Charles Pinckney

Painting of Charles Pinckney
Charles Pinckney in Gilbert Stuart Portrait circa 1786
Charles Pinckney was born on October 26, 1757. He was the son of Charles Pinckney and Frances Brewton, members of Charleston's and South Carolina's social elite. They, like other wealthy families of the South Carolina Lowcountry, viewed themselves as similar in standing and responsibility to British aristocracy. Their attitude toward political, social and economic leadership naturally lead them to participate fully in public affairs. Public service was considered not only an honor but a duty as well. These factors destined Charles Pinckney to a career in public service which would last over forty years.

Pinckney's father, Colonel Charles Pinckney, was one of the colony's leading attorneys. Among the numerous offices and positions he held were his service as commanding officer of the Charles Towne Militia, member of the General Assembly, and, in 1775, president of the South Carolina Provincial Congress. As a symbol of position and wealth, Pinckney bought his first plantation, Snee Farm, in 1754. The plantation remained in the family for over 60 years until 1817 when it was sold to satisfy debts.

Young Charles Pinckney was tutored in Charleston in preparation for studying law in England. He received his education under the guidance of noted South Carolina scholar and author, Dr. David Oliphant. Dr. Oliphant had served in the Commons House of Assembly with Col. Pinckney and supplemented his physician's income by instructing several young men of outstanding promise. Through Dr. Oliphant's guidance, Pinckney became well-versed in the classics, emphasizing his study of history, political science, and languages.

In 1773, just short of his seventeenth birthday, he was scheduled to depart Charleston for law school. However, because of the growing unrest between the colonies and Great Britain, his parents decided Charles should remain at home and study law in his father's office. The decision to keep their son in South Carolina was wise- just two years later the American Revolution began. Despite the war, Pinckney was able to continue his education in Charleston and by early 1779 his formal legal training was completed.

Service in the American Revolution

Pinckney celebrated his 21st birthday on October 26, 1778 and began his life of public service. After being admitted to the South Carolina Bar, he was elected to the State's Third General Assembly representing Christ Church Parish. Also in 1779, Pinckney received a commission as a Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Charles Towne Militia, joining his father who served as the unit's commanding officer. Service in the defense of the new nation would occupy most of his time for the next two years.

During the fall of that year, a joint French-American force advanced on Savannah, attempting to reclaim the city which had fallen to the British in December 1778. The Charles Towne Militia, one of the units included in the expedition, participated in the main attack on the British lines. Lt. Pinckney received his baptism of fire in this assault and survived unharmed. However, an estimated 400 Americans and French, including his first cousin Jack Jones, were not so fortunate. This action ended the siege with the American forces returning to Charleston.

Shortly thereafter, the British initiated a campaign resulting in the capture of Charleston in May 1780. Under the terms of the city's surrender, Pinckney and the other American officers were paroled. But this limited freedom lasted only a few days before the officers were arrested and placed on board prison ships in the harbor. Lieutenant Pinckney was confined on the Pack Horse.
Also captured with the fall of Charleston was Charles' father, Colonel Charles Pinckney. Before the war, Col. Pinkney had been a leader in the lower house of the General Assembly and one of the colony's leading attorneys. British authorities realized the influence Pinckney, and others like him, possessed and worked to have them swear allegiance to the crown. The British threatened to imprison, hand, and/or confiscate the property of the "traitor" who did no publicly declare themselves loyal to the Crown. Faced with these circumstances, Colonel Pinckney and over 160 others declared themselves as "loyal inhabitants of Charles Town." Pinckney's estate, which included Snee Farm, was saved through this decision. When Colonel Pinckney died in 1782, Snee Farm was among those properties inherited by his son.

After spending most of the summer of 1781 as a prisoner of war, Pinckney was among a group of officers exchanged through a general agreement for the South Carolina militia. Although records are not specific, the lieutenant was probably among the group taken to Philadelphia by ship and exchanged at that location. It is also unknown why he chose to remain in the North until the end of the war and did not return to South Carolina until 1783. Pinckney was not tainted by his father’s actions during the Revolutionary War. His service in the militia, his imprisonment by the British, and status as a "Patriot" strengthened the beginning of his career in state and national government.

Political Service for the Young Nation

Upon his arrival home, he was again elected to the South Carolina General Assembly, but his return to state politics was short lived. Pinckney wrote 3 pamphlets on the nature of the Confederation and its weaknesses in 1783. Subsequently, he was selected as a delegate to represent South Carolina in the Fifth Continental Congress (1784-1787). Only 26 years of age, Pinckney was one of the youngest members to attend. "In Congress in mid-winter of 1786 Charles Pinckney emerged as a major voice in the debates on the dire state of the Confederation." Pinckney quickly established himself as one of the most active members of the Fifth Congress. Of greatest note was his work on two important committees; the first reported on the commercial treaty policy with foreign powers and the other concerned itself with negotiations with Spain over conflicting claims to navigation on the Mississippi River.

By the winter of 1786-1787, it was apparent that Pinckney, along with other members, began to realize the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and recognized the need for a strong central government. Pinckney began to concentrate his efforts towards resolving these problems.

The first need was for an official forum for discussion. On February 21, 1787, after a prolonged debate on the subject the Congress voted approval for a general convention to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787 to address the problems facing the new nation. This convention would become known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Rutledge were selected as South Carolina's delegates.

In Philadelphia, Pinckney became a familiar leader speaking more than one hundred times on various issues facing the body. Of note were his strong beliefs in protecting property interests and establishing a strong federal government with a clear separation of powers. Pinckney was concerned with forming a government that would represent the rights of the people.

Pinckney believed in the separation of church and state and in religious freedoms. At the time, nine of the thirteen colonies maintained an established church which was either Anglican, Dutch Reformed or Congregationalist. "How many thousands of subjects of Great Britain at this moment labor under civil disabilities merely on account of their religious persuasions!" exclaimed Pinckney in a speech to members of the Continental Congress. The proposal passed easily and found itself in Clause 3 of Article 6 of the Constitution. When the issue of slavery arose, Delegate Pinckney stood among his fellow southerners in defense of the institution. He openly questioned the assertion that slavery was wrong, stating: "if slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world. In all ages, one half of mankind have been slaves."" He also stated South Carolina would reject the Constitution if the document prohibited the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

On May 29, 1787, Pinckney presented his own draft of the Constitution. Unfortunately, this document was lost. A draft of the Pinckney Plan was found among the papers of James Wilson [Pennsylvania] which permitted constitutional scholars, J. Franklin Jameson and Andrew C. McLaughlin to reconstruct Pinckney's Plan." When, in 1818, James Madison wrote Pinckney, requesting a copy of this original draft, Pinckney did not have it and, thus, provided Madison with another copy he believed was "substantially the same." This resulted in a major controversy concerning Pinckney's contributions to the final draft of the Constitution. Nevertheless, scholars today attribute approximately 28 clauses to Pinckney. His major contributions were:

The elimination of religious testing as a qualification to office.
The division of the Legislature into House and Senate.
The power of impeachment being granted only to the House.
The establishment of a single chief executive, who will be called President.
The power of raising an army and navy being granted to Congress.
The prohibition of states to.enter into a treaty or to establish interfering duties.

The regulation of interstate and foreign commerce being controlled by the national government.

Further contributions Pinckney made to the Convention and the Constitution may never be known, but it is obvious he contributed significantly to the proceedings, earning the nickname "Constitution Charlie". After the signing of the Constitution in September 1787, Pinckney returned home, once again to become active in state politics. That same year the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) conferred its Doctorate of Laws Degree to Pinckney.

In 1788, he represented Christ Church Parish as a member of the state's convention to ratify the Constitution. That same year, on April 27, he married Mary Eleanor Laurens, daughter of Henry and Eleanor Ball Laurens. Henry Laurens, who had served as president of the Second Continental Congress, was a wealthy Charleston merchant and one of South Carolina's leading citizens. Like his older cousins, General C. C. Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney, Charles had married into a family of wealth, position, and influence. Mary's wealth, combined with his own fortune, aided Pinckney's public service career and lifestyle.

Landholdings of Pinckney included property inherited from his father and that which his wife owned. Two plantations, Frankville and Hopton, were located five miles from Columbia on the Congaree River.. A plantation in Georgetown included 560 acres of tidal swamp and 600 acres of high land. Pinckney also owned a 1200-acre tract of land at Lynches Creek, 715-acre Snee Farm, a house and 4-acre lot at Haddrell's Point called Shell Hall (given to him by his mother, Francis Brewton), and a house and lot in Charleston on 16 Meeting Street. From his wife, Mary Eleanor Laurens, Pinckney acquired a plantation called Wrights Savannah on the Carolina side of the Savannah River and a tract of land, including a rice mill and ferry, called Mount Tacitus.

Pinckney's townhouse on Meeting Street was the former Fenwick home, a three-storied Palladian mansion which housed his 200,000 volume library. So posh was the home that in a letter dated 28 March 1789 to James Madison he bragged, "I think the house I have lately bought is not only a handsomer and better house than any in New York (which it might very easily be) but that the situation is as airy and the prospect as fine as any they have."’ Pinckney also expressed how in later years he wanted to be able, "to do and go where I please if alive and well," to be, "my own master or rather the master of my own time—in other words to enjoy the Luxut of doing as I please." (emphasis Pinckney's.)

The following year, in 1790, Pinckney served as president of the South Carolina State Constitutional Convention and while serving in the legislature was elected governor. Charles Pinckney would serve a total of four terms as South Carolina's governor, the only person to do so in state history. After completing his first term (1789-1791); he was immediately reelected and served from 1791-1792.
At the end of his second term, the people of Christ Church Parish once again returned Pinckney to the General Assembly as their representative. He subsequently served the Parish through the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth General Assemblies (1792-1797). During these formative years of the new nation, Charles and C. C. Pinckney, were leaders of the Federalist Party. However with time, Pinckney's views began to change. By 1795 he had cast his lot with the Democratic-Republican philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and the rapidly-growing Carolina back-country. With the rise of a new political party, Pinckney recognized the opportunity for advancement in a new power base. The rest of his family remained loyal to the Federalist Party of the eastern aristocracy.

In 1796, Pinckney supported the Virginian for president, and did not support his Federalist cousin, Thomas Pinckney, who sought the vice-presidency. John Adams won the presidency with Jefferson as vice-president. Pinckney solidified his support of Thomas Jefferson during the Fifth Congress (1797-1799), became the founding father of the Democratic-Republican Party in South Carolina, and helped establish it firmly on the national scene. These actions widened the gap between Pinckney, his Federalist family, and other established lowcountry families that had always controlled the state, politically and economically.

In 1796, after rejecting an offer to run for the US Senate, Charles Pinckney ran for his third term as governor, beating his Federalist brother-in-law, Henry Laurens, Jr. Upon completion of the two year term he was returned to the General Assembly, representing Christ Church Parish. However, he could not accept the post as he had been appointed to fill an unexpired term in the United States Senate on December 6, 1798.

In the Presidential election of 1800, General C. C. Pinckney was on the Federalist's ticket for the office of vice-president. However, Charles Pinckney remained loyal to presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson, serving as his campaign manager in South Carolina and helping to carry the state for Jefferson.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson offered Pinckney the post of Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain. He accepted and subsequently resigned from his seat in the Senate. Minister Pinckney served abroad from 1801-1805. He attempted to smooth relations between Spain and the United States, particularly with regard to problems which arose from the seizure and plundering committed by Spanish and French vessels on American shipping. In addition, he made an unsuccessful, but valiant attempt to win cession of the Floridas to the United States. He also worked toward the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States in 1803.

Charles Pinckney returned to Charleston in January 1806, and again took up the mantle of public service in the South Carolina General Assembly. In December of that year he was elected to his fourth and final term as governor. After completing his term as governor, Pinckney was returned to the General Assembly and served until 1813.

Charles Pinckney worked tirelessly for South Carolina. He was the first governor to advocate free schools. He supported legislative reapportionment to provide better representation to the upcountry districts and advocated for universal white male suffrage. Pinckney favored the War of 1812 and supported the elimination of primogeniture. During his first term as governor, the state capitol moved from Charleston to Columbia, which better reflected the growing political power and population of the mid-lands and mountainous upcountry.

In 1814, nearly 56 years old, Charles Pinckney declined re-election to the legislature and retired from active political life. He was still the recognized leader of the state's Democratic-Republican Party and in 1816 actively supported James Monroe's successful presidential campaign. In 1818, Pinckney feared the Federalists would win the Charleston District seat in Congress. Convinced by friends that he was the only one in his party who could win, he entered the race and won the seat in the Sixteenth Congress (1819-1821).

It was during this Congressional session that the Missouri Compromise was passed. Pinckney, and many other members of Congress, opposed the proposal. In his speech addressing the issue he presented an outline of the views of the framers at the Constitutional Convention concerning slavery, which read in part:
“The intention was to give Congress a power, after the year 1808, to prevent the importation of slaves... it was an agreed point, a solemnly understood compact, that, on the Southern States consenting to shut their ports against the importation of Africans, no power was to be delegated to Congress, nor were they ever authorized to touch the question of slavery; that the property of the Southern States in slaves was to be as sacredly preserved, and protected to them, as that of land, or any other kind of property in the Eastern States were to be to their citizens”

In this speech, Pinckney also surmised he was in a losing battle and declared that slavery was the only issue that could divide the Union. He lamented the horrors a civil war would create. Pinckney refused to accept re-nomination and retired from politics entirely in 1821. He spent his remaining years writing of his travels and his political life.

On October 29, 1824, Charles Pinckney died in Charleston. For over forty years he had served his community, state, and nation. Descendant of one of South Carolina's founding families, Pinckney became one of the state's most prominent political figures. His influence extended to national politics and culminated in his contributions to the United States Constitution.

Last updated: May 10, 2022

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