Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston (1758-1812)

By George C. Rogers | Go to book overview

VII
THE RISE OF THE CHARLESTON LAWYERS

L AWYERS HAD PLAYED a prominent part in the colonial Assembly, but as a group they had never wielded the power that they were to wield in the immediate post-Revolutionary period. The merchants had been the most powerful group in colonial Carolina, but the most successful merchants had steered their sons into the legal profession. It was only on the eve of the Revolution that Carolinians formed the largest group of Americans studying at the Inns of Court. Young men who had studied in England during the 1760's and 1770's came of age in South Carolina after the Revolution, and they dominated the scene. The new merchant class was largely alien in origin, while the lawyers were native-born, although educated abroad. These lawyers, therefore, provided a link between the new merchants and the old planters.

The most famous Charleston lawyer was John Rutledge (Middle Temple, 1754) -- a strange mixture of ability and pride.1 Rutledge was, as William Pierce put it, "one of those characters who was highly mounted at the commencement of the late revolution."2 As he was leaving Charleston to attend the First Continental Congress, John Pringle, who was then reading law in his office, described him as a man "of quick apprehension, sound judgment, much sagacity, and ready eloquence; tho he may not perhaps have had that extensive education and reading requisite to compleat the orator."3 The Revolution provided him with an opportunity to sharpen his talents, first in the Continental Congress, then as governor, and later as virtual dictator of the state.

In March 1784 Captain William Thompson was sent to the common jail for daring to insult the magnificent, marmoreal John Rutledge.4 The same year Rutledge was selected as the first chancellor

____________________
1
For all references to South Carolinians at the Inns of Court in this chapter see J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, "Southern Members of the Inns of Court," North Carolina Historical Review, X ( 1933), 279-280.
2
William Pierce, "Character Sketches of Delegates to the Federal Convention," Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand, New Haven, 1927, III, 96.
3
John Pringle to William Tilghman, July 30, 1774, Preston Davie Papers, SHC.
4
David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina, A Short History, 1520-1948 Chapel Hill, 1951, pp. 335-336.

-112-

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