Selling Souls

Good morning. It’s March 3, 2020, “Super Tuesday.” For those of us devoted to American politics — whether we cover it, practice it professionally, or just follow it closely as civic-minded citizens — today is the biggest day of the year so far.

Party primaries, like political conventions and general elections, are signposts telling us where we are as a country. If you find the incumbent president vexing, or you consider the Democrats’ roster of candidates wanting, you’re hardly alone. The weather report in several Super Tuesday states called for dreary skies, with rain in some places. If that seems fitting to you, it’s not. It’s an illusion. Americans have much to celebrate about life in the 21st century, even as important work remains to be done regarding the challenge of living up to the promise of our nation’s founding.

This date in 1859 shows how far we’ve come. For two days in the coastal Georgia city of Savannah, a mass atrocity took place so depraved it is difficult to fathom now. Worse, it was the law of the land, at least in the American South.

Frances Anne Kemble was a British stage actress who fell for the wrong guy. She’s hardly the first woman in history to make that mistake. But she’s the only one I know of who traded an existence of London comfort for one that led her into the underbelly of Hell: life on a Georgia slave plantation. Don’t think “Gone With the Wind.” What Frances Kemble found was more akin to Auschwitz than Tara.

She was 25 when she married Pierce M. Butler in 1834. She professed not to know where he came by his money, and I believe her: Fanny Kemble, as she was known, was not only a Shakespearean actress, she was an outspoken abolitionist. The short answer to where her husband got his wealth was that he inherited it. The longer answer is that the family fortune was derived from the slave trade. His grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, was a signatory to the U.S. Constitution and one of the largest slaveholders in the country. Moreover, he was a fierce defender of the institution of slavery: He was instrumental in getting the Fugitive Slave Clause incorporated into Article IV of that founding document.

When Fanny and her young family arrived in Georgia from their home in Philadelphia four years after the couple wed, she insisted on seeing how slaves lived and were treated. She took notes on what she saw, endeavoring to write an exposé, but as the marriage foundered — the couple divorced in 1849 — Pierce Butler used the custody battle over their two daughters as leverage to prevent her from publishing.

Her book, “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1838-1839),” didn’t appear until the midst of the Civil War. But it reminded Northern troops why they were fighting and remains one of the most vivid portraits of what enslaved life on a Southern plantation was really like.

After the divorce, Butler continued his profligate ways. A gambler and stock speculator — and a lousy one at that — he frittered away his inheritance to the point that his brother and his creditors appointed executors to liquidate his assets and try and pay his debts.

So it came to be that in 1859, these executors decided to sell Butler’s “movable assets,” a chilling term for the 436 men, women, and children he held in bondage. And on March 2-3 at a racetrack on the outskirts of Savannah, the largest slave auction in U.S. history was held in a gloomy rainstorm. The enslaved people dubbed it “the Weeping Time,” as though God Himself were crying. He wasn’t the only one.

We know details of the personal dramas that unfolded over those two days because abolitionist newspaper publisher Horace Greeley dispatched an undercover investigative reporter named Mortimer Thomson to cover it. Writing under the byline of Q.K. Philander Doesticks, a pseudonym used for his own protection, the journalist brought home to New York newspaper readers the true horror of the issue already determining the shape of the 1860 presidential race.

It’s a reminder of why journalists do what we do — and why Americans voters must be well-informed: It’s so we don’t have to fight. Thomson’s stories could never have been published in the South. But the alternative to self-imposed ignorance, and not for the last time, was war.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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