Pierce Butler (1744–1822)
The younger son of a British baronet, Butler was born in Ireland. As he would not inherit his father’s title or estate, Butler decided to pursue a military career. He became a major in a regiment that was sent to Boston in 1768 in an effort to reduce the hostilities against the British government there. In 1771 Butler married a wealthy woman from South Carolina and resigned his military commission in order to take up the life of a southern planter. When the Revolution broke out, Butler was a staunch patriot. He served in the state assembly in 1778 and the following year again donned a uniform as an adjutant general in the South Carolina militia. Despite his aristocratic background, Butler became a spokesman for and champion of the backcountry farmers against his own planter class. He lost much of his property and wealth in the war but continued to serve his adopted state, sitting as a delegate to the Confederation Congress and to the Philadelphia convention. There he attracted attention in his powdered wig and his coat trimmed in gold lace—and his readiness to remind the gathering of his noble birth. The nationalists welcomed him, however, as he was a vocal supporter of strong government and a key figure in the nationalist caucus. At the same time, he defended the interests of southern slaveholders like himself. Butler served on the critical Committee on Postponed Matters. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1796, but his voting record did not mark him as a loyal Federalist or a convert to the newer Jeffersonian party. For example, he supported Hamilton’s fiscal program, but he opposed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. He showed the same independent bent when he returned briefly to the Senate in 1803 to fill out an unexpired term. In his last years, Butler moved to Philadelphia presumably to be near a married daughter there.
Charles Pinckney (1757–1824)
The cousin of fellow South Carolinian Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Pinckney was the son of a wealthy lawyer and planter. Unlike many wealthy young men, Pinckney did not attend college but received all his education and his legal training in his home city of Charleston. Late in the war, Pinckney enlisted in the militia. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and served during the siege of Savannah. When Charleston fell, the young officer was captured and remained a British prisoner until the summer of 1781. Meanwhile, Pinckney had begun a political career, serving in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1778 and later in the Confederation Congress. He also served several terms in his state legislature. A nationalist, he wanted the government to be strong enough to insure American rights to navigate the Mississippi. At the Philadelphia convention, Pinckney commanded notice. He was ambitious, bold, an excellent speaker, and a key member of the nationalist caucus, although his inflated claims that he had submitted a draft of a plan for the government that was the real basis for the Constitution are unfounded. After the convention he rose rapidly on the South Carolina political scene. He became governor in 1789, an office he held until 1792, and in 1790 he chaired the state constitutional convention. At first a Federalist, Pinckney slowly began to shift his allegiances. He opposed the Jay Treaty and began to align himself with the backcountry farmers who were the heart of the Democratic-Republican Party in his state. In 1796 Pinckney was again in the governor’s seat, and in 1798 he went to the U.S. Senate with the backing of the Democratic-Republicans. In 1800 he served as Jefferson’s campaign manager in South Carolina. As a reward, President Jefferson appointed Pinckney minister to Spain. When he returned from Europe, he took over the reins of the Democratic-Republican Party in his home state. He served a third term as governor from 1806 to 1808. In 1819 he reentered national politics as a member of Congress, but poor health forced him to retire from political life in 1821.
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825)
The eldest son and heir of a prominent planter, lawyer, and political figure and a remarkable mother, the agriculturalist Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Pinckney had every advantage educationally and financially. He was schooled in England and went to Christ Church College, Oxford. For his legal training, he attended London’s famous Middle Temple. After he was accepted to the English bar in 1769, he spent almost a year touring Europe and studying with leading European scientists. After his travels Pinckney returned to South Carolina to set up his legal practice. He was immediately elected to the provincial assembly, where he supported the growing opposition movement against Great Britain. When war broke out, he joined the First South Carolina Regiment as a captain and rose rapidly to the rank of colonel. He saw combat in the defense of Charleston and in the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. When Charleston fell in 1780, he, like Pierce Butler, was taken prisoner by the British. He was not released until 1782. Like his cousin, Pinckney was a leader at the Constitutional Convention and a strong advocate for a powerful national government. After the Constitution was ratified, he became a loyal Federalist, although he refused several national appointments, including secretary of war and a place on the Supreme Court bench. In 1796 Pinckney did agree to serve as minister to France, but the revolutionary leaders of that country refused to receive him. He was one of the American ministers who rejected French efforts to bribe them during what became known as the XYZ affair. Pinckney returned to America in 1798 and was appointed a major general in command of U.S. forces in the South until the threat of war ended in 1800. He was the Federalist candidate for vice president that year and in 1804 and 1808 the party’s presidential nominee. Following the 1808 defeat, Pinckney returned to South Carolina and his legal practice. He continued to serve in his state legislature and to participate in philanthropic activities. He was a charter member of the board of trustees of South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), head of the Charleston Library Society, and a prominent member of the Society of the Cincinnati.
John Rutledge (1739–1800)
Born into a large family of Irish immigrants, Rutledge received his early education from his physician father. He was sent to London’s prestigious Middle Temple for his legal training and was admitted to English practice in 1760. He returned soon afterward to his native Charleston, married, and began a successful legal career. He made his fortune, however, from his plantations and slaves. By 1761 Rutledge had won a seat in the provincial assembly and remained in this legislative body until independence was declared. There he earned a reputation as one of the greatest orators of his day. As tensions increased between the colonies and Great Britain, Rutledge defended American rights but worked for a peaceful resolution of differences. In 1774 he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and there, too, he pursued a moderate course. Once independence was declared, however, he played an active role in helping to reorganize his state government and in writing South Carolina’s state constitution. Although a patriot, Rutledge was a political conservative, resigning his position in the state legislature when democratic revisions of the state constitution were passed. His views did not prevent his election to the governorship in 1779. When Charleston was taken by the British in 1780, Rutledge suffered severe financial losses. His extensive property holdings were confiscated, and Rutledge was forced to flee to North Carolina. He never recovered his fortune. Rutledge served in the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1783 and then returned to state offices. At the Philadelphia convention, he was a moderate nationalist, speaking frequently on issues and serving on several important committees. His deepest concern at the convention was the protection of southern interests. President Washington appointed Rutledge as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but he left that bench in 1791 to become chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Washington again called upon him to serve on the U.S. Court in 1795, this time to replace John Jay as chief justice. His appointment was not confirmed by the Federalist-dominated Senate, however, due in part to his vocal opposition to the Jay Treaty of 1794 and in part to signs of mental illness brought on by the death of his wife. The rejection led Rutledge to retire from public life.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.