John Rutledge (September 17, 1739 – July 23, 1800) was the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Governor of South Carolina after the Declaration of Independence . Rutledge holds the record for the shortest tenure of any Chief Justice, and is the only Chief Justice to serve on a recess appointment .

Born in Charleston, South Carolina , Rutledge established a legal career after studying at Middle Temple . He was the elder brother of Edward Rutledge , a signatory of the Declaration of Independence . Rutledge served as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress , which protested taxes imposed on the Thirteen Colonies by the Parliament of Great Britain . He also served as a delegate to the Continental Congress before being elected as Governor of South Carolina. He served as governor during much of the American Revolutionary War .

After briefly returning to Congress, Rutledge was appointed to the South Carolina Court of Chancery. He was a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention , which wrote the United States Constitution . During the convention, he served as Chairman of the Committee of Detail , which produced the first full draft of the Constitution. He also helped ensure that the Constitution did not allow the Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions . In 1789, after the ratification of the Constitution, President George Washington appointed Rutledge as one of the inaugural Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. Rutledge left the Supreme Court in 1791 to become Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions.

In June 1795, Washington nominated Rutledge to succeed John Jay as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, pending Senate confirmation. As the Senate was not in session, he also used a recess appointment to make Rutledge immediately succeed Jay on a temporary basis. After accepting the appointment, Rutledge gave a speech denouncing the Jay Treaty , and rumors emerged that Rutledge suffered from alcoholism or mental illness. In December 1795, the Senate rejected Rutledge's nomination in a 14–10 vote. Rutledge left the Court days after the Senate vote, and withdrew from public life until his death in 1800.

Early life and family

Rutledge was the eldest child in a large family in Charleston, South Carolina . His father was Scots-Irish immigrant John Rutledge (Sr.) (1713–1750), the physician. His mother, South Carolina–born Sarah ( née Hext; born September 18, 1724), was of English descent. John had six younger siblings: Andrew (1740–1772), Thomas (1741–1783), Sarah (1742–1819), Hugh (1745–1811), Mary (1747–1832), and Edward (1749–1800). John’s early education was provided by his father until the latter's death. The rest of Rutledge's primary education was provided by an Anglican priest. [2]

John took an early interest in law and often "played lawyer" with his brothers and sisters. When he was 17 years old, Rutledge began to read law under a man named James Parsons. Two years later, Rutledge sailed to England to further his studies at London's Middle Temple . In the course of his studies, he won several cases in English courts.

After finishing his studies, Rutledge returned to Charleston to begin a fruitful legal career. At the time, many new lawyers barely scraped together enough business to earn their livings. Most new lawyers could only hope that they would win well-known cases to ensure their success. Rutledge, however, emerged almost immediately as one of the most prominent lawyers in Charleston, and his services were in high demand.

With his successful legal career, he was able to build on his mother's fortune. On May 1, 1763, Rutledge married Elizabeth Grimké (born 1742). Rutledge was very devoted to his wife, and Elizabeth's death on July 6, 1792, was a major cause of the illness that affected Rutledge in his later years.

John and Elizabeth had 10 children: Martha Henrietta (1764–1816), Sarah (born and died 1765), John (1766–1819), Edward James (1767–1811), Frederick Wilkes (1769–1821), William Spencer (1771–1821), Charles Wilson (1773–1821), Thomas (born 1774 and died young), Elizabeth (1776–1842), and States Whitcomb (1783–1829).

Pre-Revolutionary War

In mid-1765 Rutledge was an important figure in the Stamp Act Congress . This congress produced a resolution that stated that it was "the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives." Rutledge chaired a committee that drew up a petition to the House of Lords attempting to persuade them to reject the Stamp Act. They were ultimately unsuccessful.

When the delegates returned to South Carolina after the Congress adjourned, they found the state in turmoil. The people had destroyed all the revenue stamps they could find; they broke into the houses of suspected Loyalists to search for stamps. When the Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, there were no stamps in the entire colony. Dougal Campbell, the Charleston court clerk , refused to issue any papers without the stamps. Because of this, all legal processes in the entire state came to a standstill until news that the Stamp Act had been repealed reached South Carolina in early May 1766.

After the Stamp Act conflict ended, Rutledge went back into private life, and to his law practice. Besides serving in the colonial legislature, he did not involve himself in politics. His law practice continued to expand and he became fairly wealthy as a result. [4]

In 1774, Rutledge was elected to the First Continental Congress . It is not known for certain exactly what John Rutledge did in the Congress. The records of the Congress refer only to "Rutledge", though both John and his brother Edward Rutledge were present. The most important contribution made by "Rutledge" to the Congress was during the debate on how to apportion votes in the Congress. Some wanted votes to be apportioned by the population of the colonies. Others wanted to give each colony one vote. "Rutledge" observed that as the Congress had no legal authority to force the colonies to accept its decisions, it would make the most sense to give each colony one vote. The other delegates ultimately agreed to this proposal.

President of South Carolina

John Rutledge served in the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress until 1776. That year, he was elected President of South Carolina under a constitution drawn up on March 26, 1776. Upon taking office, he worked quickly to organize the new government and to prepare defenses against British attack.

In early 1776, Rutledge learned that British forces would attempt to take Charleston. In response, he ordered the construction of Fort Sullivan (now Fort Moultrie ) on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor . When the British arrived, the fort was only half completed. General Charles Lee of the Continental Army , who had arrived a few days earlier with reinforcements from North Carolina , told Rutledge the fort should be evacuated, as Lee considered it indefensible. Lee said that the fort would fall in under a half an hour, and all the men would be killed. In a note to the fort’s commanding officer, Colonel William Moultrie , Rutledge wrote "General Lee [...] wishes you to evacuate the fort. You will not, without [an] order from me. I would sooner cut off my hand than write one." Rutledge, noticed that Lee was arrogant and uncouth and unfit to control the militia. Rutledge, by virtue of being elected by the state gained control of the militia. Rutledge let it be known that only he could order the militia to defend Charleston. During this time, Rutledge garnered the nickname "Dictator John" by virtue of getting his way with things.

On June 28, 1776, the British attacked the fort, expecting it to fall quickly. However, the fort’s walls were made out of palmetto logs packed with sand, and the British cannonballs were absorbed into the soft core of the logs without doing much damage, and the British were repulsed, saving Charleston. The battle anniversary is still celebrated as "Carolina Day", on June 28 each year. South Carolina's current " Palmetto Flag ", adopted in 1861, features the crescent symbol on the defending soldiers' caps along with the Palmetto tree.

Rutledge continued as President of South Carolina until 1778. That year, the South Carolina legislature proposed a new constitution. Rutledge vetoed it, stating that it moved the state dangerously close to a direct democracy , which Rutledge believed was only a step away from total anarchy. When the legislature overrode his veto, Rutledge resigned.

Governor of South Carolina

A few months after Rutledge’s resignation, the British, having suffered several defeats in the North, decided to try to retake the South. Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell landed in Georgia with 3,000 men and quickly took control of the entire state.

The new state constitution was revised, and in 1779, Rutledge was elected governor. Rutledge sent troops under General Benjamin Lincoln into Georgia to harass the British. The new British commander in the south, General Jacques Prevost, responded by marching on Charleston with 2,500 troops. When Rutledge heard about this threat, he hurried to Charleston and worked furiously to build up defenses. In spite of Rutledge’s efforts, when General Prevost arrived outside Charleston, the British force had been greatly increased by the addition of Loyalists, and the Americans were vastly outnumbered.

Rutledge privately asked Prevost for surrender terms. Prevost made an offer, but when Rutledge submitted it to the council of war, the council instructed Rutledge to ask if the British would accept a declaration of South Carolina’s neutrality in the Revolution. They forbade Rutledge from surrendering mainly because William Moultrie, who was now a general, believed that the Americans had at least as many troops as the British force, which consisted largely of untrained civilians.

Prevost replied that as he was faced with such a large military force, he would have to take some of them prisoner before he could accept. Moultrie advised the council that he would never stand by and allow the British to take Americans prisoner without fighting, so the council decided to fight it out. The city braced itself for an attack, but the next morning, the British had disappeared. Prevost had intercepted a letter from General Lincoln to Moultrie saying that he was marching to the aid of Charleston, and Prevost decided that he could not hold out if the Americans got reinforcements.

Charleston occupied

In early 1780, Sir Henry Clinton attacked South Carolina, and Charleston was thrown into a panic. The legislature adjourned upon learning of the British. Their last action was to give Rutledge power to do anything short of execution without trial. Rutledge did his best to raise militia forces, but Charleston was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, and few dared to enter the city.

In February, Clinton landed near Charleston with 5,000 troops. By May he had 9,000 troops to less than 2,500 Americans in the area. The siege of Charleston ensued. On May 10, Charleston surrendered. Rutledge had left the city. He remained Governor of the unconquered part of South Carolina.

Though the Americans defeated the British at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, they could not drive the British back to Charleston until June 1781, when General Nathanael Greene arrived with more troops. The British held Charleston until December 14, 1782. John Rutledge’s term of office had already ended, and he did not run again, because of term limits.

A few weeks after leaving the governorship, Rutledge was again elected to the Continental Congress , where he served until 1783. In 1784, he was appointed to the South Carolina Court of Chancery , where he served until 1791.


Like many prominent European-American men in South Carolina at the time, he owned African American people as slaves .

According to the state library of South Carolina:

"Although Rutledge claimed that he disliked slavery, as an attorney he twice defended individuals who abused slaves. Before the American Revolution, Rutledge owned sixty slaves; afterward, he possessed twenty-eight. His wife Elizabeth manumitted her own slaves, and his nieces were abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké . Despite this, Rutledge convinced the Constitutional Convention not to abolish slavery. When Rutledge died in 1800, he only owned one slave due to financial difficulties." [5]

The Story of the Tavern Keeper

In 1784, the South Carolina legislature threatened to exile a tavern keeper by the name of William Thompson, for insulting "Dictator" John Rutledge, now the former governor and a prominent figure in the state. Rutledge had sent a female servant to Thompson's tavern to watch a fireworks display from the roof. Thompson denied the servant admittance and sent her back to Rutledge. Rutledge was furious and demanded that Thompson come to his house and apologize. Thompson refused and, believing that his honor had been affronted by Rutledge's arrogant request, challenged Rutledge to a duel. Since people like Rutledge did not associate with tavern keepers, Rutledge went to the South Carolina House of Representatives and insisted that it pass a bill banishing Thompson from the state for insulting a government official. Thompson claimed that, Rutledge and others who were wealthy composed "the grand hierarchy of the State." Thompson argued that independent people required leaders who were "good, able, useful and friends to social equality." This altercation changed the hierarchy of state legislatures for years to come.

Constitutional Convention

A map showing the battle lines during the British siege in 1780.

In 1787, Rutledge was selected to represent South Carolina in the Philadelphia Convention which was called to revise the Articles of Confederation , but instead produced the United States Constitution . He attended all the sessions and served on five committees. [6] At the Convention, Rutledge maintained a moderate nationalist stance and chaired the Committee of Detail . After the Convention had debated the Virginia Plan and settled some major points of controversy, the Committee of Detail, which Rutledge chaired, assembled during the convention's July 4 recess. Though the committee did not record its minutes, it is known that the committee used the original Virginia Plan, the decisions of the Convention on modifications to that plan, and other sources, to produce the first full draft. Much of what was included in this draft consisted of details, such as powers given to Congress, that hadn't been debated by the Convention. Most of these were uncontroversial and unchallenged, and as such much of what Rutledge's committee included in this first draft made it into the final version of the Constitution without debate.

Rutledge recommended that the executive power should consist of a single person, rather than several, because he felt that one person would feel the responsibility of the office more acutely. Because the president would not be able to defer a decision to another "co-president", Rutledge concluded that a single person would be more likely to make a good choice. Rutledge was largely responsible for denying the Supreme Court the right to give advisory opinions . Being a judge himself, he strongly believed that a judge’s sole purpose was to resolve legal conflicts; he held that a judge should hand down an opinion only when ruling on an actual case. He also thought that the legal community was the higher tier of society.

Rutledge also argued that if either house of the legislature was to have the sole authority to introduce appropriation bills , it should be the Senate . He noted that the Senate, by nature of its lengthier terms of office, would tend to be more leisurely in its actions. Because of this, Rutledge felt that the Senate would be better able to think clearly about what the consequences of a bill would be. Also, since the bills could not become law without the consent of the House of Representatives , he concluded that there would be no danger of the Senate ruling the country.

When the proposal was made that only landowners should have the right to vote, Rutledge opposed it perhaps more strongly than any other motion in the entire convention. He stated that making such a rule would divide the people into "haves" and "have nots", would create an undying resentment against landowners, and could do nothing but cause discord. He was supported by Benjamin Franklin , and the rule was not adopted.

In the debate on slavery in the new country, Rutledge took the side of the slave-owners; he was a Southerner and he owned several slaves. Rutledge said that if the Constitution forbade slavery, the Southern states would never agree to the Constitution.

Supreme Court Associate Justice

George Washington nominated Rutledge to the Supreme Court of the United States as an Associate Justice on September 24, 1789. The United States Senate confirmed his appointment on September 26, 1789, and Washington signed both the commissions of Chief Justice John Jay and Rutledge that same day. On March 4, 1791, Rutledge resigned from the Supreme Court, without having ever heard a case, in order to become Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Sessions. [7]

Chief Justice of the United States

On June 28, 1795, Chief Justice John Jay resigned, having been elected Governor of New York . President Washington selected Rutledge to succeed Jay as Chief Justice. As the Senate was not in session at the time, Rutledge's recess appointment took effect immediately. He was commissioned as the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on June 30, 1795. [16]

On July 16, 1795, Rutledge gave a highly controversial speech denouncing the Jay Treaty with Great Britain . He reportedly said in the speech "that he had rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument"– and that he "preferred war to an adoption of it." [9] Rutledge's speech against the Jay Treaty cost him the support of many in the Washington Administration, which supported the treaty, and in the Senate, which subsequently advised and consented to its ratification by a two-thirds vote and which would soon be debating and voting on his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Two cases were decided while Rutledge held his recess appointment (before his formal nomination). In United States v. Peters , the Court ruled that federal district courts had no jurisdiction over crimes committed against Americans in international waters . In Talbot v. Janson , the Court held that a citizen of the United States did not waive all claims to U.S. citizenship by either renouncing citizenship of an individual state, or by becoming a citizen of another country. The Rutledge Court thus established an important precedent for multiple citizenship in the United States.

By the time of his formal nomination to the Court on December 10, 1795, Rutledge's reputation was in tatters and support for his nomination had faded. Rumors of mental illness and alcohol abuse swirled around him, concocted largely by the Federalist press. His words and actions in response to the Jay Treaty were used as evidence of his continued mental decline. [7] The Senate rejected his appointment on December 15, 1795 by a vote of 14–10. This was the first time that the Senate had rejected a presidential recess appointment. Of the 15 recess appointments to the Supreme Court, it remains the only one to be rejected, [7] and to date Rutledge remains the only person ever removed involuntarily from the Supreme Court.

The Senate's rejection of his nomination left Rutledge mentally ruined. On December 26, 1795, he attempted suicide by jumping off a wharf into Charleston Harbor. [16] [11] He was rescued by two slaves who saw him drowning. Though the Senate remained in session through June 1, 1796, which would have been the automatic end of Rutledge's tenure following the rejection, Rutledge resigned from the Court two days later, on December 28, 1795, having served the briefest tenure of a Chief Justice of the United States.

Regarding the Senate's rejection of Rutledge's nomination, then Vice President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that it "gave me pain for an old friend, though I could not but think he deserved it. Chief Justices must not go to illegal Meetings and become popular orators in favor of Sedition, nor inflame the popular discontents which are ill founded, nor propagate Disunion, Division, Contention and delusion among the people." [10]

Later years

Rutledge around the time of the Convention.

Following his disastrous speech on the Jay Treaty, Senate rejection, suicide attempt, and resignation from the Supreme Court, Rutledge withdrew from public life and returned to Charleston. He died on June 21, 1800, at the age of sixty. [12] He was interred at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Charleston. [30] One of his houses, said to have been built in 1763 and definitely sold in 1790, was renovated in 1989 and opened to the public as the John Rutledge House Inn . [15]


  1. While Rutledge was officially the 31st Governor of South Carolina, he was the first governor under the United States independent from Great Britain. He was also officially titled the President of South Carolina during his first term.

See also