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Charles Pinckney and the U. S. Constitution


For information about the Charles Pinckney Historic Site at Snee Farm you may visit the National Park Service web site.

In 1784, the General Assembly of South Carolina elected Charles Pinckney as one of the state's delegates to the Confederation Congress. Perhaps his election was in response to a series of three pamphlets, "The Three Letters to the Public," he had recently published. In these, he had argued for a permanent source of revenue for the federal government. He was 27 years old.

During his three years in Congress, Pinckney became even more aware of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. In 1786 and 1787 he actively supported the efforts in Congress to improve and strengthen the Confederation Congress. He chaired a Congressional committee that recommended seven amendments to the Articles. There were few who were as active as he in trying to enhance the powers of the government of the United States.

When New Jersey threatened to withdraw its financial support from the national government in 1786, Pinckney was one three Members of Congress sent to persuade the state's legislature not to withhold its funds. In addressing the legislature, Pinckney went further and suggested that New Jersey "urge the calling of a general convention of the states for the purpose of increasing the powers of the Federal government and rendering it more adequate for the ends for which it was instituted."

The South Carolinian was not alone in calling for a change in the country's government. By 1787, a consensus was beginning to develop throughout the United States that the Articles of Confederation simply didn't provide an adequate framework for the new nation. When Congress reluctantly agreed to call a Constitutional Convention to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787, Pinckney was a natural choice as a delegate.

South Carolina's General Assembly elected five wealthy lowcountry planters to represent the state: John Rutledge, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Henry Laurens, Charles Pinckney, and Pierce Butler. Laurens declined to serve, but the others went to Philadelphia.

Charles Pinckney, at 29, was the second youngest delegate in the Convention. Youth, however, did not prevent him from speaking out -- more than 100 times.

In evaluating his contributions, he has been ranked only behind fellow Carolinian John Rutledge, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut as "an influential" member of the convention. From the first day, Pinckney made his presence felt.

On May 25, 1787, a quorum of delegates from the various states assembled in Philadelphia. After electing Washington as the presiding officer, Charles Pinckney, Alexander Hamilton and George Wythe were appointed as a rules committee to establish the procedures under which the convention would operate.

Four days later, after the Virginia delegation presented its plan for a new constitution, Pinckney rose and addressed the convention. In his remarks he outlined his ideas for the new government. These comments would give rise to the controversial "Pinckney Draught" of the Constitution. Whether or not such a document exists is not as important as Pinckney's participation in the debates that helped shape the document that now governs us.

From the records of the convention, we know he spoke frequently... sometimes passionately; almost always eloquently. In June, he discussed the nature of the new nation: "Our true situation appears to be this -- a new extensive Country containing within itself the materials for forming a Government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil & religious liberty...[A] system [of government] that must be suited to the habits and genius of the People it is to govern, and must grow out of them."

When the draft of what would become Article VI was on the floor for discussion, Pinckney moved to add the following: "but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the United States." It was adopted.

On September 17, 1787, the convention completed its business and adjourned. Ten members of the Convention, including Charles Pinckney, were also members of the Confederation Congress still meeting in New York. While the delegates went home, Pinckney and the other congressmen hurried to New York. There they helped convince their fellows to approve the actions of the Constitutional Convention. Only eight days after the proposed Constitution had been presented, the Confederation Congress voted to send it as "a report" to the legislatures of the 13 states for ratification.

While in New York, Pinckney hastily assembled a pamphlet, "Observations on the Plan of Government Submitted to the Federal Convention in Philadelphia on May 28, 1787, by Charles Pinckney," that contained his arguments for a stronger federal government. When he returned home to South Carolina, the pamphlet was reprinted in the "State Gazette of South Carolina."

The General Assembly of South Carolina assembled in Charleston on January 8, 1788 for its regular session. However, it was not until January 16th that it began to debate "the report" sent to it by the Confederation Congress. When the issue was placed before the House of Representatives, Charles Pinckney was the first to speak. The legislature agreed to hold South Carolinas ratification convention in May.

When the delegates gathered in Charleston May 12, 1788, Charles Pinckney was the first to speak. His remarks attracted national attention and were reprinted in a Philadelphia-published periodical, the "American Magazine." After ten days of debate, on May 23, 1788, South Carolina's convention voted to ratify the Constitution.

In January 1789, the General Assembly elected Charles Pinckney Governor of South Carolina. It would fall to the newly-elected 31-year-old governor to establish precedents for the relationship between his state and the new United States government. One of his first duties was to administer the oath of office to the state's members of the electoral college, all seven of whom cast votes for George Washington.

Since the nation had a new constitution, the state's leadership thought that it needed one to replace the old revolutionary document of 1778. When the convention met in the new state capital, Columbia, Governor Pinckney, was elected its presiding officer. From the accounts of the convention, it is clear that he was as active in Columbia as he had been in Philadelphia -- frequently leaving the chair to participate in debate.

For the remaining years of his life, Charles Pinckney was involved in the effort to create a strong, vital government for South Carolina and the new United States. Never shy or hesitant, he was willing to write, speak, and work for that in which he believed.

Charles Pinckney's Background

Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) was born in Charleston, South Carolina; the son of Frances Brewton and Charles Pinckney. His father, a wealthy lawyer and planter, owned seven plantations scattered throughout the colony.

Snee Farm, which the elder Pinckney purchased in 1754, was one of the family's favorite country retreats. It is likely, that as a young man, Charles spent a great deal of time here. When President George Washington visited South Carolina on his 1791 tour of the Southern states, Pinckney invited him to have breakfast at Snee Farm.

Like his cousins and other members of South Carolina's colonial elite, Pinckney originally was enrolled in the Middle Temple in London to study law. The American Revolution intervened and, instead, he read law in Charleston and, in 1779, was admitted to the South Carolina bar.

At the age of 22 he began a forty-year career of public service as a member of the House of Representatives of the South Carolina General Assembly. He was elected to represent Christ Church Parish, the site of Snee Farm. During the Revolution, he was a lieutenant in the South Carolina militia. Captured by the British at the fall of Charleston in 1780, he was later exchanged as a prisoner of war.

Returning to South Carolina in 1784, Pinckney simultaneously served as a member of the General Assembly and was one of South Carolina's delegates to the Confederation Congress. As a member of Congress he became an early advocate for strengthening the nation's central government. When Congress called for the Constitutional Convention to meet in Philadelphia, he was one of the state's four delegates. He was an active member of the Convention, and afterwards, worked diligently for the ratification of the Constitution.

In South Carolina, he broke with his cousins and the Federalist Party and became one of Thomas Jeffersons's principal allies. Pinckney was instrumental in the formation of the Democratic-Republican Party in the state. As a reward, President Jefferson appointed him as Minister (ambassador) to Spain in 1801.

Pinckney's public service included four terms as Governor of South Carolina, two as U.S. Senator, and one as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Acknowledgements We express our thanks to Friends of Historic Snee Farm, the National Park Service, and Glenn Keyes Architects for permission to adapt these materials.