- Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney
With this biography of South Carolina politician and planter Charles Pinckney (1757–1824), Marty Matthews seeks to place Pinckney within the cohort of esteemed American founders. Parts of Pinckney's career justify this ambition, and Pinckney rightly merits more scholarly and public attention than he typically receives. Pinckney's career in public life ran from the Confederation Congress through the Missouri Crisis. Along the way he fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War, represented his state at the Constitutional Convention, presided over South Carolina's ratification process, played a central role in revising the state's constitution, served several terms as governor, was the U.S. minister to Spain, and finished his career in the U.S. House of Representatives. [End Page 294]
But several matters undercut Matthews's efforts. First, few sources remain, and those that do are heavily weighted to Pinckney's public statements. Even Pinckney's personal thoughts regarding his political career remain largely unknowable. Readers glimpse only enough of Pinckney's private life to intrigue but not enough to satisfy. Little is revealed—little apparently can be revealed—of Pinckney's famous relatives, his marriage to the daughter of Henry Laurens, the family he made with her, and his kin ties to other prominent low-country elites. Matthews includes a chapter on Pinckney's childhood and youth, but the dearth of relevant sources leads the author to make extensive (sometimes questionable) speculations. He imagines, for instance, that the Stamp Act Crisis "must have made a strong impression" on the nine-year-old boy (8). He depicts Pinckney as a young soldier heading home to Charlestown after a searing military defeat "in a state of near shock" (17). Plausible, but not provable. When at his best, Matthews rises to the challenge of his evidentiary limitations and crafts a broader-based narrative of revolutionary and early national America than he might have done had Pinckney been a more prolific writer or a more attentive guardian of his papers. Matthews often offers intriguing and expansive descriptions of political intrigues and social values. In other instances, he overreaches in his efforts to fill voids in the historical record. On several occasions, for example, Matthews speculates that Pinckney's grasping, self-interested personality derived from a deep-seated shame over his father's behavior during the Revolutionary War. Although initially a patriot, the elder Pinckney capitulated to British pressure during the occupation of Charlestown, in effect renouncing the American cause. Once patriot victory was achieved, Pinckney's father paid—with a stiff fine and with his reputation—for what many perceived as cowardice and disloyalty. Although no evidence exists to indicate how the son felt about his father's actions, Matthews makes this controversy central to Pinckney's character and the basis for occasionally excusing egotistical behavior.
Matthews faces an uphill battle in his attempt to rehabilitate Pinckney's reputation, for the Carolinian's character was questionable at best. Pinckney squandered his estate through extravagance and inattention and then blamed his troubles on a cousin. Numerous creditors sued him for unpaid debts, and he was publicly disgraced for his malfeasance. A near-shameless self-promoter in an age that prized disinterestedness, Pinckney actively sought out governmental appointments from George Washington (who repeatedly rebuffed the Carolinian), Thomas Jefferson, [End Page 295] and James Madison (who disliked and distrusted him). Pinckney lied about being the youngest delegate at the Constitutional Convention. It was widely known among the founding generation that he exaggerated his intellectual contribution at the Philadelphia meeting. In 1818, in response to a request from John Quincy Adams for a copy of the "Pinckney draft" (a plan of government he presented in Philadelphia), Pinckney produced an obviously fraudulent version. Madison convincingly denied its authenticity and indicated that the 1818 text borrowed heavily from the Virginia plan. During the Missouri debates, Pinckney was caught in an abandoned building with a prostitute—the nadir, presumably, of a life riddled by reputational...