelage of David Smith, who instructed him in the "learned languages." After this education Edward read law with his elder brother John. When he was twenty, Edward Rutledge sailed for England and became a student of law at the Temple. He had the experience there of listening to some of the most distinguished orators, in court and in parliament, a precursor to his later oratorical ability. Rutledge returned to Charleston in 1773 to practice law.
He quickly gained recognition as a patriot when, despite his youth (he was only 24 at the time), he successfully defended a printer, Thomas Powell, who had been imprisoned by the Crown for printing an article critical of the Loyalist upper house of the colonial legislature.
Soon after he established his law practice Edward married Henrietta Middleton, the sister of Arthur Middleton who also signed the Declaration of Independence. The couple had a son and a daughter, and a third child who died as an infant. After the death of Henrietta in 1792, Rutledge married Mary Shubrick Eveleigh, a young widow. This marriage continued the inter-relationship among the signers of the Declaration, since two of Mary Shubrick’s sisters had married signers of the Declaration—one was married to Thomas Heyward, Jr. and another to Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Political Career Begins
In 1775 Rutledge was favorable to the idea of independence. But, he took issue with some specifics of Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence in June 1776. When a trial vote on independence was taken on July 1, the South Carolina delegates voted “no.” However, Rutledge asked for a one day postponement of the vote and met with his South Carolina colleagues that night. They decided to support Lee’s motion, and the next day South Carolina reversed its course, making the official vote for independence unanimous, 12 to 0, with New York abstaining. Rutledge signed the Declaration in August. (In the stage play and then movie “1776”, the character of Edward Rutledge is portrayed as the leader in the opposition to the anti-slavery reference in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration. There seems to be no corroboration of this in the written record, although Rutledge proved to be a passionate defender of South Carolina’s state rights throughout his tenure in the Continental Congress.)
In June 1776, before the vote for independence, Rutledge was chosen to represent South Carolina on a committee to draft the country’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Rutledge shared his reservations about the Articles with John Jay. “I am resolved to vest the Congress with no more Power than what is absolutely necessary.” Many felt the Articles were incomplete, and before too long, they were replaced by the Constitution, which he voted in favor of. See Revolutionary War: Edward Rutledge
In September 1776 Edward Rutledge, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were selected by Congress to attend a meeting at the Billopp House on Staten Island, requested by Lord Admiral Richard Howe. The meeting was for the purpose of putting an end to the Revolutionary War. After the meeting, Rutledge wrote to his close friend General Washington, whom he greatly admired, to tell him about the meeting.
“I must beg Leave to inform you that our Conference with Lord Howe has been attended with no immediate Advantages. He declared that he had no Powers to consider us an Independent States, and we easily discovered that were we still Dependent we should have nothing to expect from those with which he is vested. He talked altogether in generals, that he came out here to consult, advise & confer with Gentlemen of the greatest Influence in the Colonies about their Complaints…This kind of Conversation lasted for several Hours & as I have already said without any effect….Our reliance continues therefore to be (under God) on your Wisdom & Fortitude & that of your Forces. That you may be as successful as I know you are worthy is my most sincere wish…God bless you my dear Sir. Your most affectionate Friend, E. Rutledge.”
In November 1776 he took a seat in the South Carolina General Assembly, but took leave to serve as a captain of artillery in the South Carolina militia. He was engaged in several important battles, including the Battle of Beaufort in 1779. He took his leave again in 1780 when the British conducted a third invasion of South Carolina. He resumed his post as Captain in the defense of Charleston. He was captured on May 12, 1780 by the British in the fall of Charleston, and held prisoner off the coast of St. Augustine until July 1781, when he was exchanged. He then began the long 800 mile journey to return home.
In 1782 he returned to the legislature where he served until 1798. He was a very active member, intent on the prosecution of British Loyalists. At times he served on as many nineteen committees.
Edward served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1783-96, and the Senate from 1796-98. While serving in the House of Representatives, he voted in favor of ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1790-1791.
Also during his tenure in the South Carolina legislature, Edward Rutledge opposed the opening of the African slave trade. Like many other Founders, Edward Rutledge had depended on slaves to work his plantations. In fact, Edward Rutledge owned more than 50 slaves. Yet, at the same time that the fight for Independence became more passionate, so did the passionate realization among patriots that slave owning was the worst form of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, slavery in America was a more than 150-year old institution. Like most institutions, slavery in America didn’t go away easily or quickly. The first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco.
Historically, captives had been sold into slavery to the Moslem world for centuries, long before slavery was instituted by the Europeans. "Entire African kingdoms such as Dahomey, devoted virtually all their resources to seizing young men and women deep in the interior and marching them to the coast for sale.”
Edward Rutledge was elected Governor in 1798, but died in Charleston on January 23, 1800 while he was still Governor. He was buried in St. Philip’s Churchyard Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. His loss was mourned by the people of Charleston and South Carolina, and impressive military and funeral honors were paid to him on the occasion of his death.
Sources: The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence; Colonial Hall: Edward Rutledge; Founding Father Biographies: Edward Rutledge; Signers of the Declaration of Independence; Congress abolished the importation of slaves in 1807; Liberty! The American Revolution.