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This Day in History: Edward Rutledge, youngest signer of the Declaration

On this day in 1749, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence is born. Edward Rutledge would be the youngest person to affix his name to that document. He could have been hanged for treason! Can you imagine taking such a huge risk when you are only 26 years old?

Then again, many young adults in our military take similar huge risks today, don’t they?

At the time that Rutledge signed the Declaration, he had been back in America for only three years. Prior to that time, he’d been in England (of all places) completing his legal education. When he returned home, he quickly established himself in his profession, and he was appointed to both the First and Second Continental Congresses.

Rutledge seemed to support independence in late 1775 and early 1776, but then he suddenly backed off the idea. What caused the shift? It’s not entirely clear. His family had just arrived in the area. Perhaps they carried news that South Carolina’s leadership was not entirely on board with such a decision. Or maybe he simply saw logistical difficulties with declaring independence before Americans had finished creating a formal union for themselves.

Either way, when an early vote on independence was taken on July 1, 1776, South Carolina voted against the measure. It seemed that South Carolina’s vote was lost, but then Rutledge asked for more time. According to Thomas Jefferson’s account of the day, Rutledge “believed his colleagues, tho’ they disapproved of the resolution, would then join in it for the sake of unanimity.”

Of course, Rutledge was one of those then opposed to the measure. So what he really meant is that he would cast aside his personal reservations for the sake of national unity.

And that is exactly what happened. On July 2, South Carolina joined the other colonies in voting for independence. (The formal vote would follow on July 4.) The vote would eventually be unanimous.

Rutledge’s biographer speaks of this moment: “He supported independence in principle, but circumstances and intercolonial jealousies had temporarily dampened his enthusiasm for it. Now he set aside his strictly pragmatic doubts in the interest of unity, and he labored successfully to overcome the more serious doubts of his colleagues. It was the first of several important occasions that saw Edward Rutledge act as conciliator between factions in the interest of unity.”

Rutledge subsequently served on a delegation that attempted to negotiate a peace with British General William Howe. Later in the war, he found himself in Charleston when it was captured by the British. He was taken prisoner and spent about a year in captivity.

After signing the Declaration, was he happy to be ONLY a captive? He could have been hanged for treason!

There is a dark side to Rutledge’s story: Early in the war, he made an effort to expel all black soldiers then serving in the Continental Army. On a more positive note, he later worked to extend prohibitions against importing slaves into South Carolina.

After the Revolution, Rutledge served in the South Carolina state legislature for a time. He also served as Governor, but he passed away before his term could be completed. Reportedly, he suffered a stroke soon after he heard of the death of his old friend, George Washington.

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