|United States Senator
from South Carolina
March 4, 1789 – October 25, 1796
|Preceded by||Inaugural holder|
|Succeeded by||John Hunter|
November 4, 1802 – November 21, 1804
|Preceded by||John E. Colhoun|
|Succeeded by||John Gaillard|
|Delegate from South Carolina to the Congress of the Confederation|
May 25, 1787 – September 17, 1787
July 11, 1744|
County Carlow, Ireland
|Died||February 15, 1822
|Political party||Federalist, Democratic-Republican|
|Allegiance|| United States of America
|Service/branch||South Carolina militia|
|Years of service||1779 – 1782|
Major (combat rank)
|Battles/wars||American Revolutionary War|
Pierce Butler (July 11, 1744 – February 15, 1822) was a soldier, planter, and statesman, recognized as one of United States' Founding Fathers. He represented South Carolina in the Continental Congress, the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the U.S. Senate.
One of the largest slaveholders in the United States, Butler defended American slavery for both political and personal motives, though he had private misgivings about the institution, and particularly about the African slave trade. He introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution during the convention, and supported other measures to benefit slaveholders, including counting the full slave population in state totals for the purposes of Congressional apportionment. The compromise measure provided for counting three-fifths of the slave population in state totals, which led to Southern states having disproportionate power.
Marriage and family
In January 1771, Major Pierce Butler married Mary Middleton (c. 1750 – 1790). She was the orphaned daughter of Thomas Middleton, a South Carolina planter and slave importer. She was heiress to a vast fortune. Butler resigned his commission in the British Army two years later and settled with Mary in South Carolina. The couple had eight children:
Sarah (c. 1772 – 1831), married 1800, James Mease of Philadelphia
Anne Elizabeth (1771–1845), unmarried4th son, died young
Frances (1774–1836), unmarried
Harriot Percy (c. 1775 – 1815), unmarried
Pierce Jr. (1777–1780)
Thomas (1778–1838), married 1812, Eliza de Mallevault of Paris
3rd son, died young
In early 1779 Governor John Rutledge asked the former Redcoat to help reorganize South Carolina's defenses. Butler assumed the post of the state's adjutant general, a position that carried the rank of brigadier general. He preferred to be addressed as major, his highest combat rank.
Britain was shifting its war strategy. By 1778 the King and his ministers faced a new military situation in the colonies. Their forces in the northern and middle colonies had reached a stalemate with Washington's Continentals, more adequately supplied and better trained after the hard winter at Valley Forge. There was the risk of France entering the war as a partner of the Americans. The British developed a "southern strategy." They believed that the many Loyalists in the southern states (with whom the British had an active trade through cotton, rice and tobacco) would rally to the Crown if supported by regular troops. They planned a conquest of the rebellious colonies one at a time, moving north from Georgia. They launched their new strategy by capturing Savannah in December 1778.
Butler joined to mobilize South Carolina's militia to repulse the threatened British invasion. Later he helped prepare the state units used in the counterattack to drive the enemy from Georgia. During the operation, which climaxed with an attempted attack on Savannah, Butler served as a volunteer aide to General Lachlan McIntosh. The hastily raised and poorly prepared militia troops could not compete with the well-trained British regulars, and the Patriots' effort to relieve Savannah ended in failure.
In 1780 the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, and with it most of the colony's civil government and military forces. Butler escaped as part of a command group deliberately located outside the city. During the next two years, he developed a counterstrategy to defeat the enemy's southern operations. Refusing to surrender, allies in South Carolina, and the occupied portions of Georgia and North Carolina, organized a resistance movement. As adjutant general, Butler worked with former members of the militia and Continental Army veterans such as Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter to integrate the partisan efforts into a unified campaign. They united with the operations of the Southern Army under the command of Horatio Gates and later Nathanael Greene.
As a former Royal officer, Butler was a special target for the British occupation forces. Several times he barely avoided capture. Throughout the closing phases of the southern campaign, he personally donated cash and supplies to help sustain the American forces and also assisted in the administration of prisoner-of-war facilities.
Military operations in the latter months of the Revolution left Butler a poor man. Many of his plantations and ships were destroyed, and the international trade on which the majority of his income depended was in shambles. He traveled to Europe when the war ended in an effort to secure loans and establish new markets. Butler enrolled his son in a London school and engaged a new minister from among the British clergy for his Episcopal church in South Carolina.
In late 1785 he returned to the United States. He became an outspoken advocate of reconciliation with former Loyalists and of equal representation for the residents of the backcountry. Testifying to his growing political influence, the South Carolina legislature asked Butler to represent the state at the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787.
Butler's experiences as a soldier and planter-legislator led to his forceful support for a strong union of the states. He had come to appreciate the need for a national approach to defense. As a planter and merchant, he understood that economic growth and the international respect to support trade depended upon a strong central government. At the same time, he energetically supported the special interests of his region. He introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article 4, Section 2), which established protection for slavery in the Constitution. In addition, while privately criticizing the international trade in African slaves, he supported the passage in the Constitution that prohibited regulation of the trade for 20 years. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, some northern states had already abolished slavery, and others soon did so, leaving the new country largely divided between the slaveholding South and the free labor North. Similarly, Butler supported counting the full slave population in the states' totals for the purposes of Congressional apportionment, but had to be satisfied with the compromise to count three-fifths of the slaves toward that end. This gave the Southern whites (and states) representation out of proportion to their population, ensuring that the Southern planter elite would exert strong influence in national politics for decades.
While supporting an institution integral to the Southern economy, Butler displayed inconsistencies that would bother associates throughout the rest of his political career. For example, Butler favored ratification of the Constitution, yet did not attend the South Carolina convention that ratified it. Later, he was elected by the South Carolina state legislature to three separate terms in the United States Senate, but made abrupt changes in party allegiances during this period. Beginning as a Federalist, he switched to the Jeffersonian party in 1795. In 1804 he declared himself a political independent.
Vice President Aaron Burr was Butler's guest at his St. Simons plantations in September 1804. Burr was, at the time, laying low after shooting Alexander Hamilton in the July 1804 duel. The states of New York and New Jersey had each indicted the Vice President for murder in the wake of the post-duel controversy. Burr had traveled during August,to Butler's plantation under the pseudonym Roswell King, which was Butler's overseer's name. During Burr's stay in early September, one of the worst hurricanes in history hit the area, and we have Burr's first-hand description, documenting both his stay and this event. It is interesting to note that Butler's politics and public involvement mirror the political rise and fall of his friend Burr.
After these successive changes, voters did not elect him again to national office. They elected him three more times to the state legislature as an easterner who spoke on behalf of the west.
Later years, post-politics
Butler retired from politics in 1805. He spent much time in Philadelphia, where he had previously established a summer home, and where his oldest daughter Sarah lived with her family. She had three surviving sons before her father died, two of whom would become his heirs by irrevocably taking his surname. More than a decade before he died, he disinherited his only surviving son Thomas Butler, together with his French-born wife and children.
Continuing his business ventures, Butler became one of the wealthiest men in the United States, with huge land holdings in several states. Like other Founding Fathers from his region, Butler also continued to support the institution of slavery. Some historians claim that he privately opposed slavery, and especially the international slave trade, but he tried to protect the institution as a politician because of its importance to the Southern economy. But, unlike Washington or Thomas Jefferson, for example, Butler never acknowledged the fundamental inconsistency in simultaneously defending the rights of the poor and supporting slavery.
Associates referred to him as "eccentric" and an "enigma." He followed his own path to produce the maximum of liberty and respect for those individuals whom he classed as citizens. He wanted to maintain a strong central government, but a government that could never ride roughshod over the rights of the private citizen. He opposed the policies of the Federalists under Alexander Hamilton because he believed they had sacrificed the interests of westerners and had sought to force their policies on the opposition. He later split with Jefferson and the Democrats for the same reason. Butler emphasized his belief in the role of the common man. Late in life he summarized his view: "Our System is little better than [a] matter of Experiment.... much must depend on the morals and manners of the people at large."
Following his wife's death in 1790, Major Pierce Butler sold off the last of their South Carolina holdings and invested in Georgia Sea Island plantations. Major Pierce Butler hired Roswell King as the manager of his two plantations on St. Simon's Island and Butler Island. They had some conflicts as Butler wanted more moderate treatment of his slaves than was King's style. King left in 1820 to operate his own plantation near Darien. He also pursued plans in the 1830s to develop cotton mills in the Piedmont of Georgia, where he founded what became Roswell, Georgia in 1839.
Butler disinherited his only surviving son, Thomas Butler, along with his French-born wife and children. He initially planned to leave his whole fortune to Pierce Butler Mease, the eldest son of his daughter Sarah Butler Mease, the only one of his daughters to marry and have children. The boy died in 1810 at age 9. Butler told Sarah he would leave his estate in equal parts to her surviving three sons (including one born that year), provided they irrevocably adopted Butler as their surname. Two of her sons, John and Pierce Butler Mease (born 1810 and named after the grandfather and the brother who died), did change their surnames after they came of age in order to inherit portions of the estate. Until they came of age, Butler's daughters Fraunces and Eliza inherited the most productive lands.
In 1820 Major Butler hired Roswell King, Jr. as the manager of the plantations, which continued to be enormously profitable. After Butler died in 1822, King Jr. continued as manager on behalf of the estate, staying until 1838. He moved on to his own plantation in Alabama after the two Mease grandsons came of age, adopted the surname Butler, and inherited their portions.
Pierce Mease Butler spent the period of 1838-1839 at the plantations with his British wife, actress Fanny Kemble. She wrote an account of that period which she did not publish until 1863: Journal of a Southern Plantation, 1838-1839. It has become a classic.
John (Mease) Butler and Pierce (Mease) Butler
Marriage and family
In 1834 the grandson Pierce (Mease) Butler married the notable English actress Frances ("Fanny") Kemble, who had been touring in the United States for two years with her father. They had two daughters, Sarah and Frances.
After Butler inherited his portion of the major's plantations on Butler and St. Simons islands, he took his family there for the winter of 1838-1839. Kemble was shocked at the living and working conditions for the slaves, and complained to him of their overwork and of the manager Roswell King, Jr.'s treatment of them. She noted that King Jr. was credited with having had several mixed-race children with slave women, whom he sometimes took away from their husbands for periods of time. The firsthand experiences of the winter residence contributed to Kemble's growing abolitionism. The couple had increasing tensions over this and their basic incompatibility. Butler threatened to deny Kemble access to their daughters if she published anything of her observations about the plantation conditions, which she had often complained about to him. When they divorced in 1849, Butler kept custody of their two daughters.
Kemble waited until 1863, after the American Civil War had started and her daughters had come of age, to publish her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. Her eye-witness indictment of slavery included an account of King Jr's mixed-race children with slave women. The book was published in both the US and England.
By mid-century, Pierce (Mease) Butler was one of the richest men in the United States, but he squandered a fortune estimated at $700,000. He was saved from bankruptcy by his sale on March 2–3, 1859 of his 436 slaves at Ten Broeck Racetrack, outside Savannah, Georgia. It was the largest single slave auction in United States history and was covered by national newspapers. He was briefly imprisoned for treason, August–September 1861, and sat out the Civil War in Philadelphia, a refuge for numerous Southerners.
Death of John (Mease) Butler
Union forces occupied all the Butler plantations beginning in February 1862. By the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, his brother John (Mease) Butler lost nearly 500 slaves to freedom. Later in 1863 John died, and Pierce (Mease) Butler inherited his half of the Butler estate. In the social and economic disruption of the postwar years, Butler was unsuccessful in adapting to the free labor market amid a general agricultural depression; he was unable to gain a profit from the Sea Island plantations.
Fourth and later generations
After (Mease) Butler's death, his second daughter Frances Butler Leigh and her husband James Leigh, a minister, tried to restore to productivity and operate the combined plantations, but were also unsuccessful in generating a profit. They left Georgia in 1877 and moved permanently to England, where Leigh had been born. Frances Butler Leigh defended her father's actions as a slaveholder in her book, Ten Years on a Georgian Plantation since the War (1883), intended as a rebuttal to her mother's critique of slavery twenty years before.
Butler's eldest daughter, Sarah Butler Wister, had married a wealthy doctor, Owen Jones Wister of the Germantown area of Philadelphia. They had a son, Owen Wister, who became a popular American novelist and author of the 1902 western novel, The Virginian, now considered a classic of the western migration. Wister was the last Butler descendant to inherit the plantations acquired by Major Butler. He wrote about the post-Civil War South in his novel, Lady Baltimore (1906). It glorified "the lost aristocrats of antebellum Charleston" and, as the historian Marian McKenna notes, was strongly criticized by his friend Theodore Roosevelt for making nearly all the devils Northerners and the angels Southerners.
Legacy and honors
- Major Pierce Butler and many of his descendants are buried in a family vault at the Episcopal Christ Church, Philadelphia, built in 1727-1744 and a National Historic Landmark.
- Butler Street in Madison, Wisconsin is named in his honor.
- Robert K. Wright, Jr. and Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., "Pierce Butler", Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution, Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1987, accessed 4 March 2012
- Marian C. McKenna, "Review: Malcolm Bell, Jr., 'Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family' (1987)", Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1988) August
- ""Our Today's and Yesterdays, A Story of Brunswick and the Coastal Islands", pg. 135-138". Glynngen.com. Retrieved 2013-05-22.
- David, Deirdre. Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2007, p. 154
- "Great Auction of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia", New York Tribune, March 9, 1859, at American Memory, Library of Congress
- "Wisconsin History". Wisconsin History. 2006-03-29. Retrieved 2013-05-22.
- Malcolm Bell, Jr., Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (University of Georgia Press, 1987)
- Pierce Butler at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- James H. Hutson, "Pierce Butler's Records of the Federal Constitutional Convention," Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37 (1980): 64-73.
- The Letters of Pierce Butler, 1790-1794: Nation Building and Enterprise in the New American Republic. Edited by Terry W. Lipscomb (University of South Carolina Press, 2007).
- "Pierce Butler," in Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America. Edited by Linda Grant De Pauw et al. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972-) 14: 824-30.
- John T. White, "Pierce Butler", The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 2, 1895, p. 162
- Works by Pierce Butler at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Pierce Butler at Internet Archive
- Pierce Butler at Find a Grave
|United States Senate|
|U.S. Senator (Class 2) from South Carolina
Served alongside: Ralph Izard, Jacob Read
John E. Colhoun
|U.S. Senator (Class 3) from South Carolina
Served alongside: Thomas Sumter