Pierce Butler

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Pierce Butler
Pierce butler.jpg
United States Senator
from South Carolina
In office
March 4, 1789 – October 25, 1796
Preceded byInaugural holder
Succeeded byJohn Hunter
In office
November 4, 1802 – November 21, 1804
Preceded byJohn E. Colhoun
Succeeded byJohn Gaillard
Delegate from South Carolina to the Congress of the Confederation
In office
May 25, 1787 – September 17, 1787
Personal details
Born(1744-07-11)July 11, 1744
Garryhundon, County Carlow, Kingdom of Ireland
DiedFebruary 15, 1822(1822-02-15) (aged 77)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Resting placeChrist Episcopal Church and Churchyard, Philadelphia
Political partyFederalist, Democratic-Republican
Spouse(s)Mary Middleton
ParentsSir Richard Butler, 5th Baronet
Henrietta Percy
ProfessionSoldier, planter
Military service
Allegiance Kingdom of Great Britain
 United States of America
Branch/service British Army
South Carolina militia
RankAdjutant General
Major (combat rank)
Battles/warsAmerican Revolutionary War

Pierce Butler (July 11, 1744 – February 15, 1822) was an Irish-American[1] South Carolina rice planter, slaveholder, politician, an officer in the Revolutionary War, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He served as a state legislator, a member of the Congress of the Confederation, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and a member of the United States Senate.

As one of the largest slaveholders in the United States, he defended American slavery for both political and personal motives, even though he had private misgivings about the institution and particularly about the African slave trade. He introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause into a draft of the U.S. Constitution, which gave a federal guarantee to the property rights of slaveholders. He supported counting the full slave population in state totals for the purposes of Congressional apportionment. The Constitution's Three-Fifths Compromise counted only three-fifths of the slave population in state totals, but still led to Southern states having disproportionate power in the U.S. Congress.

Early life[edit]

Pierce Butler was born on July 11, 1744, in Garryhundon, County Carlow, Ireland. He was the third son of Sir Richard Butler, 5th Baronet, of Cloughgrenan (1699–1771) and his wife Henrietta Percy. He resigned a commission in the British Army in 1773, and settled with his wife Mary in South Carolina.

Revolutionary war soldier[edit]

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.[2]

Meanwhile, Britain was shifting its war strategy. By 1778, King George III 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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]


Military operations in the final months of the Revolutionary War 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. He enrolled his son Thomas in a London school run by Weeden Butler, and engaged a new minister from among the British clergy for his Episcopal church in South Carolina.[2][3]

In late 1785 Butler 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.[2] At the convention, he urged that the president be given the power to initiate war; however, he did not receive a second proponent for his motion and all the other delegates overwhelmingly rejected his proposal.[4][5]

Butler's experiences as a soldier and planter-legislator led to his forceful support for a strong union of the states. At the same time, he looked to the special interests of his region. He introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article 4, Section 2), which established protection for slavery in the Constitution.[2] 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. He advocated 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.[6] It ensured that the Southern planter elite exerted a strong influence in national politics for decades.

Butler displayed inconsistencies that troubled his associates. He 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 changed his party allegiance: beginning as a Federalist, he switched to the Jeffersonian party in 1795. In 1804 he declared himself a political independent.[2]

Vice President Aaron Burr was Butler's guest at his St. Simons plantations in September 1804. Burr was, at the time, lying 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 Burr's first-hand description documents both his stay and this event.[7] Butler's politics and public involvement mirror the political rise and fall of his friend Burr.

After these successive changes, voters did not elect Butler again to national office. They elected him three more times to the state legislature as an easterner who spoke on behalf of the west.[2]

Later years, post-politics[edit]

Following his wife's death in 1790, 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 House (demolished 1857), NW corner 8th & Chestnut Sts., Philadelphia

Butler retired from politics in 1805 and spent much of his time in Philadelphia where he had previously established a summer home. His oldest daughter, Sarah, lived with her family and had three surviving sons before he died; two of whom would become Butler's heirs by irrevocably taking his surname. More than a decade prior to Butler's death, he disinherited his only surviving son Thomas Butler, together with his French-born wife and children.[6]

Butler became one of the wealthiest men in the United States, with huge land holdings in several states, through his business ventures. Like other Founding Fathers from his region, Butler also continued to support the institution of slavery. Some[who?] 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.[citation needed] But, unlike Washington or Thomas Jefferson, for example, Butler never acknowledged the fundamental inconsistency in simultaneously defending the freedom of the people and supporting slavery.

Associates referred to Butler 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."[8]


Coat of Arms of Pierce Butler

In January 1771, Butler married Mary Middleton (c. 1750–1790). She was the orphaned daughter of Thomas Middleton, a South Carolina planter and slave importer, and was heiress to a large fortune. The couple had eight children:

  • Sarah (c. 1772–1831), married 1800, James Mease of Philadelphia
  • Anne Elizabeth (1771–1845), unmarried
  • 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
  • 4th son, died young

Butler disinherited his only surviving son, Thomas Butler, along with the son's French-born wife and children. Sarah Butler Mease was the only one of Butler's daughters to marry and have children. Butler initially planned to leave his whole fortune to her eldest son, Pierce Butler Mease, but the boy died in 1810 at age 9. Butler told Sarah that he would leave his estate in equal parts to her three surviving sons (including one born that year), provided that they would irrevocably adopt Butler as their surname. Two of her sons, John Mease and Pierce Butler Mease (born 1810 and named for the brother who died), changed their surnames order to inherit portions of the estate. Until the grandsons came of age, Butler's daughters Fraunces and Eliza had use of the most productive lands.[6]

In 1820 Major Butler hired Roswell King Jr. as the manager of the plantations, which continued to be enormously profitable. After Butler's death in 1822, King continued as manager of the estate, staying until 1838. After the two Mease grandsons came of age, adopted the surname Butler, and claimed their inheritance, King operated a plantation in Alabama.


Pierce Mease Butler[edit]

Pierce Mease Butler and his wife, Frances Kemble Butler, c.1855

Pierce Mease Butler (1810–1867) inherited half of his grandfather's Butler Island and St. Simons Island plantations. His wife kept a journal of their brief stay on one of their plantations, in which she expressed extreme horror at the state of life of enslaved people and deconstructed contemporary arguments attempting to justify slavery. Mease Butler, following their divorce, threatened to withhold custody of their children should she publish the journal within his lifetime. It was published in 1863. A famous English actress, Fanny Kemble and her noted actor/manager father Charles Kemble made a 2-year theatrical tour of the United States, 1832–1834. Pierce Mease Butler met her during the tour, and married her on June 7, 1834.[11] They lived in Philadelphia, and had two daughters, Sarah and Frances.

Pierce Mease Butler took his family to Georgia 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 was known to have sired several mixed-race children with enslaved women, whom he sometimes took away from their husbands for periods of time. Kemble's firsthand experiences of the winter residence contributed to her 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.[12] When they divorced in 1849, Pierce Mease Butler retained custody of their two daughters.[13]

Kemble waited until 1863, after the start of the American Civil War and her daughters had come of age, to publish Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. Her eyewitness indictment of slavery included an account of King's mixed-race children with slave women. The book was published in both the U.S. and England.

Slave auction[edit]

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 netted him more than $300,000. The auction was a notable event, and covered by national newspapers.[14] He sat out the Civil War in Philadelphia, a refuge for numerous Southerners, and was briefly imprisoned for treason, August–September 1861.

John A. Mease Butler[edit]

John A. Mease Butler (1806–1847) inherited half of his grandfather's plantations, after adopting "Butler" as his surname in 1831. He married Gabriella Morris, but they had no children. He served in the Mexican War, attaining the rank of captain, but died of dysentery in camp.

Union forces occupied all of the Butler plantations, beginning in February 1862. The January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed Gabriella Morris Butler's nearly 500 enslaved Africans. She died later that year. In the social and economic disruption of the postwar years, Pierce Mease Butler was unsuccessful in adapting to the free labor market, and amid a general agricultural depression he was unable to make a profit from the Sea Island plantations.

Fourth and later generations[edit]

After Pierce Mease Butler's death, his younger 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 from twenty years before.

Pierce Mease Butler's elder daughter Sarah Butler Wister married a wealthy Philadelphia doctor, Owen Jones Wister, and they lived in the Germantown section of the city. Their son, Owen Wister, became a popular American novelist, best known for The Virginian, a 1902 western novel now considered a classic. The younger Owen Wister was the last of Major Butler's descendants to inherit the plantations. He wrote about the post-Civil War South in his 1906 novel, Lady Baltimore, which romanticized "the lost aristocrats of antebellum Charleston." Wister's friend and former Harvard classmate, President Theodore Roosevelt, wrote to him criticizing the novel for making "nearly all the devils Northerners and the angels Southerners."[6]

See also[edit]

References and external links[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Army Center of Military History document: Robert K. Wright Jr. and Morris J. MacGregor Jr. "Pierce Butler". Soldiers and Statesman of the Constitution.


  1. ^ https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/abroad/the-carlow-man-who-became-a-us-founding-father-and-one-of-the-biggest-slave-owners-1.3789490[bare URL]
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j 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
  3. ^ Terry W. Lipscomb (2007). The Letters of Pierce Butler, 1790–1794: Nation Building and Enterprise in the New American Republic. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-1-57003-689-7.
  4. ^ Neuborne, Leon Friedman and Burt. "The Framers, on War Powers". Retrieved 2018-06-12.
  5. ^ "The War Powers and the Constiutional [sic] Convention". The Blue Review. 2012-10-12. Retrieved 2018-06-12.
  6. ^ a b c d Marian C. McKenna, "Review: Malcolm Bell Jr., 'Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family' (1987)" Archived 2013-10-04 at the Wayback Machine, Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1988) August
  7. ^ ""Our Today's and Yesterdays, A Story of Brunswick and the Coastal Islands", pp. 135–38". Glynngen.com. Retrieved 2013-05-22.
  8. ^ Nagel, Paul C. (1964). One Nation Indivisible: The Union in American Thought, 1776–1861. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 27. ISBN 0195000358.
  9. ^ [1]
  10. ^ "Origins of Madison Street Names". Wisconsin Historical Society. 2006-03-29. Retrieved 2018-06-12.
  11. ^ "Kemble, Frances Anne (1809–1893), actress and author". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/15318. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ David, Deirdre. Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2007, p. 154
  13. ^ Clinton, Catherine (2000). Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84414-1.
  14. ^ "Great Auction of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia", New York Tribune, March 9, 1859, at American Memory, Library of Congress


  • Malcolm Bell Jr., Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (University of Georgia Press, 1987)
  • United States Congress. "Pierce Butler (id: B001186)". 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 DePauw 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

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Inaugural holder
U.S. senator (Class 2) from South Carolina
Served alongside: Ralph Izard, Jacob Read
Succeeded by
John Hunter
Preceded by
John E. Colhoun
U.S. senator (Class 3) from South Carolina
Served alongside: Thomas Sumter
Succeeded by
John Gaillard