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Benjamin F. Butler and His View on Equality


b-butler-display
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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