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Pierce Butler

Pierce Butler

Pierce Butler was born in Northfield, Minnesota, on 17th March, 1866. Admitted to the bar in 1888 he served as assistant county attorney in St Paul, before forming his own law firm. Over the next twenty-five years Butler established himself as one of the country's leading railroad attorneys.

When William Taft became president, his attorney general, George Wickersham, employed Butler to prosecute some anti-trust cases. In 1922 President Warren Harding appointed him to the Supreme Court. Butler reactionary political views were well-known and his appointment was challenged by leading progressives such as George Norris and Robert La Follette.

Butler was a conservative justice and was consistent in his opposistion to progressive taxation, welfare legislation, and attempts to control the freedom of America's large corporations. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party candidate, was elected as president in 1932. Over the next few years Butler and the other justices who were supporters of the Republican Party, ruled against the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and ten other New Deal laws.

On 2nd February, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech attacking the Supreme Court for its actions over New Deal legislation. He pointed out that seven of the nine judges (Butler, Charles Hughes, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter, Harlan Stone, Owen Roberts and Benjamin Cardozo) had been appointed by Republican presidents. Roosevelt had just won re-election by 10,000,000 votes and resented the fact that the justices could veto legislation that clearly had the support of the vast majority of the public.

Roosevelt suggested that the age was a major problem as six of the judges were over 70 (Butler, Charles Hughes, Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, Louis Brandeis and George Sutherland). Roosevelt announced that he was going to ask Congress to pass a bill enabling the president to expand the Supreme Court by adding one new judge, up to a maximum off six, for every current judge over the age of 70.

Charles Hughes realised that Roosevelt's Court Reorganization Bill would result in the Supreme Court coming under the control of the Democratic Party. His first move was to arrange for a letter written by him to be published by Burton Wheeler, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. In the letter Hughes cogently refuted all the claims made by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

However, behind the scenes Charles Hughes was busy doing deals to make sure that Roosevelt's bill would be defeated in Congress. On 29th March, Owen Roberts announced that he had changed his mind about voting against minimum wage legislation. Hughes also reversed his opinion on the Social Security Act and the National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) and by a 5-4 vote they were now declared to be constitutional.

Then Willis Van Devanter, probably the most conservative of the justices, announced his intention to resign. He was replaced by Hugo Black, a member of the Democratic Party and a strong supporter of the New Deal. In July, 1937, Congress defeated the Court Reorganization Bill by 70-20. However, Roosevelt had the satisfaction of knowing he had a Supreme Court that was now less likely to block his legislation.

Pierce Butler refused to retire and was still a member of the Supreme Court when he died in Washington on 16th November, 1939.


The Founding Fathers: South Carolina

One of the most aristocratic delegates at the convention, Butler was born in 1744 in County Carlow, Ireland. His father was Sir Richard Butler, member of Parliament and a baronet.

Like so many younger sons of the British aristocracy who could not inherit their fathers' estates because of primogeniture, Butler pursued a military career. He became a major in His Majesty's 29th Regiment and during the colonial unrest was posted to Boston in 1768 to quell disturbances there. In 1771 he married Mary Middleton, daughter of a wealthy South Carolinian, and before long resigned his commission to take up a planter's life in the Charleston area. The couple was to have at least one daughter.

When the Revolution broke out, Butler took up the Whig cause. He was elected to the assembly in 1778, and the next year he served as adjutant general in the South Carolina militia. While in the legislature through most of the 1780s, he took over leadership of the democratic upcountry faction in the state and refused to support his own planter group. The War for Independence cost him much of his property, and his finances were so precarious for a time that he was forced to travel to Amsterdam to seek a personal loan. In 1786 the assembly appointed him to a commission charged with settling a state boundary dispute.

The next year, Butler won election to both the Continental Congress (1787-88) and the Constitutional Convention. In the latter assembly, he was an outspoken nationalist who attended practically every session and was a key spokesman for the Madison-Wilson caucus. Butler also supported the interests of southern slaveholders. He served on the Committee on Postponed Matters.

On his return to South Carolina Butler defended the Constitution but did not participate in the ratifying convention. Service in the U.S. Senate (1789-96) followed. Although nominally a Federalist, he often crossed party lines. He supported Hamilton's fiscal program but opposed Jay's Treaty and Federalist judiciary and tariff measures.

Out of the Senate and back in South Carolina from 1797 to 1802, Butler was considered for but did not attain the governorship. He sat briefly in the Senate again in 1803-4 to fill out an unexpired term, and he once again demonstrated party independence. But, for the most part, his later career was spent as a wealthy planter. In his last years, he moved to Philadelphia, apparently to be near a daughter who had married a local physician. Butler died there in 1822 at the age of 77 and was buried in the yard of Christ Church.

Image: Courtesy of National Archives, Records of Exposition, Anniversary, and Memorial Commissions (148-CCD-81a)


The Weeping Time

Two miles west of downtown Savannah, Georgia, sits a historical marker in the center of a small plot of a fenced in city park. The triangular park measures not more than a fifth of an acre. The surrounding neighborhood is one of the most distressed and depressed sections of the city.

The marker was dedicated on March 3, 2008, 149 years after the slave auction occurred, and at the commemoration ceremony then-mayor Otis Johnson—only the second African-American to hold that office—offered up a short speech honoring the enslaved men and women whose labor helped build the oldest city in the state of Georgia. At the ceremony a local man handed out dirt from Nigeria to be sprinkled around the marker and Mayor Johnson poured water over the dirt to consecrate the ground.

And that's it for the city's commemoration of the event known as the Weeping Time. Contrast that with the towering monument to the Confederate dead that has stood for over a century smack in the center of one of the city's largest public parks.

The Weeping Time acquired its name colloquially, by the slaves and their descendants, because of reports that the sky opened up and poured down rain for the full two days of the auction. It was said that the heavens were weeping for the inhumanity that was being committed.

The event wasn't just notable because of the size of the auction. In 1859 the country was on the verge of a national bloodbath, and the historic threads that weave through the story of the Weeping Time are so far-reaching and remarkable, it's perplexing that more hasn't been written or remembered about this time.

Pierce Mease Butler, the owner of the slaves who were sold, inherited his wealth from his grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, one of the largest slaveholders in the country in his time. One of the signatories of the U.S. Constitution, Major Butler was the author of the Fugitive Slave Clause and was instrumental in getting it included under Article Four of the Constitution.

When Major Butler died, most of his estate and holdings were passed on to Pierce M. Butler and his brother John, including two sprawling island plantations on the coast of south Georgia, one that produced rice and one cotton, and more than 900 slaves who worked the plantations.

Pierce M. Butler was a profligate steward of his inheritance, regularly engaging in risky speculations and accruing a considerable amount of gambling debt over the years due to his compulsive card playing. It was these two factors that necessitated the appointment of a group of trustees who, in 1856, seized control of his financial assets in an effort to return him to solvency. Over the next few years the trustees proceeded to sell off various Butler properties.

By 1859 the trustees were still unable to extricate Pierce Butler from his debts, and it was decided that the “movable property” on the Georgia plantations would be split between Pierce and his brother John, and the half of the slaves that were allotted to Pierce would be sold at auction to relieve his remaining financial obligations. A small fraction of those obligations were the quarterly payments Pierce Butler was required to pay to his then-estranged ex-wife Frances Anne Kemble as part of their divorce agreement 10 years prior.

In one of the many ironies, Fanny Kemble, as she was called, was an avowed and outspoken abolitionist and had made much of the fact during the time she was married to Pierce Butler. This difference was a constant source of contention throughout their tumultuous 15-year marriage and ultimately contributed to its dissolution. At the time they were wed in 1834, Fanny claimed she knew nothing of how the Butler wealth was acquired, but it soon became apparent after a trip to visit the plantations in 1838-39 what the true nature of the Butler inheritance was.

Fanny Kemble was a revered Shakespearean actress from London on tour when she met Butler in Philadelphia. Kemble was, by all accounts, a strong-willed and independently minded woman of her own making, tendencies Butler aimed to tame. Nevertheless, they were married two years after Butler's unremitting courtship and Kemble reestablished herself in America.

Once Kemble found out about Butler's Georgia plantations, she begged him to take her down to witness first hand what she'd previously only heard and read about in her native England. Despite his better judgement, Butler brought Kemble with him in late 1838 to visit the plantations and what Kemble found was every bit as callous and horrible as she'd imagined. Kemble cataloged her stay in her diaries, which were eventually published some years later as Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1838-1839) and to this day it's considered one of the most detailed eyewitness accounts of slavery during that period.

(Kemble's journals weren't published until 1863—in the middle of America's Civil War—due to custody issues with Butler over their two daughters. Butler had “forbade” the publication of the journals during their marriage, but once their daughters were “of age” Kemble felt free to let her account of that time be known to the world. Her journals ended up playing a significant role in the anti-slavery debate raging at the time.)

Kemble was long out of the picture by the time the Butler slave auction took place (they were divorced in 1849). But the most virulent phase of great slavery debate was only just getting under way. Just a few months before the Butler auction, the now infamous slave ship the Wanderer had landed at Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia with more than 400 illegal slaves brought directly from the Congo. This was one of the last documented slave ships to arrive in North American and it created a roiling controversy. The transport of slaves from Africa had long been outlawed, but owners of the Wanderer, with the help of the pro-slavery “fire-eater” Charles Lamar, disguised their ship as a luxury cruise liner and brought back a hull-full of “human chattel,” thumbing his nose at federal law. Records indicate that nearly 80 slaves perished on the voyage.

The crew of the Wanderer were awaiting trial at the time of the Butler slave auction, but the sentiment in the South was such that they were all eventually found not guilty and set free with impunity. This was the atmosphere surrounding what would be the largest slave auction ever on American soil.

The notorious slave trader Joseph Bryan was enlisted to conduct the Butler slave auction and it was originally scheduled to take place in Savannah's Johnson Square, directly in the city's center, where Bryan's slave holding pens and brokerage was. But it was soon determined there wouldn't be enough room to accommodate the buyers they expected, so the location was moved to the Ten Broeck Race Course two-and-a-quarter miles west of downtown.

For weeks before the auction, Bryan took out ads in papers across the south advertising the sale. It became the talk of the town and speculators from as far as Louisiana and Virginia came to Savannah to ply their bids. One of the ads that ran in the weeks before the auction in the Savannah Daily Morning News read:

It was said that the hotels and bars were all full to capacity in the days leading up to the auction and the city was abuzz with discussion about the great sale. Among the crowd was an undercover journalist from the north, Mortimer Thomson, who wrote under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. Thomson had been sent to Savannah by the New York Tribune editor and noted reformer, Horace Greeley, to report on the sale.

Thomson posed as a potential buyer to get close to the action and judging by the reaction in the South once his piece was published, it was a wise decision for him to travel incognito. After “Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia” came out in the Tribune, it was republished in Philadelphia and London and caused an international stir. Threats on his life from public officials in the South were issued. They claimed the piece was an anti-slavery hit-job by northern abolitionists. In fact that's exactly what it was.

The Ten Broeck Race Course superimposed over a
2007 aerial view of the site (Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson)

Thomson extensively recounted the events of the auction in damning detail for his article (years later reissued as a sequel to Kemble's journal). He explains how, upon arrival, the slaves were stuffed into the horse and carriage stalls at the race track. As he writes, “Into these sheds they were huddled pell-mell, without any more attention to their comfort than was necessary to prevent their becoming ill and unsalable. On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief.” He goes on to note that some of the slaves appeared to have resigned themselves to the “hard stroke of fortune” that was their fate as human property, while others “sat brooking moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled.”

When Thomson recounts the auction, he holds nothing back. By its very nature, the sale of human beings is a disgraceful affair and he describes the slave speculators as a motley lot, poking and prodding the “chattel,” pinching their muscles and checking the insides of their mouths like livestock, all while joking and making lurid comments at some of the female slaves. He goes into detail about a few of those who were sold, including a man named Jeffrey who attempts to entreat his buyer to purchase a woman named Dorcas, his fiancee, only to eventually be rebuffed when the buyer finds out he would have to purchase her whole family to acquire her.

Thomson also tells of a woman named Daphne who comes up for auction wrapped in a shawl with her infant to keep the “chill air and driving rain” from them. Thomson describes the scene as men crowd around her, jeering and yelling to the auctioneer. “What do you keep your nigger covered up for? Pull off her blanket.” Another chides, “Who's going to bid on that nigger, if you keep her covered up? Let's see her face.” The men gather closer with remarks “emphasized with profanity, and mingled with sayings too indecent and obscene to be even hinted at. ”

Thomson spends some 20-odd pages relating the events of the auction and its aftermath, including Pierce Butler showing up and extending a gloved hand to a few of his favorite slaves, and after the auction, giving each of those sold $1 in freshly minted coins, as if that were consolation to the families who had spent generations on his plantations and were ripped apart on those two days. It's a shattering portrait of the realities of the slave trade, and deserves far more exposure than it's had since it was first published, as do Kemble's journals.

The city of Savannah should be commended for recognizing this monumental event with a historic marker, but one small plaque in a remote West Savannah park doesn't nearly do justice to the memory of the people who were bought and sold so many years ago. Our country—particularly the south—is full of these hidden histories and if we as citizens don't labor to remember these admittedly ugly episodes of our past, we're doing not just ourselves a disservice, but we're desecrating the memory of the enslaved people who helped build this country.

The Ten Broeck Race Course has since been obliterated and there's now a lumber company on most of its former site. An elementary school sits on one corner of the former racetrack, but there's not a single trace left of the old course and it's probably safe to assume that very few, if any, of the children who attend classes there even know what happened on those grounds a century and a half ago.


Pierce Butler - History

Born on July 11, 1744, Pierce Butler made his mark on history as being a soldier, farmer and statesman who is recognized as one of the premier Founding Fathers of American independence. As a representative of South Carolina in the Continental Congress as well as the Constitutional Convention and the Senate, Butler defended slavery for personal and political reasons although he harbored personal doubts about the African slave trade, specifically. He is said to have introduced a Fugitive Slave Clause in the constitution, but later the authorship came under question.

A first generation immigrant from Ireland, Butler came to America originally as a British officer. Remaining an officer in the British army as late as 1772, Butler was charged with keeping the growing colonial resistance in check, even with his unit firing shots in the infamous Boston Massacre which intensified the confrontation between British and Colonial troops. By 1779, Butler was an officer for the rebels, and was confronted by a price on his head for treason by his former British comrades. Butler held ownership of over 500 African slaves who toiled on both of his plantations located on Butler Island and St Simon's Island, and he spoke for reconciliation with the loyalists that he had worked so hard previously to defeat.


Butler exhibited an almost contradictory view of nationalism throughout his career which clashed with his loyalties first to the British Army, and then with the Continental Militia, in both of which he held officer ranks. He firmly maintained throughout his career that a strong government centrally located was the mandatory expression of a strong political and economic state.

Although labeled by his confederates as an enigma and "eccentric" due to his sometimes-divided loyalties, Butler followed a steady road to produce liberty and basic civil rights for those he considered to be equal citizens. He focused primarily on the role of the "common man" in politics and saw the big picture far more clearly than some of his other close patriot allies.

Butler maintained both a strong nationalist yet state-centric political platform which confused his fellow delegates, similarly to how his other contradictory ideas would follow him for the entirety of his political career. He served three terms in the Senate, but he often changed his political alliances, usually abruptly. Starting out as a Federalist, he switched to the Jeffersonian party in 1795, and then abruptly became an independent candidate 9 years later. Although the voters continued to re-elect him at the state level, they rejected his bids for higher public office repeatedly.

Retiring from political life in 1805, Butler spent the large majority of his time in Philadelphia where his summer home was located. Holding large land grants in multiple states, Butler became one of the wealthiest men in early US history, and continually supported slavery in the newly-formed United States. Keeping with his position of contradiction, however, he still defended the rights of the poor common man, all while maintaining slavery's importance for economic and political reasons.

Pierce Butler died on February 15, 1822 and is buried with much of his family and descendants at Christ Church Philadelphia with many of his descendants.


HISTORY: Pierce Butler, signer of the U.S. Constitution

S.C. Encyclopedia | Pierce Butler was born on July 11, 1744, in county Carlow, Ireland, the son of Henrietta Percy and Sir Richard Butler, fifth baronet of Cloughgrenan. His parents purchased a commission for Butler in the British army, and he rose through the ranks quickly. In 1766 he attained the rank of major, and in 1768 Butler’s regiment (the Twenty-ninth Foot) was transferred to South Carolina. Butler gained entry into Charleston society through his marriage to Mary Middleton on January 10, 1771. When his regiment returned to England in 1773, Butler sold his commission and remained in Charleston.

While proud of his aristocratic heritage, Butler nevertheless supported the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. Governor John Rutledge appointed Butler as the state’s adjutant general in 1779, placing him in charge of organizing, training, and mobilizing the South Carolina militia. Though given the rank of brigadier, Butler preferred his previous title of “major.” After the fall of Charleston in May 1780, Butler joined the army of Horatio Gates in North Carolina and remained with the Continental army until the end of the war. Butler returned to South Carolina to find his family exiled, his plantations burned, and some two hundred of his slaves confiscated by the British. Despite these deprivations, he still favored leniency for the state’s Loyalists and supported the return of their confiscated property.

Although Butler served in the General Assembly from 1776 to 1789, his most significant political accomplishments came at the national level. In 1787 the legislature appointed Butler to both the Confederation Congress and the constitutional convention scheduled to meet later that spring in Philadelphia. In the constitutional debates, Butler generally supported proposals for a strong central government, a single executive, and wealth rather than population as the basis of representation. He also championed South Carolina interests, especially slavery, and vigorously opposed the three-fifths compromise, arguing that slaves represented property wealth and should be counted fully for purposes of representation. “Money is strength,” he argued, “and every state ought to have its weight in the national council in proportion to the quantity it possesses.” Butler also proposed the measure that would eventually be incorporated into the Constitution as the Fugitive Slave clause. Though not entirely satisfied with the final document, he urged its ratification as an improvement over the ineffective Articles of Confederation.

After the convention, Butler returned to the state legislature, where he upheld the interests of the emerging backcountry. His services were rewarded by his election as South Carolina’s first U.S. senator, and he took his seat in New York in June 1789. During his term Butler allied himself with the Federalist Party, supporting the financial program of Alexander Hamilton. Concern for South Carolina interests also was a Butler priority, with one Senate colleague, William Maclay of Pennsylvania, calling him “the most local and partial creature I ever heard open a mouth.”

After his reelection to the Senate in 1792, Butler’s growing sectional interests sparked a reversal in his political allegiances. Breaking with the Federalists, Butler became a vocal Jeffersonian and was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential choice in 1796. Butler resigned from the Senate on October 25, 1796, but returned in 1802 to fill the unexpired term of John Ewing Colhoun. But Butler soon fell out with the Jeffersonians as well. Believing that the Jeffersonians had strayed too far from their principles, he resigned his Senate seat in 1804. Butler had hoped that the nation had changed its political “diet” by electing Thomas Jefferson in 1800, but he declared that Jefferson’s administration was “pork still with only a change of sauce.” So deep was his rift with the administration that he even gave refuge to Jefferson’s disgraced vice president, Aaron Burr, after Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey.

Following his departure from the U.S. Senate, Butler concentrated on his numerous landholdings. Beginning in the 1790s, Butler had acquired large tracts of land, especially in Ninety Six District as well as along the coastal region of Georgia. By 1809 Butler was one of the South’s wealthiest planters. His six Georgia plantations produced large crops of rice and cotton through the labor of some 540 slaves. By his death, Butler owned more than 1,000 slaves and his estate was valued at more than $1 million. After his wife’s death in 1790, Butler became largely an absentee landlord, residing most of the year in Philadelphia and coming south only once a year to visit his holdings.

Butler came out of retirement briefly in 1816 to become a director of the Second Bank of the United States. Declining health forced him to refuse a second term. After an extended illness, Butler died on February 15, 1822, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Cemetery.

Excerpted from an entry by Kevin M. Gannon. This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006. To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)


Pierce Butler - History

Their own private civil war would foreshadow the country's. Fanny Kemble was an abolitionist her husband Pierce Butler was a slaveholder. With such diametrically opposed views, it's no wonder that their initially blissful marriage would end in divorce.

Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble was born on November 27, 1809 in London, England. From one of England's most prominent family of actors, she took to the stage herself to save her family from financial ruin. Though a brilliant actress, the stage was not the true love of Fanny Kemble -- her first love was for literature and writing. Throughout her life she would be a prolific and accomplished writer of plays, journals, poetry, letters, and memoirs.

Fanny Kemble was a strong and spirited person. She had no formal training as an actress, but held audiences spellbound with the sheer force of her personality. She was described as having "masculine" characteristics: she was independent, physically strong, and highly intelligent. And she did not hide her talents, but lived them out passionately. In addition to acting and writing, Kemble spoke French fluently, read widely, and was an accomplished musician. She loved the natural world and had a passion for vigorous exercise, especially riding.

In 1832, Fanny set out on a two-year theater tour in America, where she was received with great enthusiasm. Audiences were enraptured, and she was soon being introduced to political and cultural dignitaries.

One of her most ardent admirers was a man named Pierce Butler. Born into a wealthy and prominent Philadelphia family in 1806, Pierce was the grandson of Revolutionary War veteran Major Pierce Butler. Major Butler was a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and the author of the Constitution's fugitive slave clause. He owned two plantations in Georgia: one on St. Simon's Island, where sea-island cotton was grown, and one on Butler Island, where rice was grown. He also owned a mansion in Philadelphia and a country home near the city. In 1812, Major Butler owned 638 slaves and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Pierce Bulter, the grandson, stood to inherit this fortune (and to become one of the largest slaveholders in the nation) when he met Fanny Kemble in 1832.

Pierce Butler became infatuated with Fanny Kemble after seeing her perform. He followed her devotedly while she toured. He was charming, solicitous. Fanny fell in love with him, and they were married in 1834 in Philadelphia. In marrying Pierce, Fanny escaped the life of the theater and her family's precarious finances and entered a life of wealth. At that time, she would later state, she did not know the source of this wealth.

The marriage was troubled nearly from the start. Fanny believed that Pierce would continue in his devotion, and Pierce believed that Fanny would curb her independent nature and allow herself to be ruled by him. Differences in opinion on slavery also created friction. Pierce thought he could persuade Fanny of the benefits of slavery Fanny thought she could persuade Pierce to emancipate his slaves. Early in their marriage Fanny even attempted to publish an antislavery treatise that she had written. Pierce forbid her to do so.

In March of 1836, Pierce and his brother John inherited the Georgia plantations. Fanny wanted to see the plantation firsthand, and begged Butler to take her with him. He refused to do so on his first trip, but finally relented. In December of 1838, Pierce, Fanny, their two children Sarah and Frances, and their Irish nurse Margery O'Brien set out for Butler Island. After travelling for nine days by train, stage and steamboat, they arrived at their destination. Nothing in Fanny's life had prepared her for this place.

Kemble spent four months on Butler and St. Simon's Islands. During that time she and Pierce clashed frequently over the issue of slavery. Fanny recorded her experiences in letters which she later compiled and published as her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation . It is the closest, most-detailed look at plantation slavery ever recorded by a white northern abolitionist.

By the time the Butlers returned to Philadelphia, their marriage was in turmoil. Life for Fanny went from bad to worse as Pierce harassed and ignored her and prevented her from seeing their children. Finally, Fanny gave up her attempts at reconciliation, and left for England. While there, she resumed her life in the theater by performing readings of Shakespeare. She was in the midst of a successful run when she learned that Pierce was suing her for divorce. He contended that she had "willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845." He filed for divorce on April 7, 1848.

Fanny returned to America to defend herself against his charges. After a long and painful court proceeding, the divorce was granted in September of 1849. Fanny would be allowed to spend two months every summer with her children, and Pierce would pay her $1500 a year in alimony.

Fanny continued to support herself in the U.S. and in Europe with her highly acclaimed Shakespearian readings. Pierce, however, fell further and further into economic ruin, as he squandered away his vast fortune in gambling and stock market speculation. In 1856 his situation became so severe that the management of his finances was handed over to three trustees. To satisfy his enormous debt, they began by selling the Philadelphia mansion and liquidating other properties. But this was not enough. The trustees turned their attention to the property in Georgia, which consisted mostly of human beings.

In February 1859, the men travelled to Georgia to appraise Pierce Butler's share of the slaves. Each person was examined and his or her value assessed. This was the preparation for what would be the largest single sale of human beings in United States history. It was an event that would come to be known as "the weeping time."

Pierce's financial situation was saved at the expense of his former slaves. In the meantime, the country hovered on the brink of civil war. In 1861 the war erupted. Again the family was divided: Fanny Kemble and their daughter Sarah were pro-North Pierce Butler and their daughter Frances were pro-South. In early 1861 Pierce and Frances went to Georgia. Upon their return to Philadelphia in August, Pierce was arrested for treason in September he was released. He did not return to the South until after the war.

Following the war, Pierce Butler returned to Butler Island with his daughter Frances. He found numbers of former slaves living there, and arranged that they would work for him as share-croppers. Management of the plantation was difficult, and though Frances returned to Philadelphia, Pierce remained on the island despite the dangers of disease. He contracted malaria and died in August 1867.

Following Pierce's death, Frances returned to Butler Island to continue organizing the plantation, and Fanny Kemble moved to Philadelphia. Throughout her life, Fanny continued to perform dramatic readings, to travel, and to publish her journals. Fanny Kemble died peacefully in London on January 15, 1893.


The Butler Family Feud (Part I)

Although outlawed after the Revolution, slavery continued to be a critical part of the Pennsylvania economy virtually up to the Civil War. In an era before joint stock corporations, businesses were family affairs. A successful merchant or landowner would pass along his enterprises directly to his descendants, not to trained professional executives. Many prominent Philadelphia families had significant assets in Southern states: plantations that produced lucrative crops such as wheat, indigo, cotton, and tobacco.

One Philadelphia clan fought hard to maintain their way of life–even while perched north of the Mason-Dixon Line–was the Butler family. Pierce Butler, an immigrant from County Carlow, Ireland (albeit the son of a baronet), was one of South Carolina’s largest landowners and slaveholders. Scarred by the destruction of much of his property (real estate and human) during the Revolutionary War, Butler was determined to rebuild and maintain his family wealth at all costs. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Butler represented South Carolina in Philadelphia, and the man behind the drafting of the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which gave Southern states disproportionate representation in Congress while leveraging their non-voting, enslaved populations.

Pierce Butler I of South Carolina (1744-1822).

With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, Butler chose to build a northern “summer house” in the nation’s new capital, a rather odd choice considering that Philadelphia’s summers were just as unbearable than those in South Carolina, and as borne out in 1793, just as disease-ridden. Although his daughter Sarah was living there, the move was almost certainly political: Butler probably wanted to keep a close eye on Congress and fight any measures that would threaten his economic holdings and those of his peers. To announce his arrival in Philadelphia society, he build a large, freestanding house at 801-807 Chestnut Street Built in the highest Federal style, it much a monument to the power of Southern money as it was a statement of Butler’s refined taste. Even after the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, Butler continued to spend much of his free time in Philadelphia.

Pierce Butler died in 1822, with an estate that included 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of agricultural land. In his will, he disinherited his son Thomas, and instead bequeathed his multi-million dollar fortune to his two grandsons Pierce and John, on condition that they change their last name from Mease to Butler.

No doubt infuriated at this rejection by the imperious and eccentric Butler patriarch, Thomas Butler planned a grand city house at the corner of 13th and Walnut Street to rival his father’s palace to the east, but he died before it was completed.

Fanny Kemble in a portrait by Thomas Sully, 1833. Wikiart.

Like many young men who never had to truly work for a living, Pierce II was simultaneously a charmer and a ne’er-do-well. He successfully wooed the acclaimed British actress Fanny Kemble during her American tour. She proved to have more brains and feistiness than her high-living and empty-headed husband anticipated. For Pierce II, having a good time (and looking good while doing it) was his raison d’être.

This attitude drove Fanny nuts. “You can form no idea, none, none, of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing,” she wrote a friend about her life at Butler Place, her husband’s country estate (near the present site of LaSalle University).

In 1838, Pierce Butler II took his wife to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth, and the “culture” in which he grew up.

Slave auction in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1861. History.com

Kemble was appalled not just at the treatment of the slaves, but also her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards such brutality. What shocked her the most was how the overseer Roswell King Jr. fathered so many children with the enslaved women under his supervision. For Butler, however, this was the natural order of things. She returned to Philadelphia a committed abolitionist. Within a decade, Fanny and Pierce were divorced. She took custody of their two children and raised them herself.

Butler Place, located near the intersection of Olney Avenue and Old York Road. LaSalle University.

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.


HISTORY: Pierce Butler, signer of the U.S. Constitution

S.C. Encyclopedia | Pierce Butler was born on July 11, 1744, in county Carlow, Ireland, the son of Henrietta Percy and Sir Richard Butler, fifth baronet of Cloughgrenan. His parents purchased a commission for Butler in the British army, and he rose through the ranks quickly. In 1766 he attained the rank of major, and in 1768 Butler’s regiment (the Twenty-ninth Foot) was transferred to South Carolina. Butler gained entry into Charleston society through his marriage to Mary Middleton on January 10, 1771. When his regiment returned to England in 1773, Butler sold his commission and remained in Charleston.

While proud of his aristocratic heritage, Butler nevertheless supported the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. Governor John Rutledge appointed Butler as the state’s adjutant general in 1779, placing him in charge of organizing, training, and mobilizing the South Carolina militia. Though given the rank of brigadier, Butler preferred his previous title of “major.” After the fall of Charleston in May 1780, Butler joined the army of Horatio Gates in North Carolina and remained with the Continental army until the end of the war. Butler returned to South Carolina to find his family exiled, his plantations burned, and some two hundred of his slaves confiscated by the British. Despite these deprivations, he still favored leniency for the state’s Loyalists and supported the return of their confiscated property.

Although Butler served in the General Assembly from 1776 to 1789, his most significant political accomplishments came at the national level. In 1787 the legislature appointed Butler to both the Confederation Congress and the constitutional convention scheduled to meet later that spring in Philadelphia. In the constitutional debates, Butler generally supported proposals for a strong central government, a single executive, and wealth rather than population as the basis of representation. He also championed South Carolina interests, especially slavery, and vigorously opposed the three-fifths compromise, arguing that slaves represented property wealth and should be counted fully for purposes of representation. “Money is strength,” he argued, “and every state ought to have its weight in the national council in proportion to the quantity it possesses.” Butler also proposed the measure that would eventually be incorporated into the Constitution as the Fugitive Slave clause. Though not entirely satisfied with the final document, he urged its ratification as an improvement over the ineffective Articles of Confederation.

After the convention, Butler returned to the state legislature, where he upheld the interests of the emerging backcountry. His services were rewarded by his election as South Carolina’s first U.S. senator, and he took his seat in New York in June 1789. During his term Butler allied himself with the Federalist Party, supporting the financial program of Alexander Hamilton. Concern for South Carolina interests also was a Butler priority, with one Senate colleague, William Maclay of Pennsylvania, calling him “the most local and partial creature I ever heard open a mouth.”

After his reelection to the Senate in 1792, Butler’s growing sectional interests sparked a reversal in his political allegiances. Breaking with the Federalists, Butler became a vocal Jeffersonian and was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential choice in 1796. Butler resigned from the Senate on October 25, 1796, but returned in 1802 to fill the unexpired term of John Ewing Colhoun. But Butler soon fell out with the Jeffersonians as well. Believing that the Jeffersonians had strayed too far from their principles, he resigned his Senate seat in 1804. Butler had hoped that the nation had changed its political “diet” by electing Thomas Jefferson in 1800, but he declared that Jefferson’s administration was “pork still with only a change of sauce.” So deep was his rift with the administration that he even gave refuge to Jefferson’s disgraced vice president, Aaron Burr, after Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey.

Following his departure from the U.S. Senate, Butler concentrated on his numerous landholdings. Beginning in the 1790s, Butler had acquired large tracts of land, especially in Ninety Six District as well as along the coastal region of Georgia. By 1809 Butler was one of the South’s wealthiest planters. His six Georgia plantations produced large crops of rice and cotton through the labor of some 540 slaves. By his death, Butler owned more than 1,000 slaves and his estate was valued at more than $1 million. After his wife’s death in 1790, Butler became largely an absentee landlord, residing most of the year in Philadelphia and coming south only once a year to visit his holdings.

Butler came out of retirement briefly in 1816 to become a director of the Second Bank of the United States. Declining health forced him to refuse a second term. After an extended illness, Butler died on February 15, 1822, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Cemetery.

Excerpted from an entry by Kevin M. Gannon. This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006. To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)


The Butler Family Feud (Part II)

Pierce Butler II did not reform his ways after his wife left him. Rather, he drank, gambled, and philandered his way through his remaining $700,000 fortune. To pay his debts, he sold nearly 500 slaves at auction in 1859. According to one observer:

On the faces of all [the slaves] was an expression of heavy grief some appeared to be resigned . . . some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, . . . their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled.

Although the largest sale of human beings in the nation’s history netted Pierce Butler a handsome $300,000 (about $6 million today), he died forgotten and broke after the Civil War.

Fanny Kemble–who reclaimed her maiden name–ultimately got her revenge by publishing Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1864, which became a literary sensation among supporters of the Union cause, especially in her native England. In it, the former master thespian spared nothing in her descriptions of slavery’s horrors, and what exactly the North was up against. Simply reading a Southern newspaper left nothing to the imagination as far as the realities of slavery were concerned, she claimed. In response to an unnamed apologist for slavery, she wrote:

The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for the imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace–the handcuff, the lash–the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives–the wearing trudging in droves along the common highways, the labor of the body, the despair of the mind, the sickness of heart–thees are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slaves experience. And this system exists here in this country of yours, which boasts itself the asylum of the oppressed, the home of freedom, the one place in the world where all men may find enfranchisement from all the thraldoms of mind, soul, or body–the land elect of liberty.

Such words would have driven her grandfather-in-law, the original Pierce Butler, to apoplexy. They also rattled the many upper-class Philadelphians who held Southern sympathies. The hard truth was that out of all the Western powers in 1864, republican America was the very last to outlaw slavery. England had done so in 1833, France in 1848, and imperial Russia (that most autocratic of regimes) in 1862.

It took a Civil War and 700,000 Union and Confederate lives to rid America of its original sin.

The Philadelphia Club, 13th and Walnut Streets. Originally built in the 1830s as the home of Thomas Butler, relative of Pierce Butler and his son Pierce (Mease) Butler II.

Senator Pierce Butler’s house on Washington Square was torn down in 1859–the year of his grandson’s bankruptcy– but descendants of Pierce Butler remained Philadelphians after the Civil War. One of the Butler family’s Philadelphia mansions survives to this day as the Philadelphia Club, although its builder Thomas Butler (the disinherited son of Pierce I) died before its completion. The club completed the shell of the hulking structure–which bore a strong resemblance to the Washington Square house–and took up residence in 1850.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Butlers in Philadelphia was left by Fanny’s grandson Owen Wister, who used his own gift with words to portray that most romanticized of American agricultural workers: the Western cowboy in The Virginian.

It’s most famous line: “When you call me that, smile.”

Owen Wister (1860-1938), author and president of the Philadelphia Club, great-great-grandson of Pierce Butler I and grandson of Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler II. Wikipedia.

The Virginian (1914 silent film)

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p.440.

Fanny Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1864), p.10.


Pierce Butler - History

Pierce Butler to Weeden Butler, New York, 8 October 1787 (excerpt)

. . . After four Months close Confinement We closed, on the 17th of last Month, the business Committed to Us. If it meets with the approba­tion of the States, I shall feel myself fully recompensed for my share of the trouble, and a Summer's Confinement, which injured my health much. As yet, the System We had the honor of submitting to the States, meets with general approbation. A few designing, Intrigueing, Men, of desparate Circumstances, may be opposed to but the bulk of the Peo­ple, I am of opinion, like it The Change, in my judgement, was well timed‑A Body so Constituted as Congress, are quite unequal to govern so Extensive a Country, as the thirteen States‑All Ranks of Men saw the Necessity of a Change‑they wisely had recourse to Reason, and not Arms, for the Accomplishment of it‑In this Instance America has sett a laudable Example to Civilized Europe. It might be well for the United Provinces, and perhaps, France, to follow it for I think the latter ap­pears to be verging towards a Change‑If Our publick Prints speak truth, the former is like to experience the miseries attendant on the very worst of Wars‑The hour of their greatness, & perhaps, wealth in my judgement, is past they will probably, sooner, or later, be swallowd up by the great Empires‑If I can hear of any person going to London, I will send You a Copy of the result of Our deliberations it is not worth the expence of postage, or I woud now inclose it to You‑We, in many in­stances, took the Constitution of Britain, when in its purity, for a model and surely We cou'd not have a better‑We tried to avoid, what ap­peared to Us, the weak parts of Antient, as well as modern Republicks‑How well We have succeeded, is left for You, and other Letterd Men to determine‑It is some what singular, yet so the fact is, that I have never met with any Dutch Man, who understood the Consti­tution of his own Country‑It is, certainly a very complex, unwieldy piece of business‑I have read different Histories of it, with attention, and to this hour, I have but a very inadequate idea of it Pray give me Your opinion, freely of the One I had some small hand in frameing af­ter You have read it‑In passing judgement on it, You must call to mind, that We had Clashing Interests to reconcile‑some strong prejudices to encounter, for the same spirit that brought settlers to a certain Quarter of this Country, is still alive in it‑View the System then, as resulting from a spirit of Accommodation to different Interests, and not the most perfect One that the Deputies cou'd devise for a Country better adapted to the reception of it, than America is at this day, or perhaps ever will be‑It is a great Extent of Territory to be under One free Gov­ernment: the manners and modes of thinking, of the Inhabitants, differing nearly as much, as in different Nations of Europe‑If We can secure tranquility at Home, and respect from abroad, they will be great points gain'd‑

We have, as You will see, taken a portion of power from the Individ­ual States, to form a General Government for the whole, to preserve the Union‑The General Government, to Consist of two Branches of Legislature and an Executive, to be Vested in One person, for four Years, but Elligible again‑the first Branch of the Legislature, to be Elected by the People, of the different States, agreeable to a ratio of Numbers & wealth to serve for two Years‑the Second to Consist of two Members from each state, to be appointed by the Legislatures of the States, to serve for six Years, One third to go out every two Years, but to be Elligible again, if their state thinks proper to appoint them. A ju­diciary to be Supreme in all matters relating to the General Govern­ment, and Appellate in State Controversies‑The powers of the General Government are so defined, as not to destroy the Sovereignty of the In­dividual States‑These are the Outlines, if I was to be more minute, I shoud test your patience‑

Note: The Reverend Weeden Butler (1742�) was master of a classical school in Chelsea, England, where Pierce Butler's son, Thomas, was a student.


Watch the video: Pierce Butler (November 2021).