Inspiring Lives: Thomas Pinckney

Pinckney, Thomas (23 Oct. 1750-2 Nov. 1828), soldier and statesman, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Charles Pinckney and Elizabeth "Eliza" Lucas. Members of South Carolina's low-country landed aristocracy, his parents prepared him, his older brother, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and his sister, Harriott, for expected leadership roles in the colony's society. Because of limited educational opportunities, the parents moved to England in 1753, enrolling the boys in local academies. Threats of war with France, however, forced the elder Pinckneys to return with Harriott to South Carolina in 1754, leaving their sons in England. Unfortunately, the elder Charles Pinckney died two months after arriving at Charleston.

Despite the death of his father, Thomas Pinckney stayed in England for twenty-one years. He entered Westminster School in 1765 and Christ Church College, Oxford, in November 1768. The following month he was admitted to the Middle Temple for law studies. He traveled extensively on the Continent, spending most of the time in France where he studied rudimentary tactics at the military academy of Caen. Although these educational experiences followed the pattern of young English aristocrats, he was always considered by them a "colonial." So, after he was admitted to the bar in late 1774, he immediately sailed for home.

Shortly after his return to Charleston, Pinckney was admitted to the South Carolina bar and began a successful law practice. He soon became active in defending the colony's rights during the constitutional crisis of 1775 when the Second Continental Congress convened to protest the Intolerable Acts. In that year he was commissioned a lieutenant in a ranger company. He participated in the ill-fated 1778 Florida campaign, was promoted to major, and in late 1779 when the French fleet arrived off Savannah was sent as liaison to the Comte d'Estaing, the fleet's commander.

Pinckney suffered a severe financial loss after a British raiding party, invading from Georgia toward Charleston in May 1779, burned his plantation on the Ashepoo River and carried away his slaves. Everything was destroyed including his personal papers. Meanwhile he had been elected to the state legislature in 1778. In 1779 he married Elizabeth Motte, a member of another prominent South Carolina family. Four children were born of this marriage.

During the British siege of Charleston in 1780, Pinckney commanded part of the city's defenses. Sent north to locate expected relief forces, he thus avoided becoming a prisoner of war when the city fell. Joining George Washington's army, he served on the staff of General Horatio Gates and in 1780 fought at the battle of Camden, where he was severely wounded and captured. Later exchanged, he served at Yorktown.

After the war he was actively involved in the political and economic reconstruction of the state, as well as in recouping his fortunes by practicing law and rebuilding his plantation. He served two consecutive terms as governor of South Carolina in 1787 and 1788. He was a member of the state's constitutional convention of 1790. He favored a stronger national union and served as president of South Carolina's Constitutional Ratifying Convention in 1788. Despite postrevolutionary fears of powerful governors, he developed a good working relationship with the South Carolina General Assembly, enforcing stringent laws against criminals and moderating public reaction to returning Loyalists. He and his brother gradually became known as Federalists because of their support for Alexander Hamilton's programs to strengthen the national economy and commercial ties with Britain. Fearing he knew too little about international law and diplomatic practices, Pinckney reluctantly accepted George Washington's request to be U.S. minister to Great Britain in 1791.

On his arrival in England Pinckney confronted years of tension in Anglo-American affairs. An angry Washington had refused to send a formal representative to London until the British first sent their own to the United States. Many of the terms of the Peace Treaty of 1783, including Britain's promise to withdraw its garrisons from seven posts in American territory south of the Great Lakes, had not been carried out. There were differences over American fishing rights off Newfoundland, a commercial treaty, and compensation for property destroyed by British troops in the South and for captured or released slaves. Pinckney was not successful in getting the British to discuss seriously any of these matters. Nor was he successful in accomplishing Washington's private request to effect the release of the Marquis de Lafayette from an Austrian prison.

After war broke out between Republican France and Britain in 1793, Pinckney protested vigorously the orders-in-council that made American ships liable to seizure by the Royal Navy. British policy caused a war crisis in early 1794 that forced Washington to send Chief Justice John Jay to London on a special mission to settle these major problems between the two countries. Although he publicly and privately supported Jay's role, Pinckney, naturally upset, felt he had lost the confidence of the administration. He did not participate directly in the negotiations, but Jay kept him informed of their progress.

At the same time, Spanish-American affairs had deteriorated as Spain inched her territorial claims northward on the east side of the Mississippi and blocked American commerce on that river. Spain too had refused to negotiate until someone of "greater dignity" than William Short was sent to Madrid. To overcome this obvious delaying tactic and also to soothe Pinckney's pride, Washington ordered him to deal directly with the Spanish. Arriving in Madrid in midsummer 1795, Pinckney found that Spain had just made peace with France and was about to opt out of her alliance with Britain. Fearing that Jay's treaty with England could mean an anti-Spanish alliance, Spain's government was willing to improve relations with the United States. Nonetheless, Pinckney had to engage in hard bargaining and once demanded his passports to stress the seriousness of the American position. The Treaty of San Lorenzo, signed 27 October 1795, was greeted enthusiastically in the United States. It defined the American border with Spanish West Florida, extracted Spain's commitment to control Indians living within its territories, and cleared obstacles to American commerce and settlement on the lower Mississippi.

With the treaty done Pinckney returned to London. His wife had died in 1794, and he was anxious to go home. He resigned as minister in 1796 and even before his arrival at Charleston was nominated as John Adams's running mate, losing in the electoral college to Thomas Jefferson. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1797, he served until 4 March 1801. In 1797 he married his first wife's sister, Frances, the widow of John Middleton; there were no children of this marriage. He did not hold public office again except during the War of 1812, when he was commissioned a major general and placed in command of the Southern district. He was president general of the Society of Cincinnati from 1825 to 1828. He continued to be active in South Carolina politics and society and died in Charleston.

Thomas Pinckney deserves to be ranked among the more prominent "Founding Fathers" for his active participation in the Revolution itself and his leadership role in the early affairs of an independent South Carolina as well as early active support for the federal government. His treaty with Spain was his most significant and lasting achievement; it secured the western and southern boundaries of the United States and helped set the stage for the migration of Americans across the continent.

What remains of Pinckney's papers are scattered: some correspondence, his letterbooks (1791-1814), and other letters can be found in the Frank H. Pinckney Collection and the John Rutledge Papers in the South Carolina Historical Society collections; there are Pinckney Family Papers in the Library of Congress, in the Duke University Library, and in the University of Georgia Library; part of his diplomatic correspondence is in the American State Papers and the Gouveneur Morris Papers, Columbia University Library. The only published collection is Jack L. Cross, ed., "Letters of Thomas Pinckney," South Carolina Historical Magazine 58 (1957): 19-33, 67-83. Surprisingly few are works about Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, The Life of General Thomas Pinckney (1895), Samuel F. Bemis, Pinckney's Treaty: A Study of America's Advantage from Europe's Distress, rev. ed. (1960), and his "The London Mission of Thomas Pinckney, 1792-1796," American Historical Review 27 (1923): 228-47. An obituary is in the Charleston Courier, 4 Nov. 1828.

Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press.

Frank T. Reuter. "Pinckney, Thomas";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date: Sun Oct 23 11:38:45 EDT 2011
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