James Earl
Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 1795–96

Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney is a half-length portrait of a man in military costume with a landscape background. The figure faces three-quarters left, with his head turned slightly forward and his eyes looking to the viewer’s right. The man’s gray hair is combed back, and loose curls hang at his ear. His eyes are brown, and his lips form a gentle smile. Pinckney’s face is represented as a full oval, with a brown line defining the fold in his fleshy chin. His uniform consists of a brown coat with buff collar, facings, and cuffs, and gold epaulets with braided fringe and two stars. Four buttons on the facings and one on the collar are fastened, and two additional buttonholes are shown on the facings; there are three buttons on the man’s proper left cuff and two on his right. Pinckney wears a white stock and ruffled jabot under a buff waistcoat. He also wears buff-colored gloves and breeches. White ruffled shirt cuffs are partly visible at his wrists, and he holds a black hat with a white lining in his right hand. At Pinckney’s hip is a silver-handled sword with a round pommel and a striped grip. The quillon, a part of the sword’s guard, has an elongated S shape. The buff-colored scabbard of the sword is attached to a reddish-brown leather strap with a buckle that winds under the coat.

The landscape behind Pinckney features an expanse of sky that is blue above and pink at the horizon. A body of water below the sky has three narrow, vertical white elements. A pair of trees and a few bushes to the left of the sitter frame that part of the landscape, and another bush appears behind him on the right. A flat, grassy area stretches in front of and behind the tree line.

James Earl’s even application of paint gives the figure, including his face and costume, a sense of solidity. The edges of the jabot, the fringe on the epaulets, and the highlights on the sword are painted with a low impasto that add texture and interest to those areas. The facings of Pinckney’s coat are painted rather summarily and are transparent in some areas, especially along the edge. The trees in the landscape and the varied edge of the pink and blue areas of the sky at left are much more painterly in quality.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) was a lawyer, planter, officer in the American Revolution, foreign diplomat, and unsuccessful Federalist candidate for vice-president and president of the United States. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to Charles Pinckney (d. 1758) and Eliza Lucas Pinckney (about 1722–1793). The elder Charles was a planter and a member of the colony’s Commons House. Eliza, who managed her father’s plantation, experimented with indigo, which became an important cash crop in South Carolina. Young Charles received a classical education at private academies in London. He proceeded to Christ Church College at Oxford, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and simultaneously read law at Middle Temple. In 1768 he studied at the Royal Military Academy in Caen, France. Pinckney returned to Charleston in 1769, shortly after completing his education; he was elected to the South Carolina House of Assembly that year and admitted to the bar in January 1770.1

Pinckney was married twice—first to Sarah Middleton, the daughter of Henry Middleton, one of the wealthiest planters in South Carolina. They wed on September 28, 1773. She died on May 8, 1784. Two years later, on June 23, 1786, Pinckney married Mary Stead, who lived until January 1812. Mary, the daughter of a Charleston merchant, brought to the marriage a fortune estimated at fourteen thousand pounds, a sum that was vital to replenishing the wealth Pinckney had lost during the Revolution.2

Pinckney entered military service in June 1772 as an ensign in the Charleston militia. In 1774 he was promoted to lieutenant in a new company of light infantry, and the following year the Provincial Congress voted him captain of the First Regiment of South Carolina. The next year, he participated in raids on British arsenals and helped plan the seizure of a British ship carrying seventeen thousand pounds of gunpowder. In November 1775 he was promoted to major, and, the following September, to colonel. Despite repeated hopes of glory, Pinckney never had the opportunity to demonstrate his valor in battle. In May 1780 Charleston fell to the British navy, and Pinckney and his fellow officers were captured. Pinckney spent two years under house arrest, first near Charleston and then outside Philadelphia at Stenton, the country home of the Quaker gentleman farmer George Logan. He was released in 1782 in a prisoner exchange that included British General John Burgoyne. At the end of the war, he was promoted to brigadier general by brevet.3

Pinckney remained politically active during and after the Revolution. In 1775 and 1776 he served in the Commons House and the Provincial Congress, where he was perceived as a moderating force between conservatives and radicals. He chaired a committee charged with drafting a new constitution for South Carolina. And he advocated the disestablishment in South Carolina of the Anglican Church, to which he belonged, in favor of equal recognition of all religious bodies. In 1787 Pinckney served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he strongly defended the property rights of slave owners. He argued against the three-fifths compromise that resulted in sixty percent of slaves being counted for taxation and representation, contending that representation should be based both upon population and wealth. Pinckney also advocated a fugitive-slave-recovery provision and a continuation of the slave trade.4

Following the Revolution, Pinckney maintained a lucrative legal practice, which reportedly earned him between thirty-five and forty-five hundred pounds per year. His slaves had been seized during the British occupation, and he had lent at least twenty-one thousand five hundred pounds to South Carolina to help it wage the war. Citing his financial struggles as time-consuming, Pinckney refused appointments from George Washington to the United States Supreme Court (1791) and to serve as Secretary of War (1794) and Secretary of State (1795). His fortunes stabilized in the 1790s, and by 1801 he had amassed 6,524 acres of land, eighty-nine slaves, and three homes. He held even more property in partnership with fellow lawyer and planter Edward Rutledge, who was his brother-in-law; together, the Pinckney and Rutledge families formed a powerful political coalition in South Carolina.5

In the mid-1790s, with tensions growing between the United States and the revolutionary government of France over the Jay Treaty with England—the treaty that resulted in the removal of British forces from their forts in northwestern America and established special trading privileges for England—James Monroe was recalled from his post as minister to France. Although he had turned down other appointments, Pinckney agreed in 1796 to serve in Monroe’s place. Before going abroad, Pinckney visited the federal capital in Philadelphia, where he received instructions from President Washington and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. Also while he was there, he commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint a replica of the full-length Landsdowne portrait of Washington as the statesman in civilian clothing; he asked Pickering to send the picture to him in Paris. Despite Pinckney’s effort to impress the French with the cultural achievements of the new nation and the greatness of its leader, the portrait was never delivered.6

When Pinckney arrived in Paris in December 1796, the French government refused to accept his credentials, so he traveled to Amsterdam to await further instructions. The newly elected president, John Adams, soon put Pinckney in charge of a three-person delegation to France that also included Elbridge Gerry and John Marshall. Pinckney joined his colleagues in Paris, where they were received by representatives of the French government. Negotiations quickly broke down and Pinckney is said to have responded to the French demand for a bribe, "Not a sixpence, sir," which was later elaborated into the legendary refusal, "Millions for Defense but Not One Cent for Tribute." Pinckney’s firmness was based at least in part upon the pragmatic realization that a bribe to France would disrupt American peace with Britain and would not guarantee the cessation of French attacks upon American ships.

Despite the failure of the diplomatic mission, Pinckney, upon returning to America in 1798, received a hero’s welcome. In October of that year he was promoted to major general in the United States American army, the same rank he had attained in the state militia in 1795. Along with his promotion, Pinckney was placed in charge of preparing the Southern troops for a war with France that did not occur.7 Simultaneously, he assumed a leading role in the Federalist Party. Pinckney was the Federalist party’s choice for vice-president in 1800 and the losing presidential candidate in 1804 and 1808. His 1800 candidacy was part of a plan orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton to unseat John Adams as president. Hamilton theorized that Pinckney’s popularity in the South would earn him more electoral votes there than Adams and that he would thereby be vaulted into the chief executive office. While Pinckney did not win these national elections, he continued to serve in the South Carolina State Senate until 1804.8

Besides being an economic, military, and political force in South Carolina, Pinckney was a cultural leader as well. He was an active member, and served as president, of the Jockey Club, a hub of Charleston social life. He was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, which was established to honor officers of the Revolution, and served as vice-president of the Carolina chapter from 1783 to 1805 and president-general of the national organization from 1805 to 1825. He promoted the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, part of a larger American effort to advance the patriotic cause of economic independence through agriculture. Pinckney also was an amateur botanist and supported the Charleston Museum, which maintained a natural-history cabinet. For his assistance to the French botanist André Michaux, he was honored by having a plant species named for him: Pinckneya pubens. The museum was an arm of the Charleston Library Society, which Pinckney served as vice-president (1786–96) and president (1796–1807). An accomplished musician, Pinckney played his violoncello at Charleston’s annual St. Cecilia Ball. Finally, he was a founding member of the Bible Society of Charleston, which distributed Bibles to slaves. Pinckney died on August 25, 1825, and was eulogized in Charleston as a statesman, lawyer, and gentleman who "combined the virtues of the patriot and the piety of the Christian."9

James Earl represented Pinckney wearing a faint smile, an expression the artist often employed to convey a sense of genteel ease, a quality indicative of refinement. A similarly pleasing expression may be found in the faces Earl painted in David Young of Lebanon (about 1794–96, Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, Connecticut) and James Courtney (1794–96, Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, Washington, D.C.).

Pinckney is depicted in the portrait as a major general. Marko Zlatich, a historian of American military costume, suggests that the uniform is of the type standardized in a statement issued by U.S. Secretary of War James McHenry in 1799:

The uniform of the other general officers, to a blue coat, with yellow buttons, gold epaulets, linings and facings of buff–the under-cloathes the same with those of the commander in chief. . . . The major generals to be distinguished by two silver stars on each epaulet.10

That type of uniform had been in use at least since 1780, and Pinckney’s complies with the standard except in its color.11 Zlatich notes further:

Brown was so unpopular that when imported uniforms of both blue and brown were received from France in 1778, the impoverished and naked Continental regiments could only be induced to take the brown coats when they were assured that an impartial lottery had been cast to determine which state line had to draw brown, rather than blue.12

Despite this authoritative opinion, Pinckney’s uniform in the portrait is unmistakably brown, and X-ray photographs and cross sections of the paint layer confirm that it has not been repainted. George E. Meagher, director of the American Military Museum in Charleston, offers another interpretation: "The Revolutionary War presented a rainbow of uniforms with some blue, brown, grey, green, black, and red. It appears that the ‘uniform’ was anything but uniform."13 In Meagher’s view, the prescribed colors represented an ideal, whereas the reality of available fabrics dictated a very different condition. Since Pinckney resigned his commission in the Army after the Revolution, he may be wearing a South Carolina militia uniform. His rank in the state militia was raised to major general in 1795, but he was not awarded that rank in the U.S. Army until 1798—at least two years after the painting was completed—when he was commissioned to prepare Charleston for the possibility of war with France.14 This circumstance probably explains Pinckney’s uniform, although Marko Zlatich writes, ". . .the common practise of the states was to imitate the uniform of the United States Army, varying only the buttons to show the state coat of arms and perhaps a few other details."15

Pinckney’s small sword is typical of those worn by American officers. One of Pinckney’s swords belongs to the Charleston Museum and appears to be the one depicted here. Alexander Hamilton, in his capacity as adjutant general of the Army, also issued a statement in 1799 on officers’ uniforms specifying that the "Sword the same as that of the Commander in Chief except that the hilt be plain."16 In the portrait, the sword is held at Pinckney’s side by a leather strap that would have been attached to a belt around the waist. Such weapons were probably made in America and procured by the officers themselves, so they varied slightly from person to person.17

The background landscape suggests the lowlands around Charleston, where Pinckney maintained his plantations. The three vertical elements in the harbor in the distance may represent sailing vessels, lighthouses, buoys, or some combination thereof. The fact that Earl owned a camera obscura suggests that he was meticulous about accurately recording landscape details.18 The land itself is probably a reference to the sitter’s wealth and position as a major plantation owner. Pinckney adamantly defended the need for slavery in order to cultivate the Carolina lowlands. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, he reportedly said:

[W]hile there remained one acre of swamp-land uncleared of South Carolina, I would raise my voice against restricting the importation of negroes. I am as thoroughly convinced as that gentleman is, that the nature of our climate, and the flat, swampy situation of our country, obliges us to cultivate our lands with negroes, and that without them South Carolina would soon be a desert waste.19

Figure 1. James Earl, Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, about 1795–96, oil on canvas, 45 x 36 in. (114.3 x 91.4 cm), Carolina Art Association/Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston.

Earl painted a second portrait of Pinckney (fig. 1), probably from the same sittings from which Worcester’s portrait was painted. That larger, three-quarter-length work depicts Pinckney standing. Despite many differences in the details of the two paintings, both appear to represent Pinckney at the same point in his life. For example, both uniforms are brown and show the rank of major general, but the facings are buttoned down in the Worcester portrait, and the coat is fastened by a single button in the Gibbes Museum painting. The sitter wears gloves in the Worcester portrait, but his hands are bare in the other. Also, the landscape in the larger version has been altered to include Haddrell’s Point, which Pinckney was charged with fortifying and defending during the Revolution. The Worcester portrait is said to have descended in the family of Pinckney’s brother Thomas, while the Gibbes Museum’s painting descended in the family of the sitter.20 A second, unidentified artist made a bust-length copy (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.) of Earl’s portrait, perhaps shortly after Earl died in 1796. Pinckney made a gift of that copy to John Chesnut with a note describing it as "the performance of a young painter who is a native of this state. . . . The likeness tho not strong may sometimes remind you of a friend who has long & sincerely esteemed you."21

Pinckney apparently valued the power of portraits to shape his image privately and publicly; he sat for his several times between about 1764 and 1823. John Hamilton Mortimer (1740–1779) painted the first known portrait of him, in England, depicting Pinckney as a man of letters with fellow Oxford student and gentleman Sir Matthew White Ridley (about 1764, Collection of Viscount Ridley, Newcastle upon Tyne, England).22 In 1773 or 1774, Pinckney commissioned Henry Benbridge (1743–1812) in Charleston to paint half-length portraits of himself (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.) and his first wife, Sarah Middleton (private collection).23 Pinckney, who was first represented in his lieutenant’s uniform, paid Benbridge to repaint the uniform in 1775 to show his new rank as captain. Sarah was portrayed as a classical allegory of domesticity at the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. A watercolor miniature portrait of Pinckney by Joseph Bowring (about 1760–after 1817) is said to date about 1785.24 In 1791 John Trumbull (1756–1843) painted two very similar oval, miniature portraits (Yale University Art Gallery and private collection) of Pinckney in military uniform with his gaze directed up and to the left; Trumbull typically employed that pose to impart a visionary quality to Revolutionary heroes.25 A pastel portrait of Pinckney by a member of the Sharples family dates from the late 1790s (Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia). About 1803, Pinckney ordered a portrait of himself as a major general from Gilbert Stuart (private collection), but Charles Fraser (1782–1860) completed the work. In that joint effort Pinckney is shown as a major general with the Order of the Cincinnati at his breast; he holds two documents, one declaring the esteem of George Washington and the other bearing Pinckney’s famous "Millions for Defense but Not One Cent for Tribute" quote.26 The sculptor William J. Coffee (about 1774–1846) created a plaster bust of Pinckney in uniform about 1821 (College of Charleston).27 The last life-portrait done of Pinckney appears to be the watercolor-on-ivory miniature by Charles Fraser in 1823 (Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston).28 In that work, the aged Pinckney has finally given up his uniform for civilian clothes; at the beginning and end of his adult life, he evidently wanted to be seen as a gentleman rather than as the military officer and public servant that his portraits from 1775 to 1803 represented.

Figure 2. James Akin and William Harrison after James Earl, General Pinckney, 1799, line and stipple engraving, 7 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. (20 x 17.6 cm), Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York City.

Earl’s portrait of Pinckney also was engraved for distribution. That print was a line-and-stipple engraving published by James Akin (about 1773–1846) and William Harrison (active 1797–1819) (fig. 2). According to the inscription, the engraved portrait was "From an Original by James Earle in the Possession of Major Thos. Pinckney." (Thomas, the sitter’s brother, had been ambassador to England.) The print was published May 1, 1799, in Philadelphia, at that time still the nation’s capital. It seems likely that the image was produced to help promote Pinckney’s bid for national elected office. A second print—Cornelius Tiebout’s (about 1773–1832) line-and-stipple engraved likeness of Pinckney in military uniform with three stars on his epaulets (impression at the Worcester Art Museum), after an unlocated portrait by the Philadelphia painter Jeremiah Paul (d. 1820)—was published by James Savage at some point between 1800 and 1810. Further research may show that it, too, was issued to promote one of Pinckney’s two attempts to win the American presidency, in 1804 and 1808. James Hardie, a Philadelphia publisher, included a bust-length line engraving of Pinckney in his Universal New Biographical Dictionary (1802).29 Finally, Pinckney was caricatured in a political cartoon entitled Cinque-Tetes, or the Paris Monster, created about 1798 in response to the threat posed by the French refusal to normalize diplomatic relations the previous year with the American envoys Pinckney, Gerry, and Marshall. Like other men of wealth and high social standing, Pinckney saw that widely published images could do much to help define one’s image. Unfortunately for him, however, such efforts did not do much to help him win national election.

1. For Pinckney’s education, see Zahniser 1967, 4, 7, 12–13, 15, 17, and 19–20.

2. For Pinckney’s marriages, see Ibid., 31, 80.

3. For Pinckney’s military service, see Ibid., 27, 39, 42, 50, 64, 67, 69, and 70.

4. For Pinckney’s political career, see Ibid., 43, 51, and 86–96.

5. For Pinckney’s wealth, see Ibid., 69, 78, 119–20, 128, and 134.

6. For Pinckney’s diplomatic appointment and preparations to serve in France, see Ibid., 131–37, and Hochfield 1982, 65.

7. For Pinckney’s diplomatic mission in France, see Zahniser 1967, 138–85.

8. For Pinckney’s aspirations to national office, see Ibid., 216–26, 243–45, and 254–57.

9. For the aspects of Pinckney’s life in Charleston treated here, see Ibid. on: Jockey Club, 264; Society of Cincinnati, 265–66; Agricultural Society, 268; Charleston Museum and botanical interests, 28, 269; Library Society, 27, 267; musical ability, 28; Bible Society, 272–73. For Pinckney’s death, see idem, 279–80.

10. Marko Zlatich to Margaret Vining, Museum Specialist, Armed Forces Collections, National Museum of American History, September 30, 1997. Forwarded by Vining to Laura K. Mills, May 13, 1998.

11. Marko Zlatich to David R. Brigham, June 30, 1998.

12. Zlatich to Brigham, n.d., in response to a letter, September 21, 1998.

13. George E. Meagher to Laura K. Mills, November 3, 1999.

14. David Meschutt to Laura K. Mills, September 8, 1999.

15. Zlatich to Brigham, n.d., in response to a letter, September 21, 1998.

16. Zlatich to Vining, September 30, 1997.

17. The explanation of the small sword offered here derives from the author’s conversation with Walter Karcheski, curator at the Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Mass., and from Michael J. McAfee, Curator of History, West Point Museum, to Laura K. Mills, October 1, 1999.

18. "Inventory of Effects and Debts belonging to the Estate of James Earl, Limner deceased," October 29, 1796, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C., Charleston County Wills, v. 26, p. 488.

19. Elliot IV, 1881, 285.

20. The catalogue accompanying the 1932 Washington Bicentennial exhibition notes the following about the Gibbes Museum’s painting: "This portrait hung in General Pinckney’s house in Charleston and has belonged to his collateral descendants ever since." Washington Bicentennial 1932, 54.

21. Pinckney to John Chesnut, August 31, 1796, copy in the files of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

22. McInnis and Mack 1999, 98–99.

23. Stewart 1971, 48–50; Stewart 1987, 40–41.

24. According to the Inventory of American Paintings, this portrait was owned in 1973 by the R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Louisiana.

25. Sizer 1967, 58 and fig. 105 (n. p.).

26. Park II, 1926, 394, 602–3.

27. Bilodeau 1970, 61.

28. Smith and Smith 1968, 35–37 and plate IIIb.

29. Hardie III, 1802, frontispiece. Engraved representations of Pinckney were identified through the Catalogue of Engraved Portraits, a database which was compiled by the American Antiquarian Society and is available online.