Born in September 1739, in Charleston, South Carolina, colonist John Rutledge was a feared trial lawyer and prosperous business owner who started his political career at the age of 21, according to the National Archives. Rutledge’s early participation in colonial politics paved the way for him to influence the foundations on which the United States built its democracy during the creation of the Constitution.
Stamp Act Congress
In 1765, a year after being appointed South Carolina’s attorney general, Rutledge was the youngest individual appointed to represent a colony at the Stamp Act Congress in New York. The British Stamp Act required colonists to only use stamped paper products made in London for printed materials like newspapers and legal documents. The Act also imposed a tax on documents like licenses, land grants, cards and books. The Stamp Act Congresses stated that there should be no taxation without representation. Rutledge, who wanted to compromise with the British government, led a committee that wrote a petition to the House of Lords in hopes that it would repeal the Act. The House of Lords rejected the petition.
First Continental Congress
After his election into the First Continental Congress in 1774, Rutledge advocated for a nonviolent courses of action against the British, like boycotts. The delegates met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in response to the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts that the British levied against Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party. When the First Continental Congress met, Rutledge settled a dispute about how to appropriate congressional votes, stating that each colony only gets one vote. Rutledge briefly participated in the Second Continental Congress before his brother, Edward, took his place.
Roles in the Constitutional Convention
Rutledge was a key player in the Constitutional Convention, which took place from May to September 1787 in Pennsylvania. The Convention addressed and revised the Articles of Confederation, which the newly independent nation followed after gaining independence from the British. Many of the delegates at the Convention served in the Continental Congress. During the Convention, Rutledge was the head of committees, such as the Committee of Detail, which produced the first draft of the Constitution. Along with James Wilson, Rutledge drafted the Three-Fifths Compromise for the Northern and Southern states regarding the representation of slaves as part of the population.
Drafting the Constitution
Rutledge believed the U.S. government should be stronger than the Confederation government, but have limited powers. He and his committee went beyond the scope of their duties and extended the resolutions in the first draft of the Constitution from 19 resolutions to 23 articles with 41 sections. The changes gave individual states more power, influenced presidential elections and limited the central government’s ability to perform actions like impose new taxes, go to war and make treaties. The drafts that Rutledge’s committee wrote created a more concrete plan in the Constitution than the vague ones originally proposed.
- National Archives: America’s Founding Fathers—Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, John Rutledge, South Carolina
- U.S. Army: John Rutledge, South Carolina
- The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution; David O. Stewart
- Journal of the Federal Convention, Journal 1; United States Constitutional Convention, James Madison
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