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The Papers of Pierce Butler (1744-1822)and successors
from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Publisher's Note

Pierce Butler (1744-1822) was born in County Carlow, Ireland and his father, Sir Richard Butler, was a Member of Parliament and a baronet. As the third son, he could not inherit, so he pursued a military career. He became a Major in the 29th Regiment and was posted to Boston in 1768 to quell the disturbances. However, he turned Republican before the Revolution and, after marrying Mary Middleton in 1771, he settled in South Carolina, where her father had considerable estates. He quit his commission and turned South Carolinan planter.

Butler was a representative in the South Carolina state legislature from 1778 to 1782 and again from 1784 to 1789. Perhaps surprisingly, he disregarded the planter-merchant faction in politics and took over leadership of the democrats of the back country. He argued for the reform of representation and the revaluation of property. He also acted as adjutant general in the South Carolina militia from 1779 onwards. The War of Independence cost him dear and he lost much of his property. However, he raised a personal loan in Amsterdam and in 1786 he landed a position on a commission settling the boundaries of South Carolina. He subsequently built up substantial plantations in Georgia and made a fortune both from cotton and from shrewd investments in Philadelphian real estate.

In 1787 he was elected to both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention (he was one of the 39 signers of the Constitution). He was an outspoken nationalist and pushed for a strong central government with property as part of the basis for representation. He was author of the fugitive slave clause.  He also played a key role in the Committee on Postponed Matters which decided upon, among other things, the method by which future presidents should be elected and the length of term that they should serve.

Butler was elected to the US Senate in 1789 and was re-elected in 1792. He server as a Federalist but often crossed party lines. He opposed Jay's Treaty with Britain and tariff measures. He resigned in 1796 to run his estates, but served in the Senate again from 1802-04 as a Democrat to fill an unexpired term. He denounced the Twelfth Amendment. He was a Director of the 1st and 2nd Banks of the United States.

Towards the end of his life, Butler moved to Philadelphia where Sarah, one of his two daughters, was married to a local physician, Dr Mease. When Pierce dies in 1822 his estate passed to Sarah and her sister Frances. By a condition of his will, Sarah's two sons, Pierce and John, took the name Butler. Hence Pierce Mease became Pierce Butler II and he inherited the estates when his aunt Frances died. A secessionist, Pierce Butler II made headlines by marrying British actress Fanny Kemble in 1834. He was wealthy and she was beautiful and initially their marriage was a success. She declared that her "whole existence" held him as its "sole object" and they settled into Butler Place, a comfortable property 6 miles from Philadelphia. However, Fanny soon began to feel isolated and her hatred of slavery became a divisive issue.

The marriage did not last. Fanny fled to England in 1845 and Pierce filed for divorce after two years of wilful desertion. Divorce was granted in 1849. Frances and Sara, her daughters, remained in America, but both were financially secure. Fanny Kemble prospered as an actress, editor and author of works such as Journal of Residence in America (1835), Poems (1844, 1965 and 1883), Records of Girlhood (1878), Records of Later Life (1882), Far Away and Long Ago (1889) and Further Records (1890). Her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (1863) made the Butler Estates famous.

Scholars can now examine Fanny's written descriptions of life on the Plantations in conjunction with these original records which will help to provide answers to questions such as:

How brutal was slave management on the Butler estates?

How profitable was rice-growing and cotton-planting, and how important was slavery to that profitability? How did the situation in 1786 compare with the situation in 1800, 1820, 1840, 1860 and 1880?

This microfilm publication provides long, detailed runs of documentation concerning the running of the South Carolina and Georgia estates from 1786 to 1885. As a series of plantation records they provide a total overview of the business from the Revolutionary period, through the Civil War, to the 1880's. Records include:

  • Plantation managers' correspondence: George Hooper, 1786-1803;
    Roswell King, 1803-30; Roswell King Jr, 1815-54; Alexander Blue, 1847-59;
    S W Wilson, 1848-49; James M Couper, 1879-85; Owen J Wister, 1879-85; James W Leigh, 1877-85; Frank K Leigh, 1879-85; and J H Johnston, 1879-85.
  • Slave Registers, 1775-1815 - with details of name, age and character.
  • Birth and Death lists of slaves, 1800-1834
  • Purchases and sales of slaves, and notes of punishments, 1780-1804
  • Crop and livestock reports, 1800-1884
  • Shipping agents' correspondence and accounts, 1773-1884
  • Land transactions, 1779-1881

Taken together these sources build up a complete economic picture of slave-holding and the cotton planting business - but they are also rich in insights into the social history of slavery. The correspondence of the plantation managers, in particular, is full of observations concerning life on the plantations both for the slaves and the managers.

This project also makes available the Political Papers of Pierce Butler, including:

  • Letterbooks, 1787-1822 - featuring letters to John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Aaron Burr, Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson, Roswell King, General James Wilkinson and others.
  • Notes on the finances of South Carolina, 1775-1788
  • Notes on debates, 1787-1803
  • Congressional Papers on Domestic Debt and the U S Treasury, 1790-1793
  • Papers on Foreign Affairs, 1791-1799 - including the Treaty with Algiers, 1791 and John Jay's envoy to Britain, 1794
  • Papers on the Bank of the United States, 1801-1819
  • A final category of material includes Butler's private business papers, will and estate papers.

This collection will be welcomed by all those studying American History, 1787-1804, Slavery, Plantations, and the South. Well organized and compact in size, these papers provide an ideal base for undergraduate essay and project work, especially in conjunction with the well known accounts of Plantation life by Fanny Kemble.




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