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date: 26 February 2021

Pinckney, Charlesfree

(26 October 1757–29 October 1824)
  • Robert M. Weir

Pinckney, Charles (26 October 1757–29 October 1824), politician and statesman, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Charles Pinckney, a leading lawyer and planter, and Frances Brewton. Educated in Charleston, Pinckney was enrolled in the Middle Temple in London on 4 May 1773, but prerevolutionary tensions prevented his attendance. Instead, he read law in Charleston with his father. In 1779 Pinckney was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives by, he later said, the unanimous vote of the only two people willing to brave bad weather in Christ Church Parish on voting day—himself and the supervisor of the election. Pinckney also served as a junior officer in the Charleston regiment of militia and, as such, saw action at the abortive American siege of Savannah in October 1779 and the equally unsuccessful defense of Charleston during the following spring.

When Charleston surrendered to British forces on 12 May 1780, Pinckney became a prisoner of war on parole, free to move about the city. A year later, however, the British commandant at Charleston confined a number of militiamen, including Pinckney, on prison ships in retaliation for the mistreatment of Loyalists by Americans. Threats of counter-retaliation by American commanders soon produced a change in British policy, and Pinckney was probably among the prisoners released and sent to Philadelphia during the summer of 1781. He was certainly in Philadelphia in early 1782 when the South Carolina legislature convened at Jacksonborough, a hamlet south of British-occupied Charleston. The “Jacksonborough Assembly” enacted legislation punishing Loyalists and those who, like Pinckney’s father, had sworn allegiance to the Crown during the British occupation of South Carolina. When Charles the elder died later in the year, Pinckney accordingly inherited an estate encumbered by a 12 percent punitive amercement. His inheritance was still sufficient, however, to make him a low-country planter and slaveholder as well as a very wealthy man.

Elected in 1784 to the South Carolina legislature, which in turn elected him a delegate to Congress, Pinckney spent much of the 1780s in Philadelphia. During 1784–1785 his membership on several committees appointed to consider questions concerning the western territories gave him an appreciation of the potential importance of these areas. In 1785 Pinckney accordingly opposed the tentative Jay-Gardoqui agreement by which the United States would give up the right to navigate the Mississippi River in return for a commercial treaty with Spain.

Pinckney supported measures to increase the authority of the central government, which, he believed, needed the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, as well as more reliable sources of revenue than the existing system of unenforceable requisitions upon the states. As early as 1783 he published pamphlets advocating revisions in the Articles of Confederation to give Congress greater powers in these areas, and in March 1786 he became part of a three-man delegation to remonstrate with the New Jersey legislature, which had refused to pay its quota to Congress. Pinckney’s speech to the legislators was sufficiently effective that they reversed themselves. Two months later he proposed that the Articles of Confederation be revised; he was chairman of the resulting committee, which suggested several amendments. These proposals would have given Congress the power to regulate foreign and domestic commerce, set duties on imports and exports, and enforce payment of its requisitions by the states. Congress would also have been authorized to establish a court to hear appeals from state courts in cases involving federal matters. The Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia overtook these efforts, but they made Pinckney one of the most prominent advocates of change in Congress. They also contributed to the decision by officials at Princeton University to award Pinckney, as well as James Madison, an honorary degree in 1787.

Pinckney was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that year, and some historians have maintained that his contribution to the convention rivaled Madison’s. Like the Virginian, Pinckney prepared for the meeting and submitted a plan for a stronger federal government. But, unlike the Virginia Plan, Pinckney’s never became the focus of extended discussion on the floor of the convention, though the Committee of Detail—under the chairmanship of Pinckney’s fellow South Carolinian, John Rutledge—compiled the first draft of the Constitution and did have a copy. No authentic version of Pinckney’s plan appears to have survived, but attempts at reconstruction suggest that it may have contained as many as forty-three provisions that eventually appeared in the Constitution itself, including a two-house legislature, a single executive termed the president, and congressional power to regulate interstate commerce Parallels do not, however, prove origins; Pinckney could have been more prescient than influential. Still, he spoke more than 100 times and was one of the most conspicuous members of the convention. His remarks were not always consistent, but most of them envisioned the creation of an aristocratic republic with an active central government. At one point, he even advocated a congressional veto over state legislation. The national legislature should elect the president, he believed, and both should meet high property qualifications.

Pinckney also recommended that state legislatures, not the people at large, elect members of the lower house as well as the Senate. Slaves should count equally with free persons in allocating the number of representatives for each state, and both slavery and the slave trade should be protected. “If slavery be wrong,” he observed, “it is justified by the example of all the world.” A more thoroughgoing nationalist than the other members of the South Carolina delegation, he nevertheless remained a champion of the slaveholding interests. He was also an elitist who, somewhat incongruously but perceptively, observed that Americans enjoyed a greater degree of equality than perhaps any other civilized people in the world.

Pinckney’s understanding of the nature of American society presaged the direction of his political development. Returning to South Carolina after the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention, he continued courting Mary Eleanor Laurens, whom he married in 1788 and with whom he would have three children. Meanwhile, beginning in January of that year, he opened the debate over the Constitution both in the state legislature and at the ratifying convention. Both speeches were powerful arguments for the Constitution, but the second address also demonstrated a real effort to reach the less educated members of his audience. Brief service in the South Carolina privy council and the general assembly preceded the first of Pinckney’s four terms as governor (1789–1791, 1791–1792, 1796–1798, and 1806–1808). During the first term, he also acted as president of the convention that adopted the state constitution of 1790. Moving away from his earlier elitism, Pinckney in 1798 urged the legislature to establish a system of public schools. And in 1808 he supported constitutional amendments that gave western areas of the state greater representation in the state legislature and extended suffrage to white adult males.

Meanwhile, he became the leading South Carolinian in the national Republican party. During Washington’s first administration, Pinckney requested but failed to receive a diplomatic post, though his cousins Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney were offered positions. By 1795 Pinckney was disenchanted enough with the Federalists on both personal and political grounds to publicly denounce the pending Jay Treaty with Great Britain, which the administration supported. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1798, Pinckney used this forum to attack Federalist policies. Returning to South Carolina, he campaigned for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in the presidential election of 1800, even though his kinsman Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was the Federalist candidate for vice president. Twenty-four essays by “A Republican” published in the local newspapers were the most conspicuous part of Pinckney’s activities, but personal contact with legislators who made the final choice of presidential electors may have been as effective. Jefferson carried South Carolina and soon thereafter appointed Pinckney minister to Spain, where he was instrumental in obtaining Spanish acquiescence in the French sale of Louisiana to the United States in 1803. However, he failed when he exceeded his instructions and demanded that Spain cede Florida to the United States.

Returning to South Carolina, he again became governor in 1806. As such, he supported the administration’s commercial embargo designed to force Great Britain into recognizing American rights. During the War of 1812, Pinckney served in the state legislature. He “retired” from politics in 1814 but successfully ran for Congress four years later to prevent the election of a Federalist. While in Washington he participated in the debates over the admission of Missouri to statehood in 1820. Although only one of many southern representatives who spoke against attempts to prohibit slavery there, Pinckney enjoyed a special status as one of the few surviving members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where, he maintained, “it was an agreed point” that Congress would never “be authorized to touch the question of slavery.” His remarks thus foreshadowed many of the southern arguments of the later antebellum years. He did not seek reelection but returned to Charleston, where he died.

Termed “Blackguard Charlie” by those who mistrusted him, Pinckney’s personal conduct and political principles alienated him from his Federalist relatives. Tangled financial affairs contributed to his delay in meeting some obligations, and by the late 1790s, if not before, he had developed a reputation as a womanizer. Perhaps the death of his young wife in 1794 made him careless about such things.

Conspicuously ambitious and prone to overstate his own accomplishments, Pinckney failed to impress some contemporaries. But he had ability and an optimistic faith in the political and economic future of a developing nation in which (white) men were uniquely equal. To develop their potential, he believed at the time of the Constitutional Convention, the states needed a more “energetic” central government; by the time of the Missouri Compromise, he was convinced that the United States could profit from the example of South Carolina, where members of a social and economic elite, like himself, dominated an ostensibly democratic, harmoniously functioning political system. His ability to envision such a state of affairs doubtless made it easier for him to work with new men in politics, while his skill in appealing to outsiders made him the founder of a new style of popular politics and the leading figure of the Republican party in South Carolina.


No single large collection of Pinckney papers exists, but much relevant material can be found in the Pinckney family collections at the Library of Congress, South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, and the South Carolina Library at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History (Columbia) has the governor’s numerous messages to the legislature as well as other manuscript material. The Theodore Jervey and Frances Leigh Williams collections at the South Carolina Historical Society contain notes about Pinckney by two informed historians. Pinckney’s participation in the Constitutional Convention can be followed in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, rev. ed. (4 vols., 1966), and James Hutson, ed., Supplement to Max Farrand’s “The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787” (1987); volume three contains a careful reconstruction of Pinckney’s plan of government. Pinckney himself published and republished many of his writings and speeches in both newspaper and pamphlet form. Guidance to this scattered material may be found in the citations to Mark Kaplanoff, “Charles Pinckney and the American Republican Tradition,” in Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston, ed. Michael O’Brien and David Moltke-Hansen (1986), which also provides the most complete treatment of his political thought. William S. Elliott, “Founders of the American Union—Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina,” DeBow’s Review, n.s., 1 (1866): 372–77, contains information unavailable elsewhere as well as some errors. Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 (1986), gives Pinckney high marks for his contribution to the Constitution and cites the older literature on the subject. Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985), is more critical. Harold Wolfe, Jeffersonian Democracy in South Carolina (1940), remains valuable on Pinckney’s role in the Republican party, while Frances Leigh Williams, A Founding Family: The Pinckneys of South Carolina (1978), deals with his relationship to the rest of the family.