During the American Revolutionary War, when South Carolina groaned under the heel of the invader, S.C. Gov. John Rutledge used near dictatorial powers to preserve the remnants of civil authority and to carry on the fight. Though nearly forgotten today, “Dictator John” was South Carolina’s most important Founding Father.
Born in 1739 in Charles Towne – today’s Charleston – Rutledge was the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant. Choosing law as his vocation, he grew wealthy and became a member of the colony’s ruling elite.
A defender of South Carolina’s aristocratic order, Rutledge was elected to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and the First Continental Congress in 1774. Though hesitant about declaring independence, this conservative revolutionary was elected president and then governor of a sovereign, independent South Carolina. He served as chief executive from 1776 to 1778 and from 1779 to 1782.
The resulting war started out well for South Carolina. In 1776, loyalist militias and Britain’s Cherokee allies were quickly defeated, while a British assault on Sullivan’s Island was heroically turned away.
But the situation darkened by 1780. After failing to destroy George Washington’s army, the British high command sought to regain the initiative by re-conquering the southern states.
Savannah was lost in 1778, and a joint American-French assault to recapture the city was repulsed in the autumn of 1779. In February 1780, Gen. Henry Clinton’s redcoats landed on Seabrook Island and Charles Towne was soon under siege.
As the British net closed in, the General Assembly gave Rutledge extraordinary powers to keep the war going if the city fell. He slipped out the city on April 13, 1780 to continue the fight in the back country. Weeks later, 5,000 American soldiers surrendered when the city capitulated on May 12.
Three months later, a second American army was routed by Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Camden. The flame of independence was all but extinguished in South Carolina.
Then the British overplayed their hand. They massacred prisoners, forced oaths of allegiance to the king, confiscated estates, imprisoned leading patriots, burned churches and unleashed the horrors of an uncontrolled military on the civilian population.
In response, a partisan war of unimaginable ferocity broke out between the patriot and loyalist militias. Unspeakable forms of torture and murder were practiced as neighbor squared off against neighbor.
Rutledge quickly exploited the situation. He begged Congress to send help and not write off the state.
Congress eventually sent Gen. Nathanael Greene to confront the victorious British army.
Rutledge fanned the flames of rebellion and sanctioned the actions of South Carolina’s great partisan leaders: Andrew Pickens in the upcountry, Thomas Sumter in the midlands, and Francis Marion – the legendary “Swamp Fox” - in the Pee Dee.
But most importantly, Rutledge was not only the government, but also the embodiment of the peoples’ determined resistance against overwhelming odds.
“Civilian government in free South Carolina existed in the person of Gov. John Rutledge,” wrote historian Walter Edgar. “His proclamations were a continual reminder, despite British successes in the field, that South Carolinians had not given up. The ‘capital’ of the state was wherever he was, and on several occasions he barely escaped capture.”
Hunted and pursued, Rutledge eventually triumphed with the patriotic cause.
At King’s Mountain and Cowpens, two British forces were annihilated. After the drawn battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, Lord Cornwallis marched northwards to his doom at Yorktown. Simultaneously, Gen. Greene led the American reconquest of South Carolina as unrelenting partisan warfare ground down the loyalists in countless bloody skirmishes.
Rutledge left office in 1782, the year the British evacuated Charles Towne. Yet victory proved costly. Out of a population of 175,000 – about the size of Aiken County today – thousands of South Carolinians were killed in battles, skirmishes, raids and executions. Much of our opulent land was ruined.
Later, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Rutledge played a key role as chairman of the Committee of Detail that drafted the original version.
A practical man, Rutledge opposed abstract notions of the “rights of man,” and instead favored deliberations based on political experience and inherited rights. He favored many of the critical compromises that made union possible between 13 disparate republics.
President Washington appointed Rutledge to the Supreme Court in 1789. The Senate, however, voted down his subsequent appointment as chief justice in 1795.
Rutledge passed away in 1800.
Rutledge was a credit both to South Carolina and to the union of sovereign states he helped establish. Sons and daughters of the Palmetto State should honor his memory.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.