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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Saturday, August 4, 1787

August 04, 2020 - 4 minute read

Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble

The Convention will reconvene on Monday. In the meantime, George Washington is still near Trenton, lodging at Samuel Ogden’s home with the Morrises. After a morning of fishing for perch, which Washington recorded was much more successful than yesterday, the party “dined at General Dickinson’s on the east side of the river a little above Trenton” and returned to Ogden’s in the evening.

General Philemon Dickinson is the brother of John Dickinson, one of Delaware’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention and “the Penman of the Revolution.” Philemon was an early supporter of protests against British impositions on the American colonies and began his military career in October 1775, commissioned as a brigadier general of the New Jersey militia. A member of New Jersey’s Provincial Congress, he helped draft the State’s constitution which declared New Jersey’s independence and included a clause declaring it would be null and void “if a reconciliation between Great Britain and these Colonies should take place.” Otherwise, it is “to remain firm and inviolable.” That same day, July 2, 1776 the Continental Congress voted to declare independence. Reaffirming its earlier action, New Jersey declared unconditional independence on July 18.

In 1782, Philemon was elected to the Continental Congress, but his most notable contribution to the Patriot cause was his military service, receiving “warm praise from General Washington” on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, his troops were among those unable to cross the Delaware on Christmas night 1776 due to the prevalence of river ice, but they crossed several days later, performing valuable service at the second battle of Trenton and the defeat of the British at Princeton. During the British occupation of Trenton, Philemon’s “property became a Hessian outpost and the Hessians ransacked the buildings.”

In the fall of 1777, a small group of critics sought to replace Washington as commander-in-chief. Called the “Conway Cabal” after General Thomas Conway, an ambitious foreign officer, the ploy failed miserably and Conway lost his commission, resigning in March 1778. Infuriated by Conway’s action, Col. John Cadwalader challenged Conway to a duel. Choosing pistols as their weapons, the two men faced off on July 4. Cadwalader fired first, shooting Conway in the mouth. Conway survived, apologized to Washington, and returned to France. Philemon Dickinson, Cadwalader’s cousin, acted as his second in the duel.

The destruction of Dickinson’s home and property by the Hessians was not uncommon. Other Patriot leaders as well as many ordinary people lost their homes, farms, businesses, and fortunes during the war. One of those is Pierce Butler, a Convention delegate from South Carolina, perhaps the most enigmatic man chosen to create a new government.

Butler was born in Ireland in 1744, the third son of Sir Richard Butler, a baronet and member of the British Parliament causing so much agitation in the colonies. As the third son, he would not inherit the family property, so he was placed in the British military at the age of eleven, commissioned as a lieutenant . Eventually posted to Boston to assist keeping colonial resistance in check, his unit fired shots during the infamous Boston Massacre. In 1773, he sold his commission, using the funds to buy land and develop a business that would eventually include more than ten thousand acres and a fleet of ships. By 1779, he was using his military skills to organize the South Carolina militia against the British.

When the British captured Charleston in 1780, Butler was part of a command group to develop a resistance movement, working with Francis Marion and others to build a unified campaign. As a former Royal officer, he was a target of British forces and barely escaped capture on several occasions. Butler personally donated cash and supplies, and with the overall effects of war, was left a poor man, his plantations and ships in shambles. After the war, Butler went to Europe to secure loans and find new markets, returning to the United States in 1785. An emergency law protecting creditors worked in his favor and he began to recover, eventually becoming one of the richest men in the country.

At the Convention, Butler frequently takes conflicting positions but is consistently a strong nationalist and intense advocate for slavery. At this point, we will depart from history and look to the future of Pierce Butler and his family. Under the new national Constitution, Butler was elected to three terms in the United Senate. In 1804, near the end of his last term, he harbored Aaron Burr after Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, permitting Burr to use the name of Butler’s overseer, Roswell King; in spite of the fact that Burr had been indicted for murder by both New Jersey and New York.

Butler retired from politics in 1805 and moved to Philadelphia where he had purchased several homes, including one for his daughter, Sarah, the only one of his four daughters who married and had sons. After disinheriting his only surviving son, he promised to leave equal parts of his estate to Sarah’s three sons provided they would irrevocably adopt Butler as their surname. Two agreed. One grandson and heir, Pierce Mease Butler, married a famous British actress, Frances Anne Kemble, while she was touring the United States. When they wintered in Georgia, Kemble was shocked at the treatment of slaves, including the number of mixed-race children, fueling her abolitionism. Slavery drew the couple apart and they divorced, Pierce threatening to withhold her daughters from her if she published anything about plantation conditions. In 1863, Kemble published Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-39 which was published in the United States and England. Pierce squandered his inheritance, saved from bankruptcy by the sale of 436 slaves at the Ten Broeck Racetrack near Savannah, the largest slave auction in United States history.

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