Not to be confused with Benjamin Franklin Butler the Civil War General, the attorney was born in Kinderhook Landing, NY December 17, 1795. His father, Medad Butler, was a tavern owner only a few miles from the Van Buren tavern. This may just be coincidental to their eventual bond as lifelong friends, but certainly a shared experience not lost on either one.
Young Benjamin attended Hudson Academy at the time that Van Buren’s law practice and family were situated on Warren Street in Hudson. Benjamin’s father, a supporter of Van Buren, encouraged the lawyer to accept his son as a law clerk in his practice. The Van Burens also took Benjamin into their home and family and quickly earned their trust and acceptance. For four years he read the law and under Van Buren’s mentorship, and grew from a quiet and shy boy to a man acquiring many of the traits of his mentor. He tackled law with industry and thoughtfulness and with a mind adept at clarity and organizational skills. He showed early strengths in speaking and debate which served him well throughout his carrier. Roles later reversed to a degree when Van Buren’s son John read the law under Butler’s tutelage.
When Van Buren was elected Attorney General of the State, he moved his family and practice to Albany, including Butler, to whom he offered a partnership. Butler stayed with the family until his marriage to Henrietta Allen in 1815. The new couple found living arrangements across State Street from the practice, maintaining the close family relationship. As Van Buren became more deeply involved in politics, Butler managed the law office, was Martin’s confidant, and assisted in drafting positions, bills and speeches.
Along with colleagues, business leaders and friends, Van Buren established a network of influence later referred to as the Albany Regency. This became the basis of his growing political prowess in the state and Butler became invaluable as one of his main lieutenants. After going to Washington, Van Buren used Butler as his go to man back in New York and within the Regency.
It was Butler, at Van Buren’s request, who facilitated the Regency’s efforts to have the State Legislature put forth the nomination of William Crawford in 1820. Later, it again was Butler who eloquently and patriotically addressed the Legislature to attain a majority for a tariff compromise that Van Buren needed to accommodate his Southern Democrats.
Though Van Buren was initially opposed to the “called for” New York Constitutional Convention, once he realized that momentum was growing for it, he not only got behind it, but along with Butler, his talents thwarted DeWitt Clinton’s political agenda and sealed the dominance of the Regency in the state for the next two decades.
Butler, carrying on the work of the Regency as Van Buren took his seat in the US Senate, remained active in local politics as the District Attorney for the city of Albany from 1821 to 1825 and as a New York Assemblyman in 1828.
Andrew Jackson organized his second term cabinet with the advice of Van Buren. The Vice President’s encouragement for Jackson to extend to Butler the position of Attorney General was successful. Though reluctant to leave his practice and against the wishes of Henrietta, Butler finally accepted after Van Buren convinced him of the “National Standing” of the post and the generous compensation. The family moved to the Capital and his wife did come to appreciate that her children were mingling with some very fine families. He held the cabinet post from 1833 to 1838, a year into Van Buren’s Presidency. One of the issues he became deeply involved in surrounded the conversation and planning of how to keep and handle federal funds following the National Bank losing its charter. Butler was a strong advocate for a National Treasury. He and others from whom Van Buren readily accepted advice knew that the vice president in turn had the ear of President Jackson.
Later, during the Democratic Convention in Baltimore to nominate the candidate for 1844, Butler unsuccessfully spoke for several hours against the motion requiring a two-thirds majority for the nomination. The eventual passage of the motion kept the nomination out of Van Buren’s grasp.
At the convention, Van Buren conceded any hope of getting the nomination and threw his weight behind Polk. He was bitterly disappointed when his suggestions carried no influence with Polk as he named his new cabinet. Though Polk did offer Butler a position, it was not one that he would consider. Butler and family had had enough of Washington, gladly returning to New York. Entering again into an active law practice, he also served as Attorney General of the South District of New York from 1845 to 1848.
Though Butler may not have been acclaimed as a great lawyer, he was a respected trial lawyer. Francis Wellman in an article “The Art of Cross Examination” wrote of Butler that his greatest weapon was that of cross examination. Wellman also portrays him as having “a pleasant humor and lively wit, coupled with wonderful thoughtfulness and acuteness.”
Butler’s approach to preparing for trial was to be in the field “testing and exploring with coat off and hammer in hand so to speak” and studying with all the “varieties of the sciences.” In his words “a lawyer who sits in his office and prepares his cases only by statements of those who are brought to him will be very likely to be beaten."
He can be likened very much to his mentor, Van Buren. They bested their opposition with quiet and well thought out logic, great zeal combined with shrewdness, and “never trickery.”
In addition to law and politics, Butler pursued social and philanthropic interests as well. He was instrumental in the founding of New York University as well as lecturing there. He was one of a number of prominent individuals who promoted and funded the Children’s Village of New York City and Juvenile Asylum whose mission was to get children off of the streets before they became delinquent and into supervised housing until suitable homes and work could be found for them, often with families further west away from the city.
Benjamin and Henrietta had nine children. Most notable was a son William Allan, who as a close friend of Van Buren. He wrote shortly after Van Buren’s death a short biography “Martin Van Buren: Lawyer, Statesman and Man.” A daughter, Lydia Allen, married Alfred Booth. Their son, Sir Alfred Allen Booth, 1st Baronet was Chairman of Booth Trading Company and on the Board of Cunard Shipping Company.
Benjamin Franklin Butler died November 8, 1858 while in Paris, France and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
For further study, though currently unavailable to the public, are four boxes of Butler’s correspondence and documents in the New York State Library, Albany NY. They are labeled as Benjamin Butler Papers 1815 to 1858. Ref: SCI2417
Last updated: November 18, 2020
Martin Van Buren NHS
1013 Old Post Road