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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Founding Fathers
I've written here a couple times about my great*4 grandfather Weeden Butler's correspondence with the American planter and Constitutional Convention delegate for South Carolina, Pierce "no relation" Butler, whose son was a pupil at Weeden's Cheyne Walk school in the 1780s. They wrote to each other over a long period, and much of the correspondence is collected in When the States Were Young, which I've read, though it's a slightly frustrating volume for me as it concentrates very much on Pierce's half and I'm more interested in what was going on in London. Anyway, somehow I'd nevertheless managed to miss the fact that in October 1787, having just signed off the Constitution of the United States, Pierce wrote to Weeden:

"a Copy of the result of Our deliberations ... is not worth the expence of postage, or I wou'd now Enclose it to you".

Which is how my family came not to own a contemporary copy of the US Constitution, and is a nice insight into what Very Important Events can look like close up.

Tangentially, the whole page I linked to above is quite interesting on Pierce's involvement with slavery, which he probably felt obliged to justify given that Weeden's was a very much an abolitionist family. The way he tells it, he'd like nothing better than to get rid of his slaves, but they just won't go, knowing that they'd be worse off on their own. (It doesn't seem to occur to him that he could not only free them but give - or rather, pay - them some land/money so that they could be independent.) I feel a little cynical on the point, since it was Pierce Butler who introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause to the Constitution, which doesn't seem like the act of an abolitionist manqué, however keen the folks back in SC may have been on it. I wonder though whether it was a figure such as Pierce described himself as being whom Weeden's son (also Weeden) had in mind when he portrayed the "good" slave owner Wilmot in Zimao the African (1800). Sadly, none of them is around to ask.

A lot of these people were very conflicted about slavery, as this shows. It's a mark of progress since then that it's impossible to put ourselves back in the mindset of those who lived at a time when slavery had been considered a normal thing throughout human history, so I prefer to reserve judgment on them rather than to condemn them from a position of lofty moral superiority.

My understanding is that prior to the invention of postage stamps, postal rates were, by the currency values of the time, exceedingly high. This was the reason for the popularity of crossed letters at the time, to save weight. Thus it may not be too dismissive of the Constitution to say it wasn't worth the expense of postage.

I don't imagine the gentleman had any reason to think he was working on a piece of history at the time. He probably just thought about all the long meetings and the late nights and wondered why anyone would want to read it anyway. Pity for your family, though it might very well have ended up packed away in a dusty attic or the paper re-used. That's life! :-)

After reading Laurie Halse Anderson's two YA novels Chains and Forge, I googled American presidents with/without slaves. Only four of the first eleven didn't have them. Slavery was common, but if there were people who thought it was wrong even then, it can't have been entirely normal. I reserve my right to sneer! :-)

though it might very well have ended up packed away in a dusty attic or the paper re-used.

I doubt it would have been thrown out, knowing my family, but it might well have ended up donated to a museum, which is what happened to some of Weeden's other correspondence from the same year, as related elsewhere in these pages.

Only four of the first eleven didn't have them.

I'm surprised it's as many as four, to be honest.

I reserve my right to sit in judgment as well. The mindset that accepted slavery isn't a mystery--it's just extreme racism. And I judge the hell out of it.