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Equality

Benjamin F Butler and the Mills


 

Benjamin F. Butler became obsessively interested in politics as soon as he was old enough to vote. His calling wasn’t the big political picture which to him was merely the recognition of the founding principles of how government should operate, but how much investment by the government into affairs of every state or legal proceeding by the Supreme Court affect every individual. His interest and political passion rested solely with the “condition and welfare of the citizen.” (1)

Butler was inspired by the political history of his day and used some of it to analyze, ponder and question. From the forming of government by the founding fathers through presidents that continued to lead the country through Western expansion, foreign relations, and war. Butler, in his memoir, describes his enthusiasm for democracy and the judiciary system that Alexander Hamilton created and nurtured. Butler admired Hamilton’s ideas and beliefs about equality for the citizenry and almost no interference by the Federal Government into personal affairs. Butler took Hamilton’s ideas further to proclaim just what was the Federal Government’s responsibility to protect the rights of citizens. All of Butler’s ideas revolved around equality. How much equality existed at the time? What were the issues of the day that influenced Butler to take a stand for the men, women, and children of the United States? As we examine Butler’s ideas and thoughts from his memoirs, I believe we can find some answers to these questions.

Lowell, Massachusetts, the Mills, and an Idea for Change

Lowell, Massachusetts in 1836 was the second city built in New England and the second largest one in the country where the whole town revolved around manufacturing. Men, women, and children labored every day in the mills. The most improved single water power source in the country at the time drove the machinery. Non-resident stockholders owned all capital from manufacturing in town.

Capital came from several large corporations. All manufacturing businesses operated precisely alike. Bells rang laborers in and out of the mills. Bells tolled to awaken laborers in town for work. They ate breakfast by candlelight. In the summer the evening dinner bell rang at 7 pm. They all got 30 minutes for dinner. Managers set the bells at the same time. I’m assuming this was to combat conflicts for people and wanting to know where they were supposed to be and what time they were supposed to be there. There was no electricity at this time. One manufacturing company could only employ men and women at a time. Meaning if they lost ours and wanted to work at another mill, they had to get a pass.

To get laborers for the mills, managers hired folks from out of state. They only hired the best class of citizens. Mill owners established regulations that made provisions for education to be provided for children and religious instruction as well. They created moral rules of behavior too. Homes were built to provide comfort to laborers at the cheapest rate possible. Each house had a matron in charge, and each person had to report in if they arrived home in the evening past 10 o’clock. Curfew bells wrung at nine. At the 10 o’clock the doors to homes were locked. Mill owners felt if laborers were paid and boarded well they would be content with their wages. All men, women, and children got paid once a month, on a Saturday for the previous month’s work. The workers were required to give up $.30 a month fee to support worship services. No one complained about this.

Three years earlier in 1833, President Jackson visited Lowell. All men and women working in the mills came out to see him. Every woman wore a parasol and was dressed in white muslin with a blue sash except for some wore a black sash: morning a former manager who had died. What else happened during the visit? Butler does not mention anything further. Why was it significant enough to get an entry into his memoir? What did President Jackson observe or not observe on that day?

Mill Work is not Ideal

Butler grew up with mill children. He liked everyone no matter what clothes they wore or what things they owned and he listened to their dreams and complaints. He saw their health deteriorate as the long hours of labor in the mills took its toll.
Mill life averaged about five years. Most quit after they could afford to. Young girls came from the country to work and help pay the mortgage. Men did too for the for the same reason or to save money and start a new business. No one came to Lowell to spend their whole work life at the mills.

An Outside Observer Creates an Opportunity for Change

Butler got to know a town physician very well. The physician told him that he believed a 13 1/2 hour work day, six days a week in the mill was too much for anyone working in the mills. Each worker got 30 minutes to eat their meals in such a rush the doctor explained was not enough for proper food digestion and counterproductive to the physical requirements in labor productivity of factory work. There wasn’t any heavy lifting involved, but running machines required constant attention. The doctor emphasized it was not hazardous but you needed to be out there and in good shape to work in the mills.

Butler Decides to Act

The situation with mill workers influenced Butler’s decision to seek his first political action and propose a law that would reduce daily work hours to 10 hours for anyone working in manufacturing. He gathered support for his idea and prepared for a fight. Mill managers disliked the idea. Arguments became so intense that close friends feared to talk about the concept with Butler at all. Mill managers threatened their mill workers if they were caught discussing it or attending meetings about it they would lose their job and would not find work in Lowell again.

The Issue

Butler listened to all sides of the argument: managers carried out the will of stockholders, stockholders reinvested some of their money and state programs but how could they compete with neighboring and other states when their mills ran on a 14-hour workday?

Questions to Ponder

Butler does not mention how working conditions affected women and child workers. Perhaps this will come up later in his memoir. He had to have thought about it. He grew up around mill children. He saw how tired folks were from the labor and disliked treatment of the managers and mill supervisors. He detested greedy corporations whom he felt lacked compassion from the working class. Butler thought he had to act. He had a calling to help people, and he knew he has the skill and talent to do just that.

1. Benjamin F. Butler, Butler’s Book: Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major General Benjamin  F. Butler : A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career (Boston: A.M. Thayer & Co., 1892), 85-92.

 

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Benjamin F. Butler and His View on Equality


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Benjamin F. Butler, 1870, Wikipedia.org

” There may be able children of degenerate sires. But whether such instances are not proof of the rule depends upon the question, whether, from some earlier intermingling, better blood may have not have been taken from the lower class.”-Benjamin F. Butler

A View on Racial Equality

In continuing with my reading of Benjamin F. Butler’s autobiography, I get a sense that he writes in a way to give insight as to how he views the world around him and how this view influenced his decision making though out his life and career. One thing that stands out is his view on racial equality. He does not agree with the elite intellectual thought theorized during the 19th century that inherited genes of the first born child are the strongest genes, and that subsequent offspring will receive a watered down version. Because of this, parents with mixed races were thought to be incapable of passing down good genes. Butler disagreed with this. He argued that parents of mixed races passed down stronger genes because by banding together the genes mutated more favorably due to populations being in constant state of war and survival in early New England. The information Butler provides in his memoir points to his view that mixing society with different races other than “white” did, in fact, produce individuals capable of acquiring equality. Mainstream society was against this idea throughout Butler’s entire life. To step out of that norm and stand up for what he believed and felt was right and opposite of what society thought was courageous (1).

Military Family

Butler was proud of his military heritage. His grandfather Zephania participated in the Revolutionary war and his father John in the war of 1812. John was commissioned captain of “light dragoons” and served the Northern frontier until he broke his leg. After that, he continued to serve in the war by becoming a privateer. Due to his success at this and his aid to the American cause, he was re-commissioned and sent to New Orleans to work under the direct command of General Jackson. From there he ended up working logistically for ships going back and forth to South America. On one of these voyages, John caught Yellow Fever and died Soon after. The suffering Butler’s father endured bothered Butler so much he vowed to “investigate the scourage” and blamed the viral devastation as a major influence in decisions later in his life (2).

Raised in Religious Household

The way Butler’s writes of his mother shows how much of a close of a relationship they had and how much respect he had for her. His mother was a Calvinist, and he notes this again and again in his book I think this is to show how this religious upbringing shaped his entire life. His mother envisioned him to grow up and become a minister however due to circumstances at the time this was not the best option for him. During Butler’s childhood children went to college at 12 and one of the students he grew up with attended Harvard University.  He was awestruck by this, and it seems Butler also surrounded himself with very smart and intellectual people even at a pre-teen age (3).

School Years

To prepare for religious college Masters would administer a test in which Butler excelled by exceeding the standards of his peers. His high score propelled him to a college prep school where he learned Latin and Greek. To him, language was not an art but merely memorizing, and he used this to strengthen his analytic skills of paragraphs, of which he was good at and made him feel proud. To him, it was a way to use his talents to do something good for people in his public service. During prep school, he attended a Unitarian church because he felt the school’s religious rules conflicted with thier belief in one God vs. his belief in the Trinity (4).

Somehow (he does not explain how) he ends up moving to Lowell Massachusetts. Lowell became a city as a result of a manufacturing boom between 1822 and 1836. There he acquired a part-time job to help with his living expenses. It is not clear if Butler lived alone, with his mother or with a roommate. He enjoyed living in the city (5).

During Butler’s college years he mentions a couple of people whom he finds inspirational. One of these was the Reverand Theodore Edson, rector of ST. Anne’s church and who worked tirelessly to establish the Lowell High School. Butler mused that “When he perceived the right thing to do, he did it, regardless of personal consideration or of danger to himself.” Edson was instrumental in establishing more schools in the town so that future generations of women, children and freemen could obtain an education and therefore be eligible for equal opportunity. Butler considered Edson’s passion and his perseverance to see his vision through against the opposition of ex-English Calvary officer, Kirk Boot who wanted to capitalize financially on grounds owned by the manufacturing companies, very courageous (6).

Serving Humanity

Equality was important to Butler from early in his life. Growing up and being surrounded by friends and family influenced him and his thoughts on poverty, education and equal opportunity for all people not just the White elite or upper class. He was obviously very smart and read books that were hard for him to read. He liked to challenge himself to do better and when he accomplished he yearned for ways to help others with his talents.

1. Benjamin F. Butler, Butler’s Book: Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major General Benj F. Butler : A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career (Boston: A.M. Thayer & Co., 1892), 36.

2. Ibid, 41-43.

3. Ibid, 45, 50.

4. Ibid, 51.

5. Ibid, 52.

6. Ibid, 52-54.

 

Benjamin F. Butler: Why All Men are not Created Equal


b-butler-display
Benjamin F. Butler, 1870, Wikipedia.org

“The political system of this country is founded upon what Rufus Choate once termed a “glittering generality,” contained in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” This is a truth as applied to political rights, immunities, and burdens, but an utter absurdity so far as it is made to describe other mutual relations of people.”-Benjamin F. Butler

It is not surprising Benjamin F. Butler begins his autobiography with an opinion of equal rights and how those rights contradict themselves in the line of the Declaration of Independence; “all men are created equal”. Butler’s life and work were all about equality. He articulated well his idea of the definition of equality, and how the United States society’s interpretation differed. The cause of this difference according to Butler is while the definition of equality meant people and their actions were recognized legally, judiciously, it did not apply to the equal rights of individuals. Butler was not alone in his thoughts. Many other folks recognize this problem such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Butler obsessed about it because of his passion for the law and helping those who were unable to help themselves obtain equality and justice (1).

Butler’s analysis of how the “all men are created equal” caused a problem for equality in the U.S. makes a lot of sense. He uses the horse for an example of this. He explains that a horse is just a horse but when divided into different species each is quite different in its abilities. Therefore, not every horse is created equal. Like all people of the world, each belongs to a different class. Higher class horses are bread differently so that the can achieve results or meet higher expectations. People are born into these separate classes in the same way. By birthright, there is no automatic equality. Therefore basing equality on a false assumption in the Declaration of Independence unintentionally set the United States up for generations of misunderstanding about equality that is still relevant today(2).

Notes:

1. Benjamin F. Butler, Butler’s Book: Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major General Benj F. Butler : A Review of His Legal, Political, and Military Career (Boston: A.M. Thayer & Co., 1892), 33.

2 .Declaration of Independence. http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/

 

 

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