2009-09-24 / Editorial Page

Across The Savannah

Penance In A Bygone Era
By TOM POLAND tompol@earthlink.net

Back in elementary school, I learned that Abraham Baldwin and William Few signed the Constitution for Georgia. Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton signed the Declaration of Independence for Georgia. We had to memorize historical lore like that.

As a boy, I viewed these men as something a bit unreal ... men wearing powdered wigs ... shadowy mirages that took their place alongside Plymouth Rock and blunderbusses, something from another era altogether. Men such as these had to have descendants but I'd never meet them. Or so I thought.

Then one of those moments you never forget took place. A friend I hadn't seen in a long time waved at me in a restaurant. I walked over to speak to her and she introduced me to her friend, Malinda. "What do you do for a living," Malinda asked.

"I write."

"Thank God," she said, "my prayers are answered. I have a story to tell." I didn't know it, but a journey into a distinguished family's past, 200 years deep, was about to unfold. Malinda asked me to write about her ancestors. In the process, I was about to draw back the curtain long hiding the private lives of aristocracy.

On a sultry, August afternoon in 1958, Malinda Rutledge-Carlisle's father closed the family home in Greenville, South Carolina. Within that home sat an old chest filled with papers, books, and relics. The old chest's contents were transferred to boxes that ended up in the family's new home in Columbia. Though they were off limits to Malinda as a child, her father often cautioned her: "Don't ever throw those boxes away."

As an only child, it fell upon Malinda to clean out her parents' home when they died. In her parents' garage, the catchall for collectibles from their antique business, among silk flower arrangements and tools, beneath a veneer of dust, sat the boxes her father had told her to never throw away.

"Today, I understand why my father kept me away from the boxes," said Malinda. "I am the last descendant in a line originating with John Rutledge, the family patriarch. The boxes hold something rare—my family history, a story written in blood, sweat, and tears. I am getting at last to know my relatives."

Yes, at last. The yellow parchments held secrets all right. The penmanship arrests the eye, handwriting so beautiful it rivals Edwardian Script. The penmanship can't hide the sadness, however, of lives gone wrong. Poignant words pour forth from Malinda's great, great, great, great grandmother, a woman whose life today would be the stuff of tabloids.

Sarah Motte Smith Rutledge had it all: beauty, wealth, a prominent father, an aristocratic, influential husband, and children, but life in the early 1800s proved unforgiving for lapses in love. War, bad luck, fire, hurricanes, time itself could have destroyed Sarah's sad letters, but they didn't. And that brings us to a story within the story, the plight Malinda's ancestral grandmother suffered.

The Rutledge name is well known throughout South Carolina. Edward signed the Declaration of Independence and John signed the Constitution. More importantly he chaired the committee that wrote the Constitution. Some historians feel John Rutledge, in fact, may have been the driving force behind Jefferson's role in crafting the Constitution.

John and Edward served as governors of South Carolina at critical junctures. All this history is well known, but now we get a glimpse into the lives behind that history.

As Malinda opened letter after letter and other documents she realized she had manuscripts from four generations. In these manuscripts, her ancestors exposed their most personal emotions in raw and sensitive circumstances during trials, the Revolution, the Mexican War, and War Between the States.

At the ripe old age of 15, Sarah Motte Smith married General John Rutledge Jr. The marriage appears to be one of political and financial convenience. Sarah was the daughter of the first Anglican Bishop of South Carolina and Rector of St. Phillips Church in Charleston, the Right Reverend Robert Smith. The Smith family gave the young couple a wedding gift, Poplar Grove, a retreat near Savannah.

John Rutledge Jr., the son of John Rutledge and nephew of Edward Rutledge, was born in Charleston. A planter, lawyer, and member of the State House of Representatives, he was elected to Congress. He commanded a company of the Twentyeighth Regiment, South Carolina Militia, serving as its commander in the War of 1812. He was a powerful man but his marriage of connections came with a price.

In 1804, in Charleston, Rutledge discovered his wife in an illicit rendezvous with Dr. Haratio Senter of Newport, Rhode Island, a reversal of what we are accustomed to seeing from today's breed of politicians.

Malinda is hesitant to discuss her family's skeletons, literally in this instance. "I really am at loss for calling the other person Sarah Motte Smith's 'lover,' " said Malinda, "but I believe that is what history has made of this. Still, there will be no character destruction or assassination on my part when it comes to my great, great, great, great grandmother."

Duels settled many an affair of honor back then. Although Rutledge had expressed anti-duel sentiment— the hope that the South Carolina legislature would "establish some manner of settling disputes less gothic"— he nonetheless engaged in one. Leaving South Carolina, he crossed the state line into Georgia and shot Dr. Senter at Poplar Grove.

The Chatham County, Georgia, archives, reveal that Senter, who was 25, "died January 19, 1804, from lockjaw occasioned by wound." He was buried January 20. "Wounded in duel with Honble. John Rutledge, Esq."

The scandal took its toll. In 1809, the couple legally separated and never lived together again. A divorce, however, was out of the question. People in the colonial South viewed divorce as a total disaster.

Sarah moved to Liverpool, England, never to live with her family again. Adrift in the sorrow of walking away from her children and her life in South Carolina, she wrote and received heartrending letters from her children caught in the middle, just as they are today. Sarah moved again, to Paris. Needing money, exiled from her family, and doubting herself, she buried her sorrows in religious readings and in asking for forgiveness for the tragedy, the duel.

She signed her name in The Rise and Progress of the Religion in the Soul, By Phillip Doddridge, D.D., a book that made a great impact on John Newton, author of the hymn "Amazing Grace." Sarah marked a quote in this book: "I beseech you reader, whoever you are, that you would look seriously into your heart and ask it this one plain question— Am I truly religious. Is the love of God the governing principle of my life? Do I truly walk under a sense of his presence?"

John Rutledge Jr. died as a married man in Philadelphia in 1819. Sarah died in Liverpool on January 14, 1852, still married herself. Six months after she died, however, the divorce decree was issued on July 10, 1852. Sarah Motte Smith Rutledge finally received her divorce, among the first American divorces in the Anglican Church of America and possibly the first Anglican divorce in South Carolina. None other than the Archbishop Of Canterbury granted this final, posthumous act.

That was more than 200 years ago. A lot of things have changed in this world, but human behavior remains remarkably consistent, for better and worse.

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns. tompol@ earthlink.net

Return to top