Rutledge was the eldest child in a large family in Charleston, South Carolina.
His father was Scots-Irish immigrant John Rutledge (Sr.) (1713–1750), the physician.
His mother, South Carolina–born Sarah (nee Hext) (born September 18, 1724), was of English descent.
John had six younger siblings: Andrew (1740–1772), Thomas (1741–1783), Sarah (1742–1819), Hugh (1745–1811), Mary (1747–1832), and Edward (1749–1800).
John’s early education was provided by his father until the latter’s death.
After finishing his studies, Rutledge returned to Charleston to begin a fruitful legal career.
At the time, many lawyers came out of law school and barely scraped together enough business to earn their livings.
Most new lawyers could only hope that they would win well-known cases to ensure their success.
Rutledge, however, emerged almost immediately as one of the most prominent lawyers in Charleston, and his services were in high demand.
When the delegates returned to South Carolina after the Congress adjourned, they found the state in turmoil.
When the Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, there were no stamps in the entire colony.
Dougal Campbell, the Charleston court clerk, refused to issue any papers without the stamps.
Because of this, all legal processes in the entire state came to a standstill until news that the Stamp Act had been repealed reached South Carolina in early May 1766.
In 1774 Rutledge was sent to the First Continental Congress, where he pursued a moderate course.
After spending the next year in the Second Continental Congress, he returned to South Carolina and helped reorganize its government.
In 1776 he served on the committee of safety and took part in the writing of the state constitution.
That year, he also became president of the lower house of the legislature, a post he held until 1778.
During this period, the new government met many stern tests.
On July 16, 1795, Rutledge gave a highly controversial speech denouncing the Jay Treaty with Great Britain.
He reportedly said in the speech “that he had rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument”– and that he “preferred war to an adoption of it.” Rutledge’s speech against the Jay Treaty cost him the support of many in the Washington Administration, which supported the treaty, and in the Senate, which subsequently ratified it by a two-thirds majority and which would soon be debating and voting on his nomination to the Supreme Court.
By the time of his formal nomination to the Court on December 10, 1795, Rutledge’s reputation was in tatters and support for his nomination had faded.
Rumors of mental illness and alcohol abuse swirled around him, concocted largely by the Federalist press.
His words and actions in response to the Jay Treaty were used as evidence of his continued mental decline.
The Senate rejected his appointment on December 15, 1795 by a vote of 14–10. This was the first time that the Senate had rejected a presidential recess appointment.