Fanny Kemble's Diary

Would Pierce Butler have ever guessed when he brought his young wife, the 23-year old actress Fanny Kemble, to his Georgia plantation home that her words would one day rouse antislavery sentiments in the North? Fanny Kemble from Britain was a renowned Shakespearian actress performing in the United States when she caught the attention of Pierce Butler of Philadelphia. According to Georgia historian Melanie Pavich-Lindsay, the Butler family came to Georgia from South Carolina looking for productive land. They brought money and slaves and bought land. The Butlers invested their profits in more land and slaves eventually amassing plantations and hundreds of slaves on St. Simons Island. Fanny Kemble was very troubled by slavery and wrote of her Georgia experiences in her diary. Pavich-Lindsay suggests that while Butler thought of slaves as tools for getting work done, Kemble thought of lost liberty. Slavery had already been abolished in England, and Kemble was repulsed by the harsh conditions and treatment of slaves she witnessed. She was especially concerned with the treatment of female slaves and spoke on their behalf until her husband would no longer allow her to do so. A reenactor reads excerpts from Kemble’s diary. Years later, Kemble divorced her husband and settled in Boston. He lost his plantation gambling, and she published her diary, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839. It became quite famous in Great Britain and northern states for its antislavery message, and some think it contributed to the downfall of the South in the Civil War.

Teacher tip: Discuss the reasons why a diary could have such a powerful impact on a reader. Can students name other published diaries that have had an impact on readers? Locate a copy of Fanny Kemble’s diary and read some passages aloud. Ask students to respond by writing a paragraph reacting to it.