Although outlawed after the Revolution, slavery continued to be a critical part of the Pennsylvania economy virtually up to the Civil War. In an era before joint stock corporations, businesses were family affairs. A successful merchant or landowner would pass along his enterprises directly to his descendants, not to trained professional executives. Many prominent Philadelphia families had significant assets in Southern states: plantations that produced lucrative crops such as wheat, indigo, cotton, and tobacco.
One Philadelphia clan fought hard to maintain their way of life–even while perched north of the Mason-Dixon Line–was the Butler family. Pierce Butler, an immigrant from County Carlow, Ireland (albeit the son of a baronet), was one of South Carolina’s largest landowners and slaveholders. Scarred by the destruction of much of his property (real estate and human) during the Revolutionary War, Butler was determined to rebuild and maintain his family wealth at all costs. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Butler represented South Carolina in Philadelphia, and the man behind the drafting of the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which gave Southern states disproportionate representation in Congress while leveraging their non-voting, enslaved populations.
With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, Butler chose to build a northern “summer house” in the nation’s new capital, a rather odd choice considering that Philadelphia’s summers were just as unbearable than those in South Carolina, and as borne out in 1793, just as disease-ridden. Although his daughter Sarah was living there, the move was almost certainly political: Butler probably wanted to keep a close eye on Congress and fight any measures that would threaten his economic holdings and those of his peers. To announce his arrival in Philadelphia society, he build a large, freestanding house at 801-807 Chestnut Street Built in the highest Federal style, it much a monument to the power of Southern money as it was a statement of Butler’s refined taste. Even after the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, Butler continued to spend much of his free time in Philadelphia.
Pierce Butler died in 1822, with an estate that included 1,000 slaves and 10,000 acres of agricultural land. In his will, he disinherited his son Thomas, and instead bequeathed his multi-million dollar fortune to his two grandsons Pierce and John, on condition that they change their last name from Mease to Butler.
No doubt infuriated at this rejection by the imperious and eccentric Butler patriarch, Thomas Butler planned a grand city house at the corner of 13th and Walnut Street to rival his father’s palace to the east, but he died before it was completed.
Like many young men who never had to truly work for a living, Pierce II was simultaneously a charmer and a ne’er-do-well. He successfully wooed the acclaimed British actress Fanny Kemble during her American tour. She proved to have more brains and feistiness than her high-living and empty-headed husband anticipated. For Pierce II, having a good time (and looking good while doing it) was his raison d’être.
This attitude drove Fanny nuts. “You can form no idea, none, none, of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing,” she wrote a friend about her life at Butler Place, her husband’s country estate (near the present site of LaSalle University).
In 1838, Pierce Butler II took his wife to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth, and the “culture” in which he grew up.
Kemble was appalled not just at the treatment of the slaves, but also her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards such brutality. What shocked her the most was how the overseer Roswell King Jr. fathered so many children with the enslaved women under his supervision. For Butler, however, this was the natural order of things. She returned to Philadelphia a committed abolitionist. Within a decade, Fanny and Pierce were divorced. She took custody of their two children and raised them herself.
Part II to follow
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