Get your political fix from an unrepentant political junkie.
October 1, 2015
At 48 years old and as the most prominent S.C. delegate to the Constitutional Convention, John Rutledge was vastly experienced in the law, legislating, and governing. He served in South Carolina’s colonial assembly and as attorney general; the Stamp Act Congress, where he wrote the petition for repeal to Parliament and King George III; in the First and Second Continental congresses; as president of S.C. at the beginning of the Revolution; as governor of S.C. throughout the Revolution, and on the S.C. Court of Chancery.
Rutledge was one of the foremost influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention. He viewed government from a traditional English view in some respects: wealth and property required that those with the most at stake had an aristocratic duty to lead.
The influence of the Enlightenment while studying law in London also shaped his view of the rights of the citizen, that government is a contract between the citizen and the sovereign and those inalienable rights cannot be abridged by legislative act.
Later Rutledge would affiliate with the Federalist Party, but as a provincial and state leader for 26 years, Rutledge was protective of states’ rights and local assemblies. Forming a centralized government was a risky leap toward abuse of power, which is why Rutledge repeatedly insisted that the powers of Congress be detailed in the new constitution.
His rapid rhetoric and savvy negotiation earned him the position of chairman of the five-man Committee on Detail, which determined the specific wording in the final draft of the document. The committee turned the vague phrase “general interests of the Union” into Article. I. Section. 8., in which the powers of Congress are specifically enumerated, such as “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States . . . to declare war . . . .” They hardly could have predicted how vague the empowerment “to lay and collect taxes” and “to provide for the general welfare” would be in the modern era, so as to lead to the taxation of non-existent commerce in the Affordable Care Act and to the creation of eighty, federal, welfare programs.
Ranked by most historians as one of the most influential of the framers, Rutledge played a key role in protecting the interests of the Deep South. One contentious debate on the constitutional protection of slavery, slave trade, and exports prompted him to remind a New Englander of their economic interests in slavery and the slave trade. Export tariffs were mutually punitive for both agriculture and manufacturing sectors, thus the prohibition stood. Through compromise, the convention agreed that the constitution could not prohibit slavery, but the foreign slave trade would be prohibited in 1808. Duties and taxes would be levied on the slave trade until that time.
Rutledge was firm in his position that the executive and judiciary be limited. He was against the Electoral College and proposed that Congress elect the executive to a single, seven-year term. He also objected to John Dickinson’s amendment that the executive have the power to remove judges. The convention agreed.
The U.S. Constitution’s remarkable legacy is a stable and prosperous free society. It is no coincidence that the further we veer from the Constitution’s principles, the further we veer from stability and prosperity.