Jurist, U.S. senator. Butler, the son of General William Butler and Behethland Foote Moore—both heroes of the Revolutionary War—was born on November 18, 1796, in Edgefield District. He was schooled first at Moses Waddel’s academy at Willington in Abbeville District and then at South Carolina College, from which he was graduated in 1817. On admission to the bar in 1819, Butler set up a law practice in Columbia. Soon after, he returned to Edgefield, where he maintained a lucrative legal practice and operated a plantation at his Stonelands estate. Butler, who owned one thousand acres and sixty-four slaves by 1850, owed much of his wealth and prestige to his distinguished lineage and his family’s position among the local elite. Butler’s first wife, Susan Anne Simkins, died on May 22, 1830, just months after their marriage. Two years later, in 1832, Butler wed Harriet Hayne. The couple had one child, daughter Eloise, before Harriet’s death in 1834. He never married again.
Butler also owed his early prominence and much of his later political influence to his friendship with John C. Calhoun. In 1824 Butler won election to the South Carolina General Assembly, representing Edgefield District in the S.C. House from 1824 to 1831 and in the S.C. Senate from 1832 to 1833. During his Senate tenure he became a staunch Calhoun ally in the nullification controversy, even raising a company of cavalry, the Edgefield Hussars, after President Andrew Jackson threatened to invade the state. His alliance with Calhoun probably forced Butler to appear more radical than he actually was, and it was only after Calhoun’s death that Butler’s relative moderation became apparent.
In 1833 Butler accepted an appointment as a state judge, serving on the bench until 1846. Contemporaries who described him as pleasing and congenial in person found that he could often be sour, short, and sarcastic on the bench, and opinions of his effectiveness varied from decisive and efficient to bored and disinterested. In 1846 he seemed to welcome the opportunity to fill one of South Carolina’s seats in the U.S. Senate, vacated by the resignation of George McDuffie. Partly due to Calhoun’s influence, he won that election and was reelected in 1848 and 1854.
Still in Calhoun’s shadow, Butler assumed the senior senator’s extreme sectional stance during what was a fiery era in American politics. Like Calhoun, he denied that the federal government had any power over slavery in the territories. He opposed the admission of California, which was poised to enter the Union as a free state, and called for a stronger fugitive slave law. On Calhoun’s death in 1850, however, Butler subtly changed his position. As sectional controversy reached a crescendo that summer, Butler endorsed the Compromise of 1850. From then on, and even as fire-eaters at home were pushing for secession, his public remarks tended to decry sectional alienation and civil strife.
Despite his inclination toward compromise, Butler remained a staunch advocate of slavery and a critic of abolitionists’ agitation. In 1854 Butler supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and instituted popular sovereignty in the Kansas territory. His support of Kansas-Nebraska and some well-placed barbs about abolitionists soon engaged him in a verbal duel with Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. The two exchanged occasional caustic remarks for two years until, in May 1856, the quarrel blew up into one of the most notorious episodes of political violence in U.S. history.
Indeed, Butler is perhaps best remembered for his role in the affair—even though he was not present for one minute of it. On May 19 and 20, Sumner launched into a speech entitled “The Crime against Kansas.” His villain was Butler, who was absent. Butler was “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and his mistress in this morality play, “though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight . . . the harlot, Slavery.” Sumner then compounded the insult by mocking Butler’s habit of spitting when he spoke. On May 22, in an incident that some historians view as a critical turning point toward civil war, Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks avenged his kinsman by caning Sumner on the floor of the Senate. Sumner was incapacitated for three years; Butler, however, defended the act as necessary and honorable. Almost exactly a year later, on May 25, 1857, Butler died at his home in Edgefield.
Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Butler, Andrew P. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Gradin, Harlan Joel. “Losing Control: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Breakdown of Antebellum Political Culture.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1991.