In the time and distance it took to walk to the other side of the bar—12 seconds and 24 feet—a journey into a distinguished family’s past, 200 years deep, would be mine.
It started with a smile and a wave. A pretty woman I’d long known looked my way and beckoned and I walked over to a group of women. Within 30 seconds, a slender brunette with stylish short hair, Malinda, asked a question. “What do you do for a living?”
“Thank God,” she said, “my prayers are answered. I have a story to tell.”
And with that my journey began.
On a hot 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 stuff more fortunate families come down to. 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.”
Time passed, her parents aged, and both passed within the last year. As an only child, it fell upon Malinda to clean out her parents’ home. And so she turned to her parents’ garage, the catchall for the collectibles from their antique business. There among the 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, and I have a story to tell. 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 long last.
The yellow parchments hold secrets. The penmanship arrests the eye, handwriting so beautiful it rivals Edwardian Script. The embellished language reminds us that the Colonial era was steeped in formality. The penmanship and formality can’t hide the sadness, however, of lives gone wrong. Poignant words pour forth from a woman whose life today would be the stuff of Internet rumors, tabloids, and possibly the silver screen. No doubt, People and “ET” would love a story like hers given the celebrity status she and her husband would hold today … were they alive.
Sarah Motte Smith Rutledge had it all: beauty, wealth, a prominent father, an aristocratic, influential husband, and children, but life can be cruel, especially in the early 1800s, an unforgiving era for lapses in love. Temptations existed then as they do today, but there was a harsher price to pay back then: exile.
Sarah’s tryst and long-hidden guilt comes to light 200 years later, thanks to a remarkable discovery by South Carolina resident, Malinda Rutledge-Carlisle, the last descendant of patriarch John Rutledge.
The ravages of time—war, bad luck, fire, hurricanes, time itself—could have destroyed Sarah’s sad story, but they didn’t. And that brings us to a story within the story—an archaeological discovery of sorts.
The Rutledge Chronicles
The Rutledge name is well known throughout South Carolina. Brothers John and Edward played an immense role in this country’s birth. Edward signed the Declaration of Independence (the youngest signer, in fact) and John signed the Constitution but more importantly he chaired the committee that actually wrote the Constitution. Given his language skills, some historians feel John Rutledge may have been the driving force behind Jefferson’s role in crafting the document that has long held the United States together.
John and Edward distinguished themselves, serving as governors of South Carolina at critical junctures. All this history is well known; it’s the stuff of school assignments, but now we get a personal glimpse into the lives behind that history.
The old boxes held secrets all right. As Malinda kept opening letter after letter and other documents she realized she had manuscripts from four generations. “From 1793 to the early 1900s, I had personal letters, ledgers, journals, maps, and books from periods of history I could only read about,” said Malinda. “I saw the extreme difficulties our nation faced and the history of my family and the contributions it made during some very difficult periods.”
Malinda’s decision to share these intimate portraits did not come easily. The letters of her ancestors expose their most personal emotions in raw and sometimes sensitive circumstances. Their words express their experiences during trials, the Revolution, the Mexican War, and War Between the States. Their personal wars, however, stand out, reminding us that then as now, affairs of the heart, form the core of life.
At the ripe old age of 15, Sarah Motte Smith married the son of John Rutledge, General John Rutledge Jr. The marriage on December 26, 1792, appears to be a marriage of political and financial convenience. Sarah, born August 27, 1777, 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 in 1766. He studied law with his father and practiced in Charleston. A planter and member of the State House of Representatives, he was elected as a Federalist to the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Congresses. He commanded a company of the Twenty-eighth Regiment, South Carolina Militia, was promoted to major, and succeeded to the command of the regiment in 1804, serving as its commander in the War of 1812. He was a powerful man in his day but his marriage of connections and convenience came with a price.
Though the marriage produced six children, it ended in scandal. In 1804, in Charleston, Rutledge discovered his wife in an illicit rendezvous with Dr. Haratio Senter of Newport, Rhode Island. It could not have been easy for Rutledge, a man of power, to discover his wife having a lover.
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.”
Duel, Death, & Divorce
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 1923 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 marriage did not survive this public scandal. In 1809, the couple legally separated and never lived together again. A divorce, however, was out of the question. Or was it? People in the colonial South, a male-dominated era, viewed divorce as a total disaster.
“Divorce In Antebellum America,” a report by Nic Marino of the University of Georgia, reveals that divorce was, indeed, a rare thing. “The process of divorce was lengthy, involving the entire state legislature in its granting. Community expectations and ideals, especially in the South, made the entire process even more complex. If a plantation wife could easily divorce her husband, it would illustrate the power of a woman over a man, thus emasculating the ultimate symbol of authority.”
Though still married to Rutledge, Sarah went to Liverpool, England, to save her name. She never lived with her family again. Separation and loneliness became her companions. Constantly 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. And money, of course, was an issue. Sarah’s son, John Rutledge IV, had the unfortunate role of financial go between.
Charleston, December 10, 1826: John Rutledge IV writes his mother who needs money. Caught between his father and mother, he chooses his words with caution. “I have heard from you repeatedly, my dear Mother, of late with complaints of the procrastination of your semi-annual remittance which should have been forwarded to you in July last. It was altogether the banker’s intention to make a payment ($1,000) or to move money on the first of June to cover the late amount overdue. You must not be influenced by any thing that I have done; whatever you do, let it be an act of your own.”
Sarah replies to her son with motherly advice: “Nothing can be more gratifying to a parent than to instill kindness, attention and affection as that is what is required to sustain.”
Sarah moved to Paris where concerns arose that her husband would send alimony and the estate settlement to the appropriate financial institution.
Charleston, 5th of July 1827: John Rutledge IV writes … “Dear Mother, I have received your letter of the 14th of April requesting me to remit your next semi-annual payment in bills on a house in Paris. Enclosed is a fifth of the exchange for 4,725 francs, which is equal to $900 in Paris, payable to you. I have remitted you the above in compliance to your wishes and instructions given to me in a letter from you dated London, Dec. 30th, 1825, which I do most earnestly.”
Needing money, exiled from her family, and questioning herself, Sarah turned to scriptures and books. Remorseful for all that had transpired, she buried her sorrows in religious readings and in asking for forgiveness for the tragedy, the duel, that occurred.
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, the 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?”
She copied a telling quote from another book, Contemplations of the Sacred History, altered from the works of the Right Reverend Father Joseph Hall, D.D.
“However hard my God, thy terms appear, however as to sense afflicting and severe, to any articles I can agree, rather than bear the thoughts of losing thee, exact whatever thou with, will never past—nothing shall force thy image from my heart.”
They died apart. 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.