Benjamin Franklin Butler
“God made me only one way. I must be with the underdog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change it, and upon the whole I don’t want to.”
“I never forget a friend or forgive an enemy.”
“If the law is wrong, change the law.”
Butler a successful businessman, prominent criminal lawyer, civil war general, governor, congressman and ambitious politician wanted the 1884 Democratic nomination but had to settle for the Anti Monopolist and Greenback party. He was described as impulsive, opinionated, sarcastic, highly critical and totally unafraid; not flattering adjectives but not necessarily negative traits
Butler’s supporters considered him a reformer who advocated for women’s rights, prohibition, and labor issues. His foes viewed him as an opportunist that changed parties and causes with the wind. However, his actions speak for themselves. As a U.S. Representative he sponsored the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. He instituted a ten-hour workday in his own mills before it was legally required. As Governor of Massachusetts, he appointed the first black and the first Catholic judges and the first woman to head up a state agency.
A political cartoonist dream, Butler was one of the most controversial, yet colorful candidates to run. His nicknames included “old cockeye” for a droopy eye, “spoons Butler” for his apparent appropriation of silverware as military governor of New Orleans, and “Beast Butler” for his harsh treatment of recalcitrant southerners. The Republican Party allegedly provided financial support to his campaign hoping to take votes away from Cleveland. If true, it did not work.
For Butler practicing law was like a chess game that ended in checkmate to his client’s advantage most of the time.
He had an uncanny ability to dissect laws exposing ambiguities.
When Lowell passed an ordinance requiring all dogs to be muzzled, Butler attached a muzzle to his dog tail thus demonstrating his defiant character and skewedness in the interpretation of the law. He was a supporter of Lincoln but not a fan of President Johnson’s weak Reconstruction polices. In 1868, he was selected as one of the lead mangers in President Johnson’s impeachment trail.
Butler was an astute businessman. Prior to war breaking out but knowing the inevitable, he convinced the governor to prepare the militia in advance with supplies including overcoats that were manufactured at his Middlesex Mills. The state needed additional funds to help finance the militia. Conveniently, Butler was able to get bank financing with the caveat that he be appointed the commanding general of the Massachusetts militia.
Once war commenced slaves escaped to join the cause only to be told they were not wanted and sometimes being returned to their owners under the “Fugitive Slave Law”. Butler, commander at Fortress Monroe considered the slaves “contraband” of war, confiscated them as property and deemed them free.
Word got out and resulted in thousands of slaves making the trek to Fortress Monroe, nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress”. Many slaves joined the cause and fought for the union or provided services to the soldiers. This was not a position initially embraced by the President or Congress but it was eventually adopted under the Confiscation Act of 1861.
As New Orleans Military Governor, Butler provided for the poor winning their admiration. He also focused on humbling the rich who loathed him. His effective but controversial leadership included issuing the
General Order No. 28 and the execution of William Mumford contributed to his recall after just eight months.
Freedom’s Fortress: Escape to FreedomEmpowered by a legal loophole, thousands of enslaved Africans escaped and found refuge at a Union-held fort during the Civil War. Fortress Monroe in Virginia became the site of the first “contraband camp”; a spontaneous community of self-emancipated blacks where inhabitants often became recruits for military service.
A forward thinker, Butler initiated the military use of hot air balloons for aerial surveillance.
The lasting imprint Butler made on New Orleans and its neighbor states is the fact that the Mississippi riverboats supplied their cabins with chamber pots with Butlers picture on the bottom!
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