By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Committee of Detail had been given a major assignment: resolve not just the logjam over the executive, but gather up all the resolutions the Convention had adopted thus far and work them up into a single document and then report the Constitution. It included precisely the people best situated to get things done, like John Rutledge of South Carolina.
The Committee of Detail
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Committee of Detail pitched at once into its work. The Grand Committee only had to address the single question of representation. However, unlike the Grand Committee, which seemed to have been selected deliberately from the most uncommitted and silent members of the Convention, the Committee of Detail was constructed to represent each region of the republic.
It comprised of exactly the kind of people who would resolve even the most difficult of stalemate, especially on the unresolved question of the National Executive: James Wilson, for one; Edmund Randolph, the mover of the original set of resolutions to replace the Articles of Confederation; Nathaniel Gorham, who had served as chair of the Convention when it went into Committee of the Whole; Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut; and John Rutledge of South Carolina.
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The Rutledge Family
John Rutledge, up to this point in the Convention, had comparatively little to say, not being, as William Pierce described him, an agreeable orator. His father and uncle, John and Andrew Rutledge, had emigrated from Ireland to South Carolina in the early 1730s, but there was really very little of the Irish to them—in fact, their forebears had been planted in County Cavan by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s as part of Cromwell’s plan to transform Ireland through English Protestant colonial settlement.
Andrew Rutledge, as a lawyer, had done well and married well. His brother, Dr. John Rutledge, did even better, and although he died when his son, John, was only eleven, he left personal property worth £22,000, a house in Charleston, and three plantations with 108 slaves.
President of the South Carolina Legislature
The younger John Rutledge followed the family profession into law, studying under his uncle Andrew and then at the Inns of Court in London, and returning in 1761 to begin a practice that, over 26 years, was reputed to have never sustained a loss in court.
By 1764, he was state’s attorney general. In 1765, he represented South Carolina in the Stamp Act Congress, then in the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775. The South Carolina legislature elected him as its president in 1776, but when the legislature adopted a new constitution along the lines of Pennsylvania’s populist constitution, Rutledge vetoed it, and when the veto was overridden, he resigned.
Learn more about the first great battle over the U.S. Constitution.
Opposed Equal State Voting
The legislature contemplated its folly, revised the constitution, and Rutledge was promptly re-elected. He was closely allied to James Madison from the start of the Convention, and he had urged that representation in the new Congress actually be based in proportion to a person’s wealth rather than with the New Jersey Plan’s scheme for equal state voting. His rule was that property was certainly the principal object of society—property, in the spirit of John Locke, not virtue.
Rutledge was not agreeable as a speaker, but he was known for being strong and argumentative, and remarkable for close reasoning, and in committee, “when there was anything to be done, he saw at once, instinctively, as it were, the best, often, the only course to be pursued” and could “break forth, with a power and eloquence, that carried the timid and the doubting, along with the convinced.”
Calm, imperious, shrewd, long-headed, Rutledge, during the Revolution, coolly warned the commander of Charleston’s barrier fortifications to ignore any order from the Continental Army’s generals to abandon their positions.
Learn more about the Convention’s Grand Committee.
The Siege of Charleston
He emphatically reiterated that if such an order to evacuate was issued, “You will not, without an order from me.” And incidentally, such an order would not be forthcoming. “I would sooner cut off my hand,” Rutledge said, “than write one.” When the British laid Charleston under siege in 1780, the legislature delegated him near-dictatorial powers “to do everything necessary for the public good, except the taking away the life of a citizen without a legal trial.”
After the Revolution, Rutledge took offense at the behavior of a Charleston tavern keeper named William Thompson—one of “the Lower Orders of Men”—and he insisted that Thompson apologize. Thompson boldly challenged Rutledge to a duel, but John Rutledge did not stoop to dueling with his social inferiors, and instead demanded that the South Carolina legislature pass a bill exiling Thompson from the state. Not for nothing was John Rutledge known as Dictator John.
Common Questions about John Rutledge and the Committee of Detail
The South Carolina legislature adopted a new constitution along the lines of Pennsylvania’s populist constitution. John Rutledge vetoed it. He resigned when the veto was overridden.
The Committee of Detail was constructed to represent each region of the republic and comprised of exactly the kind of people who would resolve even the most difficult of stalemate.
John Rutledge was not agreeable as a speaker, but he was known for being strong and argumentative, and remarkable for close reasoning.