This Day in History: Little-known Founder Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
On this day in 1746, founding father Charles Cotesworth Pinckney is born in Charleston, South Carolina. He was one of three well-known Pinckneys who helped in our fight for independence against the British.
Perhaps Pinckney should have been a Loyalist, given his background? Yet he wasn’t. Pinckney risked it all to be a Patriot.
When Pinckney was young, his father was appointed as a colonial agent; thus, the family relocated to London for a period of time. Pinckney himself stayed even longer than his parents did. He studied at English schools and traveled to France for a bit. He was gone for 16 years before he finally returned home to America.
Once home, he threw himself into colonial life. He was a lawyer, a vestryman, and a member of the militia. He won a seat in the state legislature, and he was a wealthy man with close ties to the British government when war erupted in 1775. He had a lot to lose, but he joined the Patriot side.
His decision to join the militia was perhaps the strongest statement. After all, he could have enjoyed relative safety in the state legislature—but Pinckney wanted to fight.
Pinckney was present during the Siege of Charleston in 1780 and was taken a prisoner of war when American forces surrendered to the British. Reportedly, the British tried to talk him into changing sides, but he refused. Instead, he declared: “If I had a vein that did not beat with the love of my Country, I myself would open it. If I had a drop of blood that could flow dishonourable, I myself would let it out.”
He was a prisoner of war for about two years.
After the war, Pinckney served as a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, and he actively worked toward that document’s ratification afterwards. He reportedly declined President George Washington’s offer of high office and attempted to retire from public life, but he was eventually persuaded to serve as a Minister to France in 1796. Later, he was the Federalist Party presidential nominee twice in a row.
One black mark on Pinckney’s record (so as to tell both sides of the story) is that he defended slavery at the Constitutional Convention. A pity that he could not see the contradiction between the Revolution he was fighting and his own actions, as many other Founders did.
Nevertheless, Pinckney had other strengths. He was an advocate for a bill of rights and was especially vocal about freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the need for religious freedom in the new American republic.
“One of the founders of the American Republic,” his tombstone reads. “In war he was a companion in arms and friend of Washington. In peace he enjoyed his unchanging confidence.”
All in all, another little-known Founder who deserves to be remembered.
Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2002)
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, South Carolina (National Archives website)
Robert K. Wright & Morris J. MacGregor, Soldier-statesmen of the Constitution (Center of Military History, U.S. Army; 1987).
Marty D. Matthews, Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney (2004)