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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
But suicide, physical or political, was far from Butler’s mind. The postwar era gave him a renewed sense of life. His voice became one of the most feared—and applauded—in the capital. He now made Negro rights and fiat money the cornerstones of his philosophy, whether out of conviction or expediency no one knew. He maneuvered one of the first civil-rights bills through Congress, and fought for the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. After an Ohio-born carpetbagger had been horsewhipped by night riders in Mississippi, Butler brandished the victim’s bloodstained shirt in the House; the phrase “waving the bloody shirt” came to mean appealing to Civil War sentiments for political reasons.
Butler went out of his way to be friendly to the new colored congressmen and to Negroes generally—so much so that he was hailed at a Negro banquet in New Orleans as a general with a “white face, but a black heart.”
Butler and Grant reached something of a détente after Grant reached the White House. The President favorably reappraised Butler’s war record, and Butler became one of the administration’s chief spokesmen. Yet privately, Butler considered Grant an ignoramus.
Butler took a noisy and active part in setting up carpetbag governments in the South and in supporting them with Northern bayonets. But for all his publicly vengeful attitude toward the South, he could be privately and quietly kind. When the destitute widow of Mumford, the man he had hanged in New Orleans, appealed to him, Butler found her a job.
Conservative Republicans of Massachusetts, their Whig instincts still intact, continued,,to have little use for Butler. And when he embraced the ultimate State Street heresy of greenback currency, of paying off war debts in depreciated paper, Boston Brahmins persuaded one of their own—Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast —to run as a hard-money Democrat against him in the next congressional election. Butler, sniping away at the “codfish aristocracy,” beat Dana six to one.
Forcing his Ku Klux Klan bill through Congress in 1872 was one of Butler’s great victories, one that brought him to the height of his national political power. On that crest he attempted to win the nomination for governor, but his entrenched enemies in Massachusetts were able to thwart his ambitions in the Republican conventions of 1872 and 1873. In 1874 they even succeeded in preventing his renomination for Congress, though by waving the bloody shirt he got himself re-elected two years later.
Somehow Butler still found time for his private concerns; he was a much-sought lawyer with a flourishing practice. In a suit over prize money for Confederate ships seized during the war, he won an award of $1,500,000 for Admiral Farragut and his crews—the highest damages sustained up to that time by the Supreme Court. Yet for all his legal eminence, Ben Butler remained the impudent young man who had once tweaked an editor’s nose. When a judge asked him testily if he was trying to show contempt for the court, he replied that he was trying to conceal it.
With law and politics came business ventures. In addition to his mills he now owned a granite quarry and the United States Cartridge Company. He speculated in land, in mines, in a barge company. Conflict of interest never troubled him. If he could use his influence to further his enterprises, so much the better. To “Butlerize” was a word coined by his enemies meaning to make off with everything in sight. Butler’s activities—and his toadlike bald head and bloated face—became the delight of cartoonist Thomas Nast.
True to his New England heritage, Butler loved the sea. He built a summer home near Gloucester, overlooking Ipswich Bay. He relaxed by sailing his yacht America , the famous cup-winner and Confederate blockade-runner. He dressed his crew in snappy uniforms and often participated in the races off Newport, Rhode Island. A spanking nor’wester was an exhilaration: alerted by the Coast Survey when a storm was brewing, he would don his oilskins and put to sea.
In 1878 Butler announced that he was through with both major parties and allowed himself to be nominated by the Greenbackers for the governorship of Massachusetts. But at the same time he was moving back toward the Democratic party of his youth (he even came out for pensions for Confederate veterans); his real goal was to become the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. He arranged for his supporters to pack the convention hall, and he was in fact nominated—to the disgust of the conservative Democrats, who walked out to nominate their own man. The split insured a Republican victory. Conservative Republicans were delighted at Butler’s defeat. Mildmannered President Hayes wrote that it was one of the best events since the war; he considered Butler “unscrupulous, able, rich, untiring, the most dangerous and wicked demagogue we ever had.” Butler was an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate again in 1879, and the following year he refused to run for any office.
Ben’s wife, Sarah, had died of cancer in 1876; in 1881 his son Ben-Israel succumbed to Bright’s disease. Butler was again nominated for governor by the Democrats and Greenbackers, but in that sad year the candidate’s sharp tongue and rasping voice were muted. He scarcely campaigned at all and seemed indifferent to his inevitable defeat.
But by 1882 his spirits were largely recovered, and this time the perennial Democratic gubernatorial nominee had the backing of the likes of Wendell Phillips, Susan B. Anthony, and prison reformer Burnham Wardwell. And, at last, Butler was successful.