• Pierce Butler's South Carolina Slave History Criticized By British Actress Fanny Kemble; Princeton Disaster Creates Tragedy For President Tyler

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    Daughter of Congressman Tillinghast Provides Superb Details

     

    JOSEPH LEONARD TILLINGHAST (May 18, 1790 – December 30, 1844) was a Congressman from Rhode Island.  He was elected as a Whig to the Twenty-fifth, Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh congresses (March 4, 1837 – March 4, 1843).  The Rhode Island Historical Society holds a large collection of Tillinghast’s papers. Letters span the presidencies of Martin Van Buren and John Tyler. 

     

    Offering four letters written to Tillinghast by his daughter Rebecca Tillinghast Willing in which she provides a first-hand narrative of Pierce Butler II, grandson of one of South Carolina’s largest land and slave owners, and his wife British actress Fanny Kemble.  The younger Pierce successfully wooed Kemble during her American tour, but their marriage was a disaster.  She once wrote a friend, “You can form no idea…of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing.” In 1838, Butler took Kemble to South Carolina to see the source of the family’s wealth.  Kemble was appalled at the mistreatment of the slaves and her husband’s utterly callous attitude towards the brutality. [Research included] She returned to Philadelphia, a committed abolitionist, and this is where Willing’s narrative begins as she explains her communication with Kemble to her father.

     

    In the second letter, Willing discusses a visit from cousin Richard Dana, remarks about his strong religious principles, which she would expect after reading his book.  Dana championed the downtrodden [research included]. He was appalled to witness the brutal mistreatment of seamen by a ship’s captain and vowed to try to help seamen. In 1841, he published The Seamen’s Friend, which became a standard reference on the legal rights of sailors.  Dana also became a prominent abolitionist and helped to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848. 

     

    Willing also mentions a visit by and the sadness of Mrs. Henry A. Wise, who was in Washington when President Tyler, his cabinet and friends were aboard the USS Princeton when an explosion occurred killing Secretary of State Upshur and the future father-in-law of Tyler, while wounding many others.  Henry Wise was a U.S. Congressman, Governor of Virginia and general in the Confederate Army.  

     

    4 pp, 7 ½ x 9, Philadelphia, Feb. 7 [n.y., but circa 1837] “…How happy we were to see your news…the report of the Clay meeting…When I found from the few words on the margin of the paper that you were a delegate to some convention, I hoped for an instant that it was the Baltimore Convention…[the Whigs held a convention in Baltimore in 1837]…Mrs. Sedgwick is here staying with Mrs. Pierce Butler. I met her at a musical party at Mrs. Fisher’s the other night & it brought back a great many delightful collections to see her again. I think the last time that I had seen her…she, with Dr. Channing, Mrs. Charles Sedgwick, my husband & I were all seated on a rock on the brow of Richmond hill…looking down on a prospect that embraced New York on one side & Massachusetts on the other…Mrs. Butler…is enjoying a very unenviable notoriety—she and her husband being separated by mutual consent, out for the enjoyment of the society of their children, both living in the…lodging house occupying apartments…I have told you this news before as it has been the town talk for some time…What is the immediate cause of the separation I do not know, but am sure slaves must have been one subject of dissention as a great part of Mrs. Butler’s property is in southern plantations & Mrs. B is a violent abolitionist. I spent an hour with her yesterday morning…& she read extracts from her journal at the south to prove to me that the Negroes on the best conducted plantations were in a situation far inferior to that of the lowest class of free men – white or black. I came home to find Mother’s letters, full of the most glowing description of the simple habits & affectionate manners of the blacks & all that is beautiful in southern life…For myself I am decidedly anti-slavery & if I saw a path opened would be an abolitionist but that name at present is mingled with so much that is…absolutely fanatical that I do not like to adopt it. Charles [her husband] has returned… & begs me to thank you…& to tell you how much he was delighted with the outline of your address & the resolution & how much satisfaction it gives him to find Rhode Island coming out so strongly for Mr. [Henry] Clay. The opinion here seems to be that he will get the election.  I saw Gov. Francis the other night at Mrs. Fisher’s. He had [a] journey by land & was from Wednesday till Saturday, getting to New York, traveling night & day…”

     

     

     1 ½ pp, 7 ¾ x 12 ¾, Philadelphia, March 15 [n.y.], Rebecca writes to her Father.  “…We have had, since I wrote you, a most agreeable visit from a New England cousin – young Richard Dana. He was in town two or three days on his return from Washington & dined with us last Sunday when we had a long, delightful chat with him. He is as intelligent & agreeable as I supposed him to be from his book & moreover a person of strong religious principles which seems…as delightful as it is rare in a young man. He did not bring his wife, but promises to come again with her. I have so much happiness in seeing people from New England particularly those who do honor as he does to his country & his friends…Mrs. [Henry A.] Wise is in town at present spending the time with her Mother until they sail from Norfolk for Brazil. She seems very well satisfied with her destination…She was in Washington at the time of the dreadful affair of the Princeton but she was not (as she says Providentially) on board.  Mr. & Mrs. Upshur were very particular friends of Mr. & Mrs. Wise & she evidently felt the catastrophe almost as deeply as those who were more interested…”

     

    4 pp, 7 ¾, 9 ¾, Philadelphia, June 14th, [n.y.] Rebecca writes to her Father. Willing writes concerning travel plans for her mother and sister to visit her father.

     

    3 ½ pp, 8 x 10, Philadelphia, Nov. 30th [n.y.], Rebecca writes to her Father. “…I see by today’s paper that a meeting of Whigs have proposed Mr. Sergeant again for Vice-President. Mr.Toland is spoken of too as a candidate for Governor & these two proposals seem to me to speak good things on the character of the party in this state – for two more honest politicians I suppose can hardly be found – I suppose there is no chance for Mr. Toland but if he should be Governor he would make the name of Pennsylvania a little more respectable both at home & abroad…”

     

    Integral address leaf to each letter with Philadelphia postmarks. One contains a stamped free frank.  The second letter has some cross-writing.  Expected folds and toning, but very readable. A couple of small tears reinforced with archival tape.

     

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