Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Slave Trade, 1885: George S. Boutwell Writes Home About His Legal Cases

Brian Bixby

George S. Boutwell’s letters to his daughter Georgianna, “Georgie,” were not just devoted to politics. He wrote about the other cares of his life, whether inquiring about the asparagus on his farm at home or apologizing to Georgie for not writing on her birthday. And he wrote about his career. Boutwell was one of the few specialists in international law, such as it was in those days, and was several times
The Boutwell House, Groton, Massachusetts.
retained by foreign governments to act as their agent in American legal and political matters. In 1885 Boutwell was litigating a case of piracy!

The story began all the way back in 1861, when a ship flying a French flag with a captain named Latellier docked in Port Liberté, Haiti. Haitian authorities were suspicious, and rightly so. The ship was American, and the captain’s name wasn’t Latellier, but Antonio Pelletier. More importantly, he had bought the ship to engage in the slave trade, as late as 1861 with the Civil War beginning! The Haitians seized his ship, convicted Pelletier of piracy and slave trading, and sentenced him to death. But his sentence was commuted to a prison term.

The case might have ended there, but Pelletier escaped to the United States a few years later. Angered by his treatment, he requested that the U.S. State Department help him recover $2,500,000 in damages for what he called a miscarriage of justice. There being no international law courts with jurisdiction, the State Department came to an agreement with the Republic of Haiti in 1884 to have a recently retired Supreme Court Justice, William Strong, serve as arbitrator. Boutwell became involved because the Republic of Haiti retained him and the French diplomat Charles A. de Chambrun as their agents in the case.

When William Strong opened the hearings, Boutwell’s opening statement portrayed Pelletier as a liar who had previously engaged in the slave trade and had outfitted his ship for that purpose. Pelletier ducked out of the hearing after listening to Boutwell for no more than half an hour, and was found dead three days later. Yet the hearings continued; the death of the plaintiff was not enough to stop the proceedings of justice. In fact, the hearings ran on for a year. At the end, ex-Justice Strong’s verdict was an anticlimax. He held that while Pelletier’s ship had been outfitted for slave trading, it had engaged in neither slave trading nor piracy. However, Strong rejected most of Pelletier’s claims for damages, awarding him only $57,250 for his imprisonment.

Once they heard the judgment, the Haitian Government, no doubt with Boutwell’s help, protested that any American demand for the Haitians to pay damages to a known slave trader, in 1885, was improper and bad policy. And in a final, ludicrous note, ex-Justice Strong agreed with the Haitian protest! So the State Department agreed to officially relinquish the claim. And with Pelletier dead, the matter came to a close.

Boutwell went home for the summer after the Pelletier case concluded. There he had to manage the shaky finances of his farm, while consoling Georgie for losing her seat on the school committee earlier that year. But he went back to Washington in October, working on patent law cases, and enjoying the spectacle of Democrats fighting among themselves. Of the latter, he remarked to Georgie, “Democrats, with their slouched hats, are common in more senses than one.”

Boutwell often said he had never desired political office, and never really sought it. Yet I couldn’t help reading his letters to Georgianna from 1885 and think that his frequent political observations revealed a man who was still tempted by high office. Perhaps his wife Sarah, who hated Washington, thought so, too. In a letter she wrote to Boutwell back in 1882, on yet another occasion when he was working in Washington, she observed, “A man who holds a public office makes a sacrifice of his independence of thought & actions if nothing more.”

George S. Boutwell died in Groton in 1905, aged eighty-seven. His wife Sarah had died two years earlier. Georgie became the keeper of the family papers after her father’s death. She left the house to the Groton Historical Society when she died in 1933. But no trace of Boutwell’s personal letters remained. People assumed they had been lost or destroyed.

In the year 2000, volunteers were cleaning out the attic of the Boutwell House, which had been plagued by squirrels getting in. One of the volunteers found an old, dusty trunk and opened it up. And there were letters. Hundreds of personal letters between Boutwell and his family! They were all tied up with ribbons, with notes in Georgie’s handwriting about what was in each parcel. And none had been opened in all the years since her death.

That’s how we know Boutwell wrote fifty-one letters to Georgie in 1885. They were in one of those parcels, which was opened for the first time a few months ago. Who knows what other stories are in the many parcels that have yet to be opened?

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

The whole connection between piracy, slave trading and international law is fascinating--and Adrian Johns work has effectively connected all that to intellectual property rights. So Boutwell is a great intersection of all those issues with his work on patents as well as international law. So glad to hear about the letters. What a lovely recovery of history. Are you working on these letters yourself?