While he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, Charles Pinckney signed the United States Constitution. Pinckney was born in Charleston, South Carolina on October 26, 1757, and died of suspected dropsy on October 29, 1824. He is buried at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church. According to historian Marty D. Matthews, Charles Pinckney’s legacy as a public official has been passed over: “Pinckney is truly a forgotten founder. Despite the major roles he played in the establishment of the United States, the development of the republican ideology that informed that founding, and his successes in nearly every public political office he held, he has been overlooked by most.” The problem of Pinckney’s lost legacy is partially to blame on the lack of documentation. In addition, some scholars theorize that a political rival worked to suppress facts after Pinckney’s death.
Family LifePinckney was the fourth son of eight children born to Col. Charles Pinckney and Frances Brewton Pinckney. The Pinckney family owned several properties including two in Mount Pleasant: One was a country estate on Long Point Road called Snee Farm Plantation, and the other was a Haddrell’s Point summer house named Shell Hall. The Pinckneys were a prestigious Lowcountry family, and their son Charles obtained the traditional education expected of the elite. Under the tutelage of Dr. David Oliphant, Pinckney excelled in the sciences of government, philosophy, and history, and the languages of Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish.
Education and MarriageHe studied law under his father in Charleston and was admitted to the bar at 16 years of age. However, Pinckney practiced little private law. As a young man, he encountered influential politicians who worked with his father such as John Rutledge, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Arthur Middleton, Thomas Heyward Jr., and Thomas Lynch Jr. Pinckney knew from an early age that he wanted to serve in public office like those men. This career choice netted nearly fifty years of substantial civic service. He married Mary Eleanor Laurens (called Polly) on April 27, 1788, and together they had three children. Polly was the daughter of Henry Laurens. This was a union of love that knit together two of the Lowcountry’s most prominent families. Polly died in 1794.
During the Revolutionary War, at 21 years of age, Pinckney was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He also served as a captain in the Charleston Regiment and fought during the siege of Savannah. Later, after the siege of Charleston, Pinckney and other Lowcountry patriots were arrested by the British and imprisoned until 1781. After the war, on March 23, 1784, Pinckney was elected to the South Carolina Congress. While there, he was appointed as a delegate to the Congress of Confederation and reappointed to that post over the next two years. Between 1786 and 1787, Pinckney spoke about the confederation as an inadequate association of states. He also wrote three pamphlets titled, "The Three Letters to the Public" that contained persuasive argumentation for a permanent revenue source for the federal government.
In 1787, Pinckney was elected as the youngest of four South Carolina delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He was only 29 years old. However, Pinckney stood out as an eloquent and energetic advocate for strong central government and as a supporter for the rights of white men. Pinckney introduced ideas that were readily adopted. For example, he suggested that one presidential term be seven years. President George Washington served one term and one year, thus eight years became the traditional and later, the official limit. Pinckney recommended that no test of religion be required to qualify for presidential office and this idea was also adopted. Based on the convention journal, Pinckney asserted that he was the only member to submit a constitution-plan drawn into articles and clauses. This claim about the “Pinckney Draught” sparked two centuries of heated controversy. Based on the lack of documentation, most historians think that Pinckney overstated his contributions but also agree that he was a vital and influential participant.
Pinckney was the second youngest delegate to the constitutional convention, yet he spoke out over one hundred times. Thus, as a young man on the national political stage, Pinckney displayed rare confidence, exceptional skill, and resourceful statesmanship. He was elected governor upon his return to South Carolina. Without delay, Pinckney guided the state’s leaders through the process of ratifying the United States Constitution and in framing a new state constitution. Pinckney served four terms as South Carolina governor. He also served in the United States Congress in both the Senate and House.
By 1795, Pinckney’s political ideology had shifted. Consequently, he founded the democratic party in South Carolina and managed Thomas Jefferson’s South Carolina political campaign. Once elected, Jefferson appointed Pinckney as Minister to Spain. He worked diligently in that capacity to negotiate the treaty to purchase Louisiana. Pinckney also urged the South Carolina legislature to support meaningful reforms including free public education for the state’s children. During his illustrious political career that covered South Carolina, the United States, and Spain, Pinckney proved himself one of the key political intellects of the nation’s foundational period.
Bibliographic Summary: Marty D. Matthews, Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), xvi, xix, 3, 55-6, 59-61, 84-6, 136, 138; Robert W. Blythe, Emily Kleine and Steve H. Moffson, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site: Historic Resources Study (U. S. National Park Service, 2000), 1-12; Charleston County Public Library, <www.ccpl.org>,s.v.”Charles Pinckney,” (accessed 06/03/11); History of Mount Pleasant, S.C. Sesquicentennial Souvenir Program (Mount Pleasant: Town of Mount Pleasant, 1987), 24-6.