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Who Was Pierce Butler?

In St. Paul, there is a street called “Pierce Butler Route.” Like so many streets which were named after once famous individuals, such as (Father Louis) Hennepin Avenue, (Joseph) Nicollet Avenue, and so on, many of us now know little about the people whose names are memorialized in street signs. It is worth remembering Pierce Butler.

Pierce Butler was born in a log cabin near Northfield, Minnesota, in 1866, the sixth of nine children. Though Catholic, he attended Carleton College, and for his graduating oration spoke on “The Greatness of the Roman Catholic Church and its Good Influence on the World.” He went into law, and was a partner with William Mitchell. He brilliantly argued many high profile cases, and was head of the Minnesota State Bar Association. In 1915, in a speech before the National Catholic Educational Association titled “Educating for Citizenship,” he said:

The Catholic Church holds that religion cannot be separated from morality, that morals rest upon religion and that without it, character will not be secure against the attacks of selfishness and passion… The educated man, whose character is not sound, whose conscience is not well instructed and whose conduct is not guided by religion and morality, is a danger to the state and his fellow men.”

In 1922, Butler, a Catholic and a Democrat, was nominated for the United States Supreme Court by President Warren Harding, a Republican. Columnists objected, calling him “reactionary” and “intolerant.” The New Republic,The Nation magazine and the Ku Klux Klan opposed his confirmation. The Socialist dominated Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution calling his nomination a “crime against the people.” Nonetheless, Butler was confirmed.

In 1927, the case of Buck v. Bell came before the United States Supreme Court. At issue was whether it was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to forcibly sterilize Carrie Buck, an institutionalized “feeble-minded” girl, before permitting her to live independently. Buck’s attorney argued: “If this Act be a valid enactment, then the limits of the power of the State to rid itself of those citizens deemed undesirable have not been set… even races may be brought within the scope of such regulation, and the worst form of tyranny practiced.” Before the case was decided, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said regarding Butler, “I wonder whether he’ll have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion?” When the case was decided, Holmes wrote for the majority: “…the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for lesser sacrifices… It is better... if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for a crime… society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The case was decided by a vote of 8 to 1. Only Pierce Butler dissented. Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized.

In 1933, the Nazis modeled their “Hereditary Health Law” upon U. S. law, and began their program of sterilizing and even killing the “genetically defective.” They expanded the “power of the State” to “races” as Carrie Buck’s attorney had warned. After World War II, the Nuremberg Trials began, and the Nazi doctors were accused of “crimes against humanity.” Their defense counsel quoted Holmes’ words. This incident is preserved in the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Buck v. Bell has never been completely overturned.

Pierce Butler developed his God-given talents, allowed his faith to guide his conduct, and had the fortitude to stand up for what is right. He died in 1939, and is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul. What an example for us!


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