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Pierce Butler-Weeden Butler papers

Maj. Pierce Butler's public and private lives were a study in contrasts. As signer of the United States constitution, first United States Senator from the Palmetto State, and friend of George Washington, he was a force to be reckoned with in Federalist-era South Carolina politics. On the domestic front, his overbearing personality simply created strained relations with his children, and their mother's death in 1790 can scarcely have helped matters.

In 1784, Butler carried his six-year-old son Thomas to Great Britain and deposited the youth in a classical school for boys run by the Rev. Weeden Butler (no family connection) at Chelsea in London. Pierce's attitude toward child-rearing can be inferred from a 19 November 1792 letter to Weeden in the British Library—"I want no Toney-lumkin for my Son. Let him live surrounded with Respect and Esteem, or let Him not Live." [i.e. "Tony Lumpkin," who was a fictional character who first appeared in Oliver Goldsmith's play, She Stoops to Conquer.]

Thomas Butler remained under the tutelage of Weeden Butler until 1795. Not surprisingly, he failed to live up to his father's expectations, ultimately fell even further from grace through a "politically incorrect" marriage (Thomas married a French Creole aristocrat; Pierce favored the French Revolution), and ended by being disinherited in his father's will.

But Pierce's relationship with his son's schoolmaster led to a windfall for historians. Not only did the boy's presence at Chelsea cause an extensive correspondence between Pierce and Weeden, but a stroke of luck preserved many of the documents intact on the British side of the Atlantic. Weeden's grandson, a staff member of the British Museum, deposited the papers in its Manuscripts Department, which eventually became the Manuscripts Division of the British Library.

Now the South Caroliniana Library has acquired six manuscripts from the American end of the correspondence: letters from Weeden Butler to Pierce Butler dated between 16 March 1785 and 21 February 1789. As might be expected, these are chiefly reports on young Thomas's health and studies, but Weeden's comments sometimes stray into politics. And frequent references to mutual friend Dr. Peter Spence add an extra South Carolina touch to the letters. Spence was a former Jacksonborough physician who had accepted a British army medical commission. His property confiscated by South Carolina's state General Assembly, he had fallen on hard times in England.

"Mr. Harper has been here this afternoon," Weeden wrote on 16 March 1785, "and informs me that Miss Butler is very well. Tommy is perfectly so; and by this Time pretty quiet, under the Poppies of Morpheus, and so is the house too, in no small Proportion, when his Liveliness is retired to his Pillow."

In 1788, the new Federal constitution was before the country and Pierce became immersed in South Carolina's debate over ratification. Weeden noted from Chelsea that "You have indeed put your Hand to the Plough; and God speed the Plough! but I would you could take a Nuncheon here for a while, when so many are equally engaged, to strike the important furrow." A later letter continued in the same vein: "By this Time I hope the Vista of established Polity opens cheeringly upon you, and shall be happy to join Thousands in congratulating you on its extensive and good Effects."

On 29 May 1788 Weeden reported on Tommy's progress in his studies: "With Respect to Reading and Enunciation, I have constantly kept both his Voice and Memory employed; he is getting by Heart from Gay's Fables. In orthography he is really very accurate, and on this Head my Trouble is nearly at an End. I make his Class transcribe, or rather pen down, from my Dictates; then correct their Spelling, punctuation, and other little, tho' essential Minutiae of regular Composition; and mean soon to try him in the Exercise of making little English Themes, by dilating the Idea of some plain and striking Motto: His reading voice is not strong, but pleasing. I wish it to be accurately adjusted, before we cultivate Energy; that Sentiment may accompany the Elision of Sound. His Geographical cards will come soon in course, but I wish to get him thro' the Latin Grammar, before hand—to prevent confusion from a Multiplicity of attentions."

From time to time, country excursions broke the routine, though prior approval from Tommy's autocratic father was obligatory. Respecting a fishing trip to Weymouth in the summer of 1788, Weeden remarked, "We mean...to eat very little more fish than we catch, tho' I rather anticipate that your Son's Stomach will require somewhat more substantial than the Quota of his piscatory Acquisitions."

By December 1788 Weeden had political events on his mind. "The French begin to consolidate their Plans, and look and march steadily onward to the more than ideal Temple of Liberty. Their Progress becomes no less interesting than curious. 'Tis like the opening of the Eyes to him that was born blind."

England's outlook seemed less bright, for King George III had lapsed into one of his spells of insanity.

"Now in Truth, we are sadly clouded in a gloomy Prospect from the King's Indisposition, which absolutely throws a Shade over every Circle of Company. I love the Man, tho' not a Frederick or a Peter, and can cordially say of him, tho' I would not to his Face,

Lucem redde tuae, Dux bone, Patriae:term
Instar Veris enim Vultus ubi tuus
Affulsit Populo, gratior it Dies,
Et Soles melius nitent!

I know your benign heart will feel for us. We were—we are—We know what to Day is. Who shall tell us what Tomorrow may bring forth? I wish for no other—and He may yet recover....You will readily imagine that our present Situation will confine the Heads and Hands of England to domestick Arrangements: and at all Events I hope the King's Malady will at least retard us from external Interferences with the jarring Nations about us."

The Latin quotation is from Horace, Odes, 4.5. ("Return to thy people, O guardian of the race of Romulus"), written to the emperor Augustus about 14 B.C. It renders into English as "To thy country give again, blest leader, the light of thy presence! For when, like spring, thy face has beamed upon the folk, more pleasant runs the day, and brighter shines the sun."

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