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Page Updated 01/30/2022

Did John Rutledge Become a Lawyer Without Law Degree?


He sure did become a lawyer without law school, since there pretty much weren’t any. Born in 1739 in South Carolina, former Governor and Chief Justice John Rutledge had a total of six younger siblings, including Andrew Rutledge, Thomas Rutledge, Sarah Rutledge, Hugh Rutledge, Mary Rutledge, and Edward Rutledge.

He was a man who played an important role in the Declaration of Independence, was part of the first Continental Congress, and the drawing up of the South Carolina constitution made him Governor. John took an interest in becoming a lawyer from an early age, and by the age of 17, he started to read law.

Journey to Pursue a Legal Career

John studied law (reading for the law) for two years under James Parsons before heading to London’s Middle Temple to seek legal education. During his time in England, John Rutledge won several cases, which was remarkable for a student at the time. Soon after finishing his studies in London, John returned to Charleston, where he started his thriving law practice, leading to immense wealth.

At the time, lawyers in the United States had an uncertain future since many only gained a reputation after taking on several significant cases. Many would fight to emerge as leading lawyers, but for John, the success came instantaneously, making him one of the most prominent lawyers in South Carolina when he got into the South Carolina bar in 1761. From 1761 to 1775, John Rutledge was a South Carolina Commons House member representing the Stamp Act Congress. He became a prominent figure in the Stamp Act Congress in mid-1765.

Appointed as President of South Carolina

In 1776, Rutledge became the president of South Carolina and soon prepared a new government and a strong defense against the British, who had control over parts of America. He ordered the construction of Fort Sullivan, controlled a strong militia, and with a strategic mindset, he defended Charleston against the attacks of the Red Coats. In 1778, Rutledge resigned from his position as President of South Carolina after he failed at vetoing the South Carolina legislature for proposing a new South Carolina constitution. However, a few months later, he represented South Carolina as Governor.

Appointed to the South Carolina Court of Chancery

Soon after Rutledge resigned from the presidency, the British took over South Carolina with around 3,000 men. By 1779, the Britishers drew a new constitution for South Carolina, and during this time, Rutledge became the 31st Governor of the state. Rutledge sent troops to the south to attack the British. However, despite the constant efforts, the British forces outnumbered the Americans. In 1780, the Red Coats struck South Carolina once again to take over, which created immense chaos in Charleston. The legislature gave Rutledge all the power to take control of the situation, and in a last bid attempt to save the city, Rutledge started to raise a militia.

Sir Henry Clinton reached Charleston with more than 5,000 soldiers, and in a few months, Clinton garnered loyalists and other traitors pushing the count to 9,000 loyal troops. As Charleston surrendered, Rutledge fled the city and remained the Governor of the part of South Carolina that was not conquered and gathered the South Carolina Assembly. In 1782, John’s tenure at the office finished as he reached his term limits.

Constitutional Convention

After leaving the office of Governor of South Carolina, John Rutledge served in the Continental Congress until 1783, and a year later, he got assigned to the South Carolina Court of Chancery. In 1787, John attended the Philadelphia Convention as a representative of South Carolina. However, it soon became the Constitutional Convention as it was in this place where the Constitution was written and signed.

Other High Offices

Rutledge went on to become President of South Carolina up until 1778. It was then that the South Carolina legislature proposed a new constitution, which Rutledge vetoed. He rightly believed it would move his sovereign state dangerously close to a mob democracy, on the road to total anarchy. When the veto was overridden by the legal authority (legislature overrode him), he resigned

Rutledge and the United States Supreme Court

In 1790, Rutledge was appointed to the United States Supreme Court as an associate justice by President George Washington, and after one year of service, he resigned in 1791 to become Chief Justice of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas (similar to South Carolina Supreme Court). In 1795, John Jay, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the time, resigned to take his position as the Governor of New York. This meant that there was a vacancy in the apex court, and George Washington was once again eyeing Rutledge to take John Jay’s place.

Things did not work out for Rutledge, as he was an outspoken person, willing to speak against what he felt was wrong. John Rutledge went against the Jay Treaty, causing him to lose a lot of support from the Washington Administration. Rutledge took on two cases as a Chief Justice of the top court, and they were: United States v. Peters and Talbot v. Janson. John set an important precedent for multiple citizenships in the country. Rutledge wrote several opinions and Rutledge vetoed laws.

However, his rise to the Supreme Court would soon become his downfall. The public and officials portrayed his aggressive opinions and speeches as a case of mental health decline. Soon, rumors arose of alcohol abuse, and the Jay Treaty incident became evidence of his cognitive decline. In December 1975, Rutledge didn’t secure enough votes in the Senate, making him the first Supreme Court justice involuntarily removed from his seat. After two days of the decision, Rutledge resigned from the court, marking the end of his legal career.

The John Rutledge House Inn

After his disastrous Jay Treaty’s speech that removed him from his seat, an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and resignation from the apex court, John stayed away from the public by heading to his home in Charleston. He died at the age of 60 in 1800 with his burial taking place at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Before his death, John Rutledge sold one of his Charleston’s homes (built-in 1763) in 1790, which was then renovated in 1989 to become a four-star hotel by John Rutledge House Inn. Today, it has become an excellent place for history fanatics to stay since it is set in the historic district of Charleston.

To know more about different types of law and other aspects of the legal field, our Ehline Law website has all of the information you need. Written and run by California catastrophic injury attorney Michael Ehline, we know a thing or two about becoming a lawyer without law school or college. Are you have a tort exam in law school and need help, contact us.

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