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Masters, Law, and Race: An American Heritage

ISSUE:  Winter 1989
Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slave-Holding Family. By Malcolm Bell, Jr. Georgia. $29.95.

In Major Butlers Legacy, Malcolm Bell, Jr. has created a compelling and important book. He has produced good history, good literature, and more, a rich and subtle homily on American life and culture.

At the outset, the matter of form and presentation of this volume deserve note. This is not history as professional, academic historians tend to write it. It differs from standard academic productions on several counts. It is more obviously narrative rather than analytical; personal and engaged rather than abstract and objective; discursive rather than direct. The author has written to delight as much as edify. While Bell knows and addresses the critical secondary sources on slavery in particular (he seems softer on the excellent and proliferating scholarship on the planter class itself), academic categories about the nature of the institution do not figure very prominently in the volume. Most obviously what interests him are stories of people. And he tells many, the British actress Fanny Kemble’s not least of all (she was briefly married to a Butler). Indeed, his book brims with the narratives of all sorts of individuals and groups of individuals. The basis of the text is the story of one family, the Butlers themselves beginning with Major Pierce Butler in the American Revolutionary era and concluding with his great-great grandson, the turn-of-the-century novelist Owen Wister almost 200 years later. He traces this direct line, but he also follows the odder threads of a family’s history, like the branch that married into French sugar island planters and wound up as Parisians. He also spins the tales of the most diverse lot of other people who thread in and out of this main genealogical plot—like the Roswell Kings, father and son, overseers on the Butler’s vast estates, or the almost fancifully aristocratic planter family nearby on St. Simons Island, the wealthy, noble Couper clan. He tells, too, however, the much more difficult tales of otherwise almost nameless slaves. He finds their names; he gives them histories; and indeed, he traces them all over the North Atlantic from Africa to Charleston, Savannah, and Butler’s Island to Nova Scotia and the Bahamas. Even had they the inclination, few university historians have the time, funds, and other resources to follow the major characters in a social history through their destinies, to sift the most obscure records on three continents for some hints of what they might have felt or thought, and then to spin the logic of such seeming random evidence into—whole lives. Bell does it for everyone, his high and mighty planters, his lowly chattel slaves, and most in between.

These stories of individual men and women, and the tales of families and peoples possess intrinsic interest, but Bell’s book contains a larger narrative. Although Bell does not say so explicitly, he spins the stories of his individual characters around a grander and even moral theme. His prime objective is to trace the causes and effects of reckless personal greed and its efflorescence in slavery and Negrophobia over the time of 150 years of five generations and over the space, ultimately, of the American republic. This larger story possesses its own meaning in a kind of Plutarchian morality tale. Bell describes, in short, diseases of American social and political life—racism and greed. Bell’s Major Butler clarifies the vision of how slavery, masters, racism, and a system, willy-nilly, compromised republican virtue at its inception and at its core—in the Constitution of the United States—and he traces the meaning of that compromise into 20th-century U.S. history. In the true old fashion of Plutarch, the volume points out the evil but affirms, subtly, the right. This underlines another difference from academic history. However much historians as individuals deplore the wickedness of men or systems, they generally shy from this kind of judgment. Or, conversely, they write polemics, reflecting the same difficulty from the opposite perspective. Bell thumps no tubs. Jeremiah he is not. Yet with grace and even charm, his intuitive lessons of virtue and error live on almost every page. Bell seems to write as if for an audience that instinctively appreciates his notions of political virtue and public morality. He never strains to make a point. In this regard, the book is “popular” in the best definition of that term. Assuming readers’ sympathy, Bell also elevates and edifies that readership.

This raises still another matter that distinguishes this book from academic history: Bell writes clearly for a general audience, as opposed to the custom among university historians of producing articles and monographs primarily for one another. In this regard, Major Butler’s Legacy underlines the difference between history as literature or the humanities as opposed to a branch of the social sciences. All in all, Bell’s Major Butler is written—and succeeds—the way a good, engaging novel does. Who could resist his wonderful opening?

In 1765, His Majesty’s ship Thunderer, 74 guns, transported the colorful Twenty-ninth Regiment of Foot to King George II’s distant North American outpost of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Twenty-ninth. . . .had come from Ireland, where successive tours of duty had imparted a distinctive Irish cast to the organization. Even more distinctive was the splendid regimental band. Ten black drummers, all former slaves captured from the French on the island of Guadeloupe, gave the band a special air. In their brilliant uniforms of scarlet pantaloons, silver-buttoned yellow jackets, Hessian boots, feathered turbans, and Persian scimitars, they won the admiration of all who saw and heard them perform. Their training as drummers had begun on Guadeloupe’s sugar plantations, where they beat out “tam-tam” rhythms to incite their fellow slaves to increased efficiency as cane was planted, cut, or hauled away to the mills.

This opening is actually richer still as Bell is also introducing the themes and prime geography of the text that follow. As this paragraph makes the complex interrelationships of Ireland, France, England, Africa, and America seem completely natural and organic, so does the text. As a literary construction, Major Butler works well. Bell imparts the same color and vitality to the personae of his text. He makes his figures live again. They spring to life. They command the reader’s attention not merely for their individual significance as men and women but because of the author’s literary skills. The same holds true for the settings and landscapes he describes—whether of the lush, Edenic Altamaha lands in springtime, or the rich interiors of Georgian mansions in Philadelphia, or the Germantown farm in deep winter.

For all its intrinsic literary and even moral virtues, Malcolm Bell’s merit does not end here. He adds significantly to historical knowledge. For more than 150 years, the Butlers played important roles in almost all phases of American life and letters. Sometimes primary actors, sometimes secondary, they knew and were known by most men and women of importance in their times—from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt and Henry James. The clan began with the first Pierce Butler. Of all the signers of the U.S. Constitution, few are more obscure. Bell changes that. He presents, surely, the definitive biographical word on Butler and offers the most significant analysis of his place in American history. The younger son of an Irish lord, Butler earned a military reputation while still in his teens. Stationed in British Charlestown, South Carolina on the eve of the revolution, he passed his time searching for a rich American wife. He found one in one of the oldest and noblest Carolina houses, the Middletons. The Middletons, in turn, had connections with all the other wealth and honor of the Carolina Low Country, the Bulls, the Draytons, and all the rest. Coupled with his own family standing and military honor, this marital alliance won him instant entrée into the inner circles of the most aristocratic and conservative society in British America. Although he sold his commission and went with the rebels in 1776, he did so without enthusiasm, and he never put his army experience to the full disposal of the Americans. This, however, failed to prejudice his countrymen—and now-kinsmen—against him, and South Carolina chose him as a representative to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Few delegates have attracted less attention. On the surface, he merited this disdain. Nothing of the nobility or purpose of such men as Washington, Mason, Gerry, Sherman, or Wilson touched his aims or personality. Bitter, proud, querulous, and eccentric, he left only one momument, but that one was significant. He stood relentlessly and single-mindedly for the perpetuation and extension of African slavery. He won. He helped legitimize the institution into the most fundamental fabric of American law and life. To our perpetual shame and sorrow, that is one measure of his legacy that Americans share even in the bicentennial years of the Constitution. On the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution, Justice Thurgood Marshall, for one, reminded us of this racial taint that perverted fundamental law of our land. He did not name Pierce Butler. He might have. The document bears his mark indelibly.

At the very time of his contribution to the national law, Pierce Butler was also using all his power and influence to build and extend his fortune in slavery. With disregard for both law and propriety, he maneuvered his children’s legacies to reinforce his own estates in South Carolina. A little later, by the early 1790’s, he unleashed a far vaster ambition on coastal Georgia. Foreshadowing the mythic Thomas Sutpen of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, he accumulated a ten-square mile tract of swamp on the Altamaha River, and with the labor of innumerable African slaves, he made it a source of almost endless wealth for himself and for the generations that followed him. Although among the richest plantations in the United States, these Georgia estates fail utterly to fit the traditional image of the great Southern plantation, even if nearby, the Coupers at Cannon’s Point and the Kings at Retreat might have. Pierce Butler never lived at his estates. Indeed, by the early 1790’s, he gave up permanent residence in the South altogether for a Philadelphia mansion on Chestnut Street and a summer retreat in Germantown. He left daily management of his Georgia properties to the tender mercies of the Connecticut-born Roswell King. King made Butler rich, but he also added to Butler’s estates in other ways—as did his son after him—by siring numerous mulatto children by Butler’s slave women. Renty was one of them, for whom King cuckolded his best driver Frank; Daphne, who created a history of her own after emancipation, was still another. Roswell King and his son Barrington ultimately left the Butler estates and moved inland to found the town of Roswell, Georgia, and to plant Connecticut-like factories and industry there. Actually, they employed much the same factory model on the Altamaha plantations. The Kings redoubled Pierce Butler’s legacy. If Bell’s treatment of Butler’s role in Philadelphia illuminates the making of the American political order, his treatment of the founding and exploitation of the Altamaha lands adds a new chapter to the social history of the plantation South.

Pierce Butler died in 1822 at almost 80. He dominated his family even from the grave. At loggerheads with his offspring in life, the redoubtable old man governed them in death as well through his extremely complex will. He eliminated some of his children altogether from his estate and passed the Georgia lands to his grandsons. For this clause to take effect, however, he required them to change their name to Butler. They scorned the idea initially. The extraordinary wealth of these lands lured them on inexorably, and eventually all succumbed. It was one of these now fabulously wealthy grandchildren, Pierce (né Mease) Butler, who fell in love with the stunning Miss Kemble. If not a wastrel, this third generation Butler had no or little business sense. Changing market conditions and essentially inflexible capital investment grossly complicated his economic circumstances. The attempt to rectify his difficulties led him South in the winter of 1838—39; this provided, in turn, the occasion for his wife to record her impressions of slavery which she published in 1863 in London as Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Slave Plantation, a memorial to the Butlers if none other had existed. Pierce Butler’s circumstances did not improve in any way, except perhaps when he won a divorce from his brilliant wife and custody of his two daughters in the process. In the decade before the Civil War, financial exigency—and again those ghastly family wills—forced him to sell off half of the Butler Island Negroes. Three hundred and 50 people went on the block in Savannah. This extraordinary event won wide notice at the time, provided grist to abolitionist mills, and proved, too, the origin of this book, according to the author. With its terrible human implications, this great slave sale first introduced Malcolm Bell to his subject, and the lessons of this initiatory episode provided the author’s essential themes which he played then both foreward and backward in his history. In dealing with this third generation of the family, Bell adds important insights on slavery, but he also illuminates aspects of women’s history and 19th-century divorce proceedings. Not least, of course, he reintroduces the singular Miss Kemble to an audience that should cherish her anew.

The Civil War radically altered the Butlers’ lives. While still residents of Philadelphia, Butler and his daughter Frances sympathized outright with the Confederacy and ran afoul of Federal law, but the Pennsylvania slave-owner outlived slavery by only one year. The family did not die out with Civil War, however. Nor did the family’s interest in its Georgia estates disappear with Lee’s defeat. Butler’s “Confederate” daughter, Frances, persisted with the Butler plantations. Substituting free labor for slave failed to restore the old prosperity. She had to wrestle, too, with the complicated aspects of her father’s will. Those tangled wills serve as more than metaphor of the old master’s determination to rule forever. Even with the devoted help of her Cambridge-educated Anglican priest of a husband, Frances could not make the plantation pay. She finally gave up and returned with him to England, but she left her own account of these years. Though not so brilliant as her mother’s record, Frances Butler Leigh’s, Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War has been republished by the Negro University Press and deserves a wider readership. With all this material, Malcolm Bell provides the richest social history of the exigencies of the post-Confederate South.

Pierce and Fanny Butler also had another daughter. Her life was very different from Frances Leigh’s, and Sarah Butler Wister opens the text to altogether different kinds of history. Representing the family’s “abolitionist branch,” this daughter took no interest in the Altamaha lands. Like her mother before her, she chose the world of arts and letters for her bailiwick. Like Fanny Kemble, she knew all the movers and shakers of 19th-century High Culture in both Europe and America. Henry James admired her as much as he had her mother, and she won some small immortality in his fiction. For Bell, Sarah Wister expands the Butler story into the very middle of the intellectual culture of the late 19th century.

Of the fifth generation of Butlers, one child of Frances Butler and James Wentworth Leigh returned to Ireland and married back into the same house that Pierce Butler had abandoned when he came to America. The original Pierce Butler’s father was the fifth baronet of Cloughrenan; his great-great granddaughter wed the 11th baronet in 1906. Major Butler would have gloated. The estates, however, or what was left of them in Georgia passed on to another great-great grandson, Owen Wister, Fanny Kemble’s favorite grandson. Bell’s story ends with him.

Although most famous for The Virginian, the first “western,” Owen Wister also wrote a Southern novel, Lady Baltimore. Set in Charleston, it evoked the racial and class themes that had dominated the South for 200 years. For Malcolm Bell, this less-known novel brings the family wheel full circle. Although descended through the abolitionist daughter of the Kemble-Butler misalliance, Wister created a fiction that summarized the prejudices of his aristocratic planter ancestors and dismissed the blacks with contemptible scorn. In turning a full circle, however, Bell’s work burrows deeper, like a screw, into the nation-family’s Negrophobic grain. Things changed. Or at least the author holds out that possibility. Elegantly, he concludes the text, then, not with this celebration of the aristocracy but with President Theodore Roosevelt’s stinging rebuke of his friend Wister’s dreamy racism. The planters? “They drank and dueled and made speeches, but they contributed very, very little toward anything of which we as Americans are now proud . . . . I think in reality it was an ignoble life,” Roosevelt argued. And the blacks? Had slavery been their salvation and had the years since witnessed their deterioration? Wister’s implication outraged his old companion in the White House.

. . . the talk about the negro having become worse since the Civil War is the veriest nonsense. He has on the whole become better. Among the negroes of the South when slavery was abolished there was not one who stood as in any shape or way comparable with Booker Washington. Incidentally I may add that I do not know a white man of the South who is as good a man as Booker Washington today. You say you would not like to take orders from a negro yourself. If you had played football in Harvard at any time during the last fifteen years you would have had to do so, and you would not have minded it in the least; for during that time Lewis has been field captain and a coach.

The author of The Virginian sold the last of the Altamaha lands in 1925 for about $25,000. A hundred years before, it would have fetched 15 times that much even in absolute, not relative dollars. The family’s later wealth, ironically, derived not from the Georgia swamps, but from the sale of the Germantown farm—whose mortgage Fanny Kemble had demanded as a part of her divorce settlement. That place the family sold to developers in 1924. Little of Pierce Butler’s physical legacy remains. One Philadelphia house still stands. And far off in the savannah, barely visible from Interstate 95 as it roars through the marshes of Glynn, the crumbling brick smokestack of Butler Island’s steam rice mill stands ruined sentinel to Major Pierce Butler’s vanity. His other legacy, however, lives perversely still at the center of American life. Malcolm Bell’s fine book illuminates that awful debt.


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