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Few justices of the U.S. Supreme Court combined outstanding achievement with mishap and tragedy to the extent of John Rutledge. Rutledge's career spanned three decades of public service during the early years of the nation. From 1761 until the 1780s, he enjoyed success as a lawyer, politician, Revolutionary War leader, and judge in South Carolina. His prominence at the Constitutional Convention—and his role in opposing British rule—brought him national fame and made him a favorite of President George Washington. Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court twice, first in 1789 and again in 1795.
Born in September 1739 to a prominent family in Charleston, South Carolina, Rutledge was groomed for success. His wealthy physician father died when he was eleven, and thereafter his uncle, Andrew Rutledge, guided Rutledge's education. Andrew Rutledge, a lawyer and speaker of the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, saw to it that his nephew was prepared for a legal and political career: the teenager was sent to England to study law at the Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court, and in 1760 he was admitted to the English bar. At the age of twenty-one, Rutledge returned home, instantly won a seat in the state Assembly, and began a successful legal practice. Within a few years, Rutledge and two other lawyers were handling the affairs of South Carolina's wealthiest businessmen.
Rutledge's rise in politics was aided by his involvement in the growing revolutionary movement. In 1765 he attended the emergency conference held in New York City to discuss the colonists' anger at Britain's imposition of the Stamp Tax. Rutledge wrote an official declaration to the British House of Lords opposing the tax. When the Revolutionary War came, he led the defense of South Carolina. Rutledge's performance in the war cemented his growing national reputation, and a string of successes followed.
In 1775 Rutledge helped write the constitution for South Carolina, and a year later, he was elected president of its new state assembly. He was elected governor in 1779. From 1782 to 1784, he served in the U.S. Congress under the Articles of Confederation and then as chief judge of a court of chancery in South Carolina. He was one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
"So long as we mayhavean independent Judiciary, the great interests of the people will be safe."
At the national level, President Washington was Rutledge's chief political sponsor. He offered Rutledge a federal judgeship and appointment as minister to the Netherlands, which he declined. He accepted when Washington named him to the Supreme Court in 1789 (though not, as Rutledge had hoped, as its chief justice). The Court heard no cases during its first two years, but Rutledge traveled great distances to fulfill his duties as a judge on the southern circuit. The position did not suit him, however. Bored and upset that he was merely an associate justice, he quit the Court in 1791 and returned to South Carolina, where he became chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas.
By June 1795 Rutledge was ready to return to the Supreme Court. John Jay, the chief justice, was resigning, and Rutledge wrote to Washington suggesting that he should have the position. The president agreed and promptly nominated him. Over the next six months, while awaiting Senate approval of his nomination, Rutledge, as acting chief justice, heard his only two cases and wrote his only opinion: Talbot v. Jansen, 3 U.S. 133, 1 L. Ed. 540 (1795), an unimportant decision concerning goods captured at sea.
In the interim Rutledge undid his career. At a meeting in Charleston in July 1795, he spoke out wildly against Jay's Treaty, a controversial postwar agreement between the United States and Britain. The treaty was highly unpopular across the nation, but Rutledge went too far, denouncing it as "prostitution" and declaring that the president should die rather than sign it. Indeed, since the death of his wife in 1792, Rutledge had been depressed, and reports of insanity had begun to spread. His supporters—Washington among them—disbelieved the rumors, but Rutledge's enemies seized on them and blocked his confirmation in the Senate in December 1795. Upon hearing the news, he jumped off a wharf into Charleston Bay. Although two passing slaves foiled his suicide attempt, Rutledge's public career was over. Seldom seen again, he died five years later, on June 21, 1800.
Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1995. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.
Holt, Wythe. 1999. "How a Founder Becomes Forgotten: Chief Justice John Rutledge, Slavery, and the Jay Treaty." The Journal of Southern Legal History 7 (annual): 5–36.