Monday, November 23, 2009

Nov. 23: Edward Rutledge, Youngest Man to Sign the Declaration of Independence

He was the youngest man to sign the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776, and would wind up in a British prison as a result. A political conservative, he was able to postpone the first vote on independence before reversing himself and joining a month later in voting for independence.

Edward Rutledge was born on November 23, 1749, to Dr. John Rutledge, an Irish immigrant and physician, and Sarah Hext Rutledge, who was “lady of respectable family, and large fortune.” The Rutledge family lived near Charleston, South Carolina, and Edward was the fifth son, and the youngest of seven children. He would never know his father, who died on December 25, 1750.

Not much is known about Rutledge’s youth. With his father deceased, when young Rutledge was old enough for an education, he was placed under the care of David Smith who instructed him in language, reading, and mathematics. Rutledge soon desired to enter the same profession as his older brother, John – that of lawyer.

Like many of the wealthy in South Carolina – including fellow Declaration of Independence signers Middleton, Lynch, and Heyward – Rutledge was sent to England in 1769 as a young man to study law. He would study law at Temple, be admitted to the English bar, and returned to Charleston in 1773 where he set up a legal practice.

With the ever-increasing agitation over British taxation and reduction of colonial rights, Charleston in 1773 was becoming concerned about losing its inherent English liberties and right of self-government. It was during this time – Rutledge’s first year after returning to Charleston from England - that Rutledge won acclaim and became a popular local hero by winning the release of a newspaper publisher named Thomas Powell. Powell had been imprisoned by the Crown for printing an article critical of the upper house of the South Carolina colonial legislature – a house that was dominated during this tumultuous time by Loyalists to the Crown.

In 1774 the Whigs of South Carolina named Rutledge as one of their five delegates to the First Continental Congress. Rutledge (who was only 25 at the time) would serve his first congressional term along side of his older brother, John, and his father-in-law, Henry Middleton. Rutledge did not make a significant impression when he first arrived at the Congress. Rutledge was was nearly bald despite his age and "inclining toward corpulency" as he entered public life. As John Adams (who wasn’t overly fond of South Carolinians in the first place) wrote:

"Young Ned Rutledge is a perfect Bob-o-Lincoln—a swallow, a sparrow, a peacock; excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady; jejeune, inane, and puerile."
However, as he served his associates took more and more notice of his abilities, clear thinking, and logical judgment. By June 1776 Rutledge had become one of the more influential members of the Congress. Rutledge was in favor of colonial rights, but at first was not in favor of independence, and many think that he was responsible for delaying the vote on Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for independence on June 7, 1776. However, when he realized that the resolution for independence would carry and that unaminity was needed if independence was to succeed, he led the South Carolina delegation in voting for independence, becoming the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In September Rutledge would accompany John Adams and Benjamin Franklin on a peace mission to Staten Island, where they were to negotiate with the British Admiral, Lord Richard Howe. Lord Richard Howe, and is brother General William Howe, were trying to resolve the differences between the colonies and the Mother country. However, the peace mission failed, and two months later – in November 1776 – Rutledge would leave Congress to return to Charleston and his law practice.

In 1778 Rutledge would accept a seat in the State legislature. The next year he was reelected to the Continental Congress, but his military duties prevented his attending. In February 1779, as a captain of artillery in the South Carolina militia, he took part in the defeat of the British at Port Royal Island (South Carolina). The following year found him in Charleston, a city besieged by the British. The siege lasted from April 1 to May 12, 1780, and resulted in the capture of over 5,000 colonial troops – and three of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: Arthur Middleton, Thomas Heyward, Jr., and Edward Rutledge.

Rutledge was imprisoned by the British at St. Augustine, Florida. He was exchanged in July, 1781, when he returned to Charleston. Returning to his law practice, he was reelected to the State legislature from 1782 to 1798. Being conservative in nature he joined the Federalist Party.

His private life flourished, and he became wealthy through his law practice and investments. In 1792 his wife of 18 years – Henrietta - died, and he remarried. He had married Henrietta Middleton (sister to fellow Declaration of Independence signer Arthur Middleton) on March 1, 1774, and the couple had three children. His second wife was Mary Shubrick Eveleigh, who was the widow of Nicholas Eveleigh, comptroller of the treasury of the United States during Washington's administration.

In 1798 Rutledge was chosen a governor of South Carolina. However, due to poor health, he died before the end of his term. Rutledge died on January 23, 1800. He was buried in St. Philip’s Church Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.

There are no biographies of Edward Rutledge available at our local library.


Colonial Hall
Find A Grave
Focus on the Founding Fathers
Forgotten Founders
John and Edward Rutledge
National Park Service


Portrait of Edward Rutledge

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