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Butler The Beast?
For nearly fifty years, in one way or another, Ben Butler courted the favor of his state and the nation. He way not have been a bona fide Beauty, but there were times when his traditional nickname did not seem quite fair either
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
As Lowell grew, its aspect and character changed. The Nuns of Industry were being replaced by the shanty Irish, the pallid and beaten refugees of the Famine. Faced with an abundance of labor, the operators cut wages. The neat boardinghouses disintegrated into slums, whole families inhabiting rooms where single girls had once lived, while other poor Paddies lived in mudwalled shacks along a common known as the Acre.
Partly out of genuine sympathy and partly from a shrewd realization of their political potential, Butler became the champion of the Lowell workers. He denounced wage reductions, comparing Lowell to a beehive from which the Boston proprietors extracted honey without caring “whether the bees were smoked out or not.” He advocated a ten-hour day in the interest of the workers’ health. The Whig legislature was as unmoved as the mill owners, who insisted that the fourteen-hour day was competitive, and that in any case their job was “to give people as cheap calico as can be made.”
In 1844 Butler was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore that nominated James K. Polk. On his return to Lowell he made his first political speech, against Henry Clay, the Whig candidate. His influence as a Hunker Democrat∗ They were called Hunkers because they were said to be “hunkering” after jobs. The Hunkers, drawing their support from mill workers (who wanted no competition from freed Negroes), had little use for the abolitionists. grew. By 1850 he was one of the state leaders instrumental in forming a coalition with the Free-Soil party. Campaigning for the tenhour day, the secret ballot, and the popular election of judges, the coalitionists swept the state and elected Democrat George Boutwell governor. By agreement, the Democratic representatives then voted with the Free-Soilers in the legislature to elect the Radical Republican Charles Sumner to the United States Senate. The coalitionists managed to pass a secret ballot law, but Whig maneuvering delayed action on the ten-hour day.
In 1852, another presidential election year, Butler was a Democratic nominee for state representative. In a special run-off election he won a seat, and arrived on Beacon Hill in January, 1853. With the Whigs back in the majority position, however, he was unable to effect much legislation. A ten-hour-day bill died in committee, but Butler scored an indirect victory when the corporations, faced with the growing weight of public opinion against them, voluntarily reduced the mill day to eleven hours.
The fifties found Butler an emergent Democrat on the national scene, a wealthy lawyer with the largest criminal practice in New England, the head of a corporation owning three mills, the owner of the finest house in Lowell, and a full colonel in the volunteer militia. He was not yet forty years old.
In 1855 the “Know-Nothing” governor, Henry J. Gardner, who had been elected on an antiforeigner, anti-Catholic platform, disbanded Butler’s Irish militia company and removed Butler from his colonelcy. Surprisingly, the cashiered colonel did not fight back. Secretly, however, he campaigned among his militia comrades, and soon Gardner, much to his chagrin, was forced to sign the commission of the newly elected Brigadier General Butler, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, of the state volunteers. Two years later Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed “the youngest general in the United States” to the Board of Visitors of the United States Military Academy. Martial in sword and general’s sash—if not in features—Butler appeared annually at West Point with the predictable pride of a civilian in uniform.
Butler was the only Democrat elected to the state senate in 1859. There he reorganized the state judiciary, but most of his time was taken up with local and ephemeral matters, with indirect digs at Harvard, and with measures to please the foreigners who ‘formed the core of his support.
The following year he accepted the Democratic nomination for governor, the first of his seven campaigns for that office. But men who, like Butler, sought to straddle the slavery question had become increasingly repugnant to New England opinion that was more and more solidly abolitionist. Butler received only a third of the 108,000 votes cast.
In the summer of 1860 Butler was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. At that stalemated assembly he voted with his delegation seven times for Stephen Douglas and then gave his solitary vote fifty-seven times to Jefferson Davis, a friend whom he considered a moderate compromise between the intractable Southerners and the smokebreathing abolitionists.
Massachusetts felt otherwise about the slave-owning Davis, and Butler was hanged in effigy on Lowell’s South Common. His attempts at defending himself at a public meeting were booed and hissed. A rump Democratic convention at Baltimore had finally nominated Douglas, the Southern delegates having walked out to nominate Kentucky’s John C. Breckinridge. When the anti-Douglas Democrats of Massachusetts nominated Butler for governor on a “Breckinridge” ticket, he received only 6,000 of the 169,534 votes cast. It looked as though Butler were on the wrong ship, and a sinking ship, at that. He held intimate talks with Davis and other Southern leaders; long before most Northern politicians, he realized that secession and war were inevitable. Privately he urged Governor John Andrew to prepare the state militia for war, pointing out, among other things, that the volunteers lacked winter overcoats. Coats were ordered, and by curious coincidence, Butler’s were the only mills able to produce the cloth immediately.