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.
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.”
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.
Stephen W. Berry, ‘The Butler Family,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, September 3, 2014, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/butler-family, accessed November 18, 2015.
“Pierce Butler, South Carolina,” Constitution Day, http://www.constitutionday.com/butler-pierce-sc.html