The Carlow man who became a US founding father (and one of the biggest slave owners)

Pierce Butler was one of three Irish immigrants to sign the US Constitution in 1787

Pierce Butler was born in Ballintemple House in Co Carlow in July 1744.

Pierce Butler was born in Ballintemple House in Co Carlow in July 1744.

 

On September 17th, 1787, Carlow-born Pierce Butler, alongside three other Irish immigrants, assembled at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to lend his signature to the Constitution of the United States of America, one of only 40 men to do so.

Pierce Butler’s signature can be seen on the left-hand side, he was the final signatory on behalf of the state of South Carolina.
Pierce Butler’s signature can be seen on the left-hand side, he was the final signatory on behalf of the state of South Carolina.

This document, which aimed to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” seemed remarkably at odds with another article Butler had happily put his name to 15 years earlier, which appeared in the South Carolina Gazette:

Advert in the South Carolina Gazette, 1772.
Advert in the South Carolina Gazette, 1772.

As the author Alexis Jenni highlights in his novel The French Art of War, “Race is capable of simplifying complex questions with outrageous answers”.

Butler seems to have felt no hypocrisy in railing against the concentration of executive power in the office of the President of the United States during the constitutional convention (“His powers are full great, and greater than I was disposed to make them”), and repeatedly defending his own right to exercise absolute control over the lives of the slaves living and working on his own plantations.

Who was this Irishman who came to exert such influence over the shape of the fledgling United States’ laws and system of government, and how did he gain such a position?

Irish upbringing

Pierce Butler was an unlikely republican. The third son of Sir Richard Butler, the fifth Baronet of Cloughgrenan, he was born in Ballintemple House in Co Carlow in July 1744. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing as a member of the ascendancy class, but as a third son, did not stand to inherit the family estates or his father’s title. Instead, he received a commission in the British Army at the tender age of 11, and by 14 was a full Lieutenant commanding troops against the French in North America. He fought and was wounded during the pivotal Siege of Louisbourg in 1758.

Following the war - and some time spent garrisoning frigid Nova Scotia - he made his way to the warmer climes of South Carolina. He now held the rank of major, and immersed himself in the high society of Charlestown where he sought to gain the hand of a wealthy plantation heiress.

Recalled to his regiment in Boston in 1769, he was witness to the infamous Boston Massacre perpetuated by his own regiment, the 29th. By 1771 he had returned to South Carolina and wed his wealthy heiress, Mary Middleton. Her family controlled plantations right across the state, and her father had been one of the region’s largest slave dealers. By right of marriage, Pierce now held thousands of acres of prime land, and even imprinted himself on the local landscape; he gave his name to an an island in the Altamaha River.

War

He soon sold his commission in the British Army, and sided with the rebellious colonists when war broke out in 1775. The following year he was elected to the South Carolina legislature, but wouldn’t serve the cause in a military capacity until 1778, citing poor health. Immediately prior to the British re-conquest, he was appointed adjutant general and tasked with organising the state’s defences. But without a regular army, it was a lost cause.

After the fall of Charlestown, Butler helped to coordinate disparate partisan efforts across the occupied states, and contributed financially towards the costs of the war effort. While he was willing to put his personal safety and fortune at risk to end British rule within the 13 colonies, his greatest concern was leaving his plantations unsupervised: “It is surely improper to leave numbers of negroes without a White Man,” he wrote.

For Butler and the southern landed gentry generally, the idea of a large scale slave rebellion, brought about by the instability caused by a British invasion, was far more frightening than the invasion itself. This deep-rooted fear shaped Butler’s signature legislative proposals as a US senator - the Fugitive Slave Clause, and the “Three Fifths Compromise”, a notorious act which legally classified black slaves as three-fifths of a white person when apportioning congressional representation and taxation.

By the time of his death in 1822, Butler had become one of the nation’s wealthiest individuals, and was considered one of the new republic’s Founding Fathers. Yet the achievements and legacy of this particular Irish emigrant remain overshadowed by his repeated defence and advocacy of what his political contemporary, Gouverneur Morris, referred to as the “nefarious institution” of slavery.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world. epicchq.com

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