Essay 81 – Guest Essayist: Edward Lee

In the summer of 1776, four well-educated men of social, economic, and political prominence stepped forward in Philadelphia to place their names on the Declaration of Independence. These Founding Fathers hailed from the rice-rich, slave-holding South Carolina Low Country. They, and the other signatories, boldly and courageously risked their lives and property by endorsing a formal break from the Mother Country’s North American Empire. Three of them would be imprisoned by England aboard a vessel harbored at St. Augustine when Charleston was besieged in 1780, and the fourth would be lost at sea the previous year, while the Revolution was underway.

These four signatories were connected by family ties, the land, and the economic power of the Low Country of South Carolina. They were well-educated advocates for their state and ably spoke for the colony’s planters and legal community. By July 1776, all of them grasped that the time had come for independence which manifest itself in Mr. Thomas Jefferson’s timeless explanation of an abusive Mother Country, Great Britain, which was trampling on the rights of its American children.

The first South Carolina signer, who is the focus of this essay, is Edward Rutledge (November 23, 1749-January 23, 1800), one of the youngest South Carolina signatories. Rutledge was the last of seven children born in Charleston to physician Dr. John Rutledge and Sarah Hext Rutledge. Like his two older brothers, John and Hugh, Edward studied law in London at Oxford’s Inns of Court. During his time in London, he witnessed Parliament’s debates concerning the colonies. In 1772, he was admitted to the English bar (Middle Temple) and returned to South Carolina where in 1774 he was married to Henrietta Middleton, the sister of signer Arthur Middleton. Edward and Henrietta had three children, one of whom died in infancy.

In Charleston, Edward had a successful law practice and owned more than fifty slaves. From 1774-1776, he and older brother, John, represented their state in the Continental Congress. He advocated the expulsion of African Americans from the newly formed Continental Army.

As a delegate to the Congress, Rutledge initially opposed Virginian Richard Henry Lee’s June 1776 plan for independence, arguing that the time was not yet “ripe.” Persuaded that the urgency of independence and the actions of Parliament called for southerners like himself to line up in the pro-Revolution group, he argued that the vote by Congress be unanimous and became the first South Carolina delegate to affix his signature. His oratorical style was said to resemble Cicero.

Returning to South Carolina in November, Rutledge served in the state’s General Assembly. He served as captain of the 2nd Independent Company of artillery in the militia and saw action at the 1779 Battle of Beaufort. He and signatories Arthur Middleton and Thomas Heyward were captured the following year when Charleston fell to the British. During July 1781, the men were released in a prisoner exchange.

Returning to the General Assembly where he served until 1796, Rutledge supported the harsh confiscation of Loyalist property. That year, he supported Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful presidential bid. He differed with Jefferson’s pro-France position and found himself often allied with President John Adams despite the latter’s support of England in its war with France. He served as a state senator for two years and was elected South Carolina’s governor in 1798. He did not complete his term and died in Charleston in 1800. It was said that his stroke was aggravated by the previous year’s death of George Washington.

Edward Lee, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Winthrop University. Lee is a former mayor of the City of York, South Carolina.


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