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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
In spite of the fair promise of his inaugural address—he said he would reform the criminal code and the state penal institutions, abolish the poll tax, give women the vote, and lower the hours of labor while increasing wages—the new governor was able to do little in the face of a Republican legislature and governor’s council. Harvard again became his whipping boy following his “exposure” of the previous administration’s selling of paupers’ bodies from the Tewksbury almshouse to the Harvard Medical School. “The selling and tanning of human skins,” he declared, “was an established industry in Massachusetts!” Breaking a 250-year tradition, Harvard refused that year to give the governor an honorary doctor’s degree. Butler attended the commencement anyhow; so indignant was the president of the alumni association that he resigned in order to avoid receiving him.
In the election of 1883 Butler charged that the Republicans were importing “repeaters” from outside the state to defeat him, and he ordered his gth Massachusetts Regiment (mostly Irishmen) to guard the polls. He prepared a magnificent display of fireworks on Belvidere’s grounds to celebrate his re-election. There was no celebration. Massachusetts voters had tired of his bombast, and Butler was through in state politics.
As he resumed his legal practice, nebulous thoughts of the White House occurred to him; in 1884 he accepted the presidential nomination of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties, hoping that this splinter movement would enhance his chances at the Democratic National Convention, to which he was a delegate-at-Iarge. But the resurgent white South would have nothing to do with Spoons Butler. He could not even find a spokesman to place his name in nomination. After the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland as their hard-money candidate, Butler toured the country in a gaily painted private railroad car, telling workers that if Cleveland were elected they would starve. When he spoke in Detroit, hecklers tossed tin spoons on the stage, and elsewhere he was jeered as the “Benedict Arnold of American politics.” He received a mere 175,000 votes out of ten million, which ended his political career with a humiliating anticlimax.
Butler devoted his remaining years to law, which he said was like chess; and when money and popularity no longer mattered, the game itself was still intriguing. He took many unpopular cases—he defended Chicago’s Haymarket Square anarchists, for example—that paid him little or nothing. He grew rheumatic, hard of hearing, and flabby (his daughter Blanche put him on a diet and reduced his weight to 220 pounds).
His enemies and the anti-Butler legends endured, and their target began to grow solicitous of his reputation. In 1892 his thousand-page autobiography was published. Butler’s Book was an enormous undertaking for an old man, yet the Butler swagger, shrewdness, and military partisanship are stamped in its pages like a watermark. The book interestingly described his relations with Lincoln and Grant, and vindictively carried on his feud with the West Point generals whom he accused of sabotaging his military career. The postwar years he crowded into a single chapter.
Ben Butler died in 1893 while in Washington preparing a case for the Supreme Court. Eight veterans (two of them Negroes, on one of whom Butler had pinned the Congressional Medal of Honor) accompanied his body back to Lowell. He lay in his coffin in the drawing room at Belvidere, a rose in his buttonhole, and, thanks to the undertakers, a smile on his face. He was buried on a bitter-cold January day; a service was held at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, to which he belonged but in whose creed—as he had admitted to Sarah—he had ceased to believe.
The funeral cortege, led by a hearse with six blackplumed horses, extended a mile and a half. All the bells of Lowell tolled as the coffin was drawn across the Merrimack bridge to the cemetery, and the crowds were so great that half a dozen onlookers were injured in the crush. In attendance were state politicians and men of prominence from the governor on down, even to the codfish aristocracy—who kept their fingers crossed against the appearance of any future Ben Butler.
Time has shown Ben Butler to be one of the most arresting political figures that Massachusetts has ever produced; certainly the most caricatured and most vilified; possibly the most astute. “God made me only one way,” he once said. “I must always be with the under-dog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change it, and upon the whole I don’t want to.” Butler may have Butlerized, but he also helped the immigrant workers when Know-Nothingism ran high in his state. Whatever his subsequent war record, he rallied the Breckinridge Democrats to the Union at a critical moment. He spoke out for civil rights far in advance of his day. Even his Greenback heresy of managed paper money would become orthodox reality after World War II. Those who thought themselves the better people, both in the North and in the South, despised and distrusted him, and he capitalized on their hate. The workers and the shanty Irish and the Negroes loved him, and not without reason.
Though Belvidere still perches serenely on its hill above the Merrimack, Lowell’s textile mills have been gone since the Depression; the grey industrial city has forgotten Butler. Two miles across the river there is a cemetery within a cemetery, a plot surrounded by a locked fence, the grave of an ex-governor and exgeneral. There is a headstone of polished granite, but there is no flag to go with it.