10 Facts: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney is one of South Carolina’s most significant and historic figures. Born into a prominent family, Pinckney served the Patriot cause as a legislator and military officer. After the war, Pinckney shaped the US Constitution and became one of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was born into one of the most prominent families.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was born in Charleston, South Carolina February 25, 1746, to a prominent family of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. His father, was Charles Pinckney (1699?–1758), a lawyer and member of the provincial council. His mother was Elizabeth (Eliza) Lucas, prominent for her effort to help introduce indigo cultivation which rapidly became a major cash crop in South Carolina.

The Pinckneys—Charles, his brother Thomas and Cousin Charles Pinckney represent one of the most important families of the founding period. No other founding family contributed three, such significant leaders, active in so many different areas of nation-building.

He received an excellent and varied education in Europe and America.

As a boy, Pinckney witnessed firsthand the close relationship between the colonial elite and the British. His father was the colony’s chief justice and also served as a member of its Royal Council. In 1753 the family moved to London where the elder Pinckney served as the colony’s agent. Young Pinckney received private tutoring before entering the prestigious Westminster preparatory school. Three years later he matriculated at both Christ Church College, Oxford, and at the Middle Temple in London to study law. He continued his education for another year after becoming a lawyer in 1769. He studied botany and chemistry in France and briefly attended the famous French military academy at Caen.

Pinckney joined the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Militia before the Revolutionary War.

Pinckney returned home to participate in the commercial and political life of the colony. He entered public service, representing St. John’s Colleton Parish during the remainder of royal rule. To supplement his plantation income he launched a successful career as a lawyer and joined the socially elite 1st Regiment of South Carolina militia. In 1770 he won a seat for the first time in the state legislature, and in 1773 he served briefly as a regional attorney general. By early 1775, Pinckney was a member of all the important revolutionary committees. He advocated for the preparation of Charleston harbor defenses against potential British attack and supported training a rebel army.

Pinckney served the Patriot cause as both a legislator and military officer during the Revolutionary War.

Pinckney stood with the Patriots when war between the colonies and the mother country finally erupted in 1775. He served in the Provincial Congresses and in the Council of Safety that supervised affairs when the legislature was not in session. During this period Pinckney played an especially important role in those legislative committees that organized the state’s military defenses.

In 1776, Colonel Pinckney volunteered for military service as a full-time regular officer in the Continental Army. Pinckney set out to join Washington near Philadelphia. He arrived in 1777, just in time to participate in the important military operations centered around Brandywine and Germantown. Pinckney’s sojourn on Washington’s staff was especially significant to his development as a national leader after the war. It allowed him to associate with key officers of the Continental Army, men like Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, who, beginning as military comrades, would become important political allies in the later fight for a strong national government.

In 1778 Pinckney returned to South Carolina to resume command of his own regiment just as the state experienced a new threat from the British. Major General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the Southern Department, placed Pinckney in command of one of his Continental brigades. Pinckney participated in the unsuccessful assault on Savannah by the Americans and their French allies in October 1779, and then in a gallant but equally unsuccessful defense of Charleston in 1780.

Charles Cotesworth Pickney became a prisoner of war in May 1780.

Pinckney participated in the 1780 defense of Charleston against the British siege. He commanded the garrison at Fort Moultrie, which fell to the British without a fight on May 7, and became a prisoner of war. The British placed Pinckney under house arrest at Snee Farm along with General William Moultrie.

Pinckney was one of the ranking officers in a prison camp established at Shell Hall, a home owned by his cousin Charles Pinckney on Haddrell’s Point in Charleston Harbor. There he played a key role in frustrating British efforts to subvert the loyalty of the captured troops, who suffered terribly from disease and privation. Pinckney was exchanged in Philadelphia in 1782.

Pinckney faced many personal and economic challenges after the war.

Pinckney turned his attention to his law practice and plantations, seeking to recover from serious financial losses suffered while on active service. He returned to the lower house of the South Carolina legislature and became an advocate of the landed elite of the South Carolina Lowcountry, who dominated the state’s government during this period. Though close friends with fellow legislator Edward Rutledge, Pinckney opposed Rutledge’s attempts to end the importation of slaves, arguing that South Carolina’s economy required the continual infusion of new slaves.

Once again he became active in the state militia, rising to the rank of major general. During these years he also endured personal tragedy: his wife Sarah died in 1784, and he was wounded the following year in a duel with Daniel Huger, an event that would later lead him to advocate laws against dueling.

Pinckney played a central role in shaping the United States Constitution.

Pinckney made no secret of his concern over what he saw as a dangerous drift in national affairs. He was one of those leaders of national vision who preached that the promises of the Revolution could never be realized unless the states banded together for their mutual political, economic, and military well-being. In recognition of his forceful leadership, he was chosen as a reprehensive of the state at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Pinckney agreed that the nation needed a strong central government and worked for a carefully designed system of checks and balances to protect the citizen from the tyranny.

He defended the interests of southern slaveholding planters and argued for the retention of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He exerted influence in such matters as the power of the Senate to ratify treaties. He joined the other Southern delegates and voted for the Constitution only after a compromise that protected the institution of slavery was inserted into the document. Returning home, he worked diligently to secure South Carolina’s ratification of the new Constitution. In 1790 he participated in a convention that drafted a new South Carolina Constitution.

Pinckney saw the irony between the pursuit of American freedom and the practice of slavery, but continued to own slaves himself.

Pinckney also commented on the irony and duality of American freedom and American slavery when he said, “Bills of rights generally begin with declaring that all men are by nature born free. Now, we should make that declaration with a very bad grace, when a large part of our property consists in men who are actually born slaves.”

In 1801, Pinckney owned about 250 slaves. When his daughter Eliza married, Pinckney gave her fifty slaves. On his death, he bequeathed his remaining slaves to his daughters and nephews.

Pinckney was the US Minister to France during the period leading to the Quasi-War.

Pinckney accepted the post of Minister to France in 1796. He assumed the position during a difficult time in Franco-American relations. When he arrived to present his credentials to the French government, the French informed him that no American minister would be recognized during the current crisis.

The next year, President John Adams appointed Pinckney to a commission to negotiate a treaty with the French government. The French Revolutionary government demanded a bribe before agreeing to open negotiations about French interference with American shipping. Pinckney refused, broke off all discussion and returned home. This episode of Franco-American hostility, became known as the XYZ Affair and led to the Quasi-War with France.

Pinckney remained active in public affairs until his death in 1825.

In 1800, Pinckney intended to retire. However, he once again became deeply involved in national and state politics. He ran unsuccessfully for Vice President on the Federalist ticket in 1800. In 1804 and 1808, he was the Federalist candidate for president. He defeated in presidential races won by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He also served for two terms in the South Carolina senate.

For the rest of his life, Pinckney engaged in legal practice, served at times in the legislature, and engaged in civic and philanthropic activities in Charleston. From 1805 until his death in 1825, Pinckney was president-general of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former officers of the War for Independence. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1789 and a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1813. Pinckney died on August 16, 1825, and was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina.

His tomb bears an inscription that captures the essence of his loyalty to the highest national aspirations and standards of his period: “One of the founders of the American Republic. In war he was a companion in arms and friend of Washington. In peace he enjoyed his unchanging confidence.