The event wasn't just notable because of the size of the auction. In 1859 the country was on the verge of a national bloodbath, and the historic threads that weave through the story of the Weeping Time are so far-reaching and remarkable, it's perplexing that more hasn't been written or remembered about this time.
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Pierce Mease Butler, the owner of the slaves who were sold, inherited his wealth from his grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, one of the largest slaveholders in the country in his time. One of the signatories of the U.S. Constitution, Major Butler was the author of the Fugitive Slave Clause and was instrumental in getting it included under Article Four of the Constitution.
When Major Butler died, most of his estate and holdings were passed on to Pierce M. Butler and his brother John, including two sprawling island plantations on the coast of south Georgia, one that produced rice and one cotton, and more than 900 slaves who worked the plantations.
Pierce M. Butler was a profligate steward of his inheritance, regularly engaging in risky speculations and accruing a considerable amount of gambling debt over the years due to his compulsive card playing. It was these two factors that necessitated the appointment of a group of trustees who, in 1856, seized control of his financial assets in an effort to return him to solvency. Over the next few years the trustees proceeded to sell off various Butler properties.
By 1859 the trustees were still unable to extricate Pierce Butler from his debts, and it was decided that the “movable property” on the Georgia plantations would be split between Pierce and his brother John, and the half of the slaves that were allotted to Pierce would be sold at auction to relieve his remaining financial obligations. A small fraction of those obligations were the quarterly payments Pierce Butler was required to pay to his then-estranged ex-wife Frances Anne Kemble as part of their divorce agreement 10 years prior.
In one of the many ironies, Fanny Kemble, as she was called, was an avowed and outspoken abolitionist and had made much of the fact during the time she was married to Pierce Butler. This difference was a constant source of contention throughout their tumultuous 15-year marriage and ultimately contributed to its dissolution. At the time they were wed in 1834, Fanny claimed she knew nothing of how the Butler wealth was acquired, but it soon became apparent after a trip to visit the plantations in 1838-39 what the true nature of the Butler inheritance was.
Fanny Kemble was a revered Shakespearean actress from London on tour when she met Butler in Philadelphia. Kemble was, by all accounts, a strong-willed and independently minded woman of her own making, tendencies Butler aimed to tame. Nevertheless, they were married two years after Butler's unremitting courtship and Kemble reestablished herself in America.