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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,436


This is the grave of Pierce Butler.

Born in 1744 in Garryhundon, County Carlow, Ireland, Butler grew up in the Protestant elite ruling over Ireland with less than a mild hand. His father was Sir Richard Butler, a big landowner in Ireland and a long-time member of Parliament. Dominating humans would be central to Butler’s life, whether in Ireland or in the U.S. It was easy enough to take your ideas of dominion across the Atlantic and replace the Irish with Africans. Or it was easy for Butler anyway.

Butler was in the British Army as an officer. But he wanted to own his own land and he had just married the daughter of a South Carolina planter, so he resigned in 1771, moved to the colonies, and bought a plantation in South Carolina. Even though he had just recently left the British army, he had no real allegiance to the crown and when the colonies declared independence, Butler was on board. He seems to have mostly stayed out of the war at first, but when it came to the South in 1778, Butler was moved to action. Since he had a lot more military experience than the long-time colonists, he was of tremendous value to South Carolina leaders. In 1779, its leaders asked Butler to take over as adjutant general and run its military. He tried to organize South Carolina soldiers to help resist the British invasion of Savannah, but they were so outclassed by the professionals. So basically he, along with Frances Marion and other military leaders in the region, went to a low-level guerilla war, though it was not called that at the time. He also donated most of his fortune to fighting the war and by the end of the war, he was almost broke.

After the war, Butler went back to England to secure personal loans, get his kid in a fancy English school, and help reestablish commerce, which even the English wanted to a certain extent. He made a lot of friends and connections out there and became a big promoter of cultural and financial reunification with the loyalists and the British. South Carolina sent him to the Constitutional Convention and he was a major supporter of a strong central state. He saw the new nation not as 13 ex-colonies but as one nation that needed to come together in common interests. But of course one of those things for Butler was protecting slavery. He was a major proponent of laws to protect slavery and for the forced return of fugitive slaves. He did however support the end of the African slave trade though. On the other hand, he was dismayed at the Three-Fifths Compromise because naturally he wanted all slaves to count as a whole person in terms of apportionment. As always, the point of slaves was to reinforce white power.

Butler was something of a political chameleon. The legislature sent him to the Senate from 1789-96 and then again in 1802. But his politics were shifty. He started as a Federalist and became a Jeffersonian in 1795. Some of this at least came out of his sympathy for the people who were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, a sympathy that to say the least was not shared by Hamilton or Washington. He generally remained pro-English though, so it certainly wasn’t any sympathy with the French Revolution as it existed in 1793, which drove so much of American political life in that time. He had however issued some support for getting rid of the French monarchy back in 1789, but a lot had happened in those four years.

Moreover, the Haitian Revolution had a huge impact on the mind of men like Butler, who had a lot to lose if that spread to the U.S. As always, the Rights of Man meant one thing for whites and another for slaves, by which I mean nothing. Butler responded to this by demanding laws banning the importation of slaves not only from the Caribbean, but from northern states as well, where the slow dwindling of slavery had incentivized sales to the South and Butler felt they would bring ideas of liberty to the plantations, a danger equal in his mind to Haiti.

Later Butler became a political independent and finally the legislature named someone more politically stable to the Senate in 1804. He also remained close to Aaron Burr, even after the latter shot Hamilton and was engaging in sketchy machinations on the frontier. Burr hung out at his plantation for awhile after that all. By this time, Butler was mostly living in Georgia Sea Islands anyway on a new plantation. He was able to fund his purchases in Georgia back before the Revolution by selling his military commission, which brought enough money for 1,700 acres of prime Georgia land.

After Butler left politics, he kept his plantations of course but lived most of the time in Philadelphia, emulating the British elites who had plantations in the Caribbean but lived in posh London homes. Now, is Butler better or worse than, say, Thomas Jefferson? Jefferson promoted the equality of man in his writings and held slaves and also had forced sex with one of them, but he also recognized he was a hypocrite. Butler just didn’t care. He didn’t consider himself a hypocrite because Black people weren’t worth being recognized as humans that mattered. I don’t think there’s any real gain to say which of the two is “better” or “worse,” but it is interesting to consider the different ways this revolutionary generation rationalized their commitment to slavery to themselves.

Butler became one of the richest men in America, off both his plantations and the other investments he made from that profit. This is good moment to remind everyone that the old canard that the North was capitalist and the South was non-capitalist is complete hogwash that doesn’t stand up to the first sniff of evidence. The two regions were deeply intertwined. There was tons of northern investment in southern cotton and sugar and there was tons of southern investment in northern factories. Butler is a great example of how these supposed regional differences just didn’t mean anything to the people at the time.

Butler died in 1822. He was 77 years old.

Butler’s grandson later married the famous British actress Fanny Kemble, The marriage fell apart largely over his treatment of the slaves on his grandfather’s old plantation and the realization of all the slaves he had raped and the children he sired with them. But when she finally left him in 1849, he got to retain custody of their daughters. Later, he sold hundreds of slaves in 1859 in what became the largest slave auction in American history.

Pierce Butler is buried in Christ Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1788-89, the first ever Senate, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ralph Izard is in Goose Creek, South Carolina and William Few is in Augusta, Georgia. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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