He was a student who appreciated his advantages, and acquired all the general information the course permitted outside of regular studies; but his rank was low in the class, as deportment and attention to college laws were taken into account. During the latter part of his course he was present at the trial of a suit at law, and was so impressed with the forensic battle he then witnessed, that he chose law as his profession. He was graduated from the college in 1838, in poor health, and in debt, but a fishing cruise to the coast of Labrador restored him, and in the fall he entered upon the study of the law at Lowell. While a student he practised in the police court, taught school, and devoted every energy to acquiring a practical knowledge of his profession.
While yet a minor he joined the City Guards, a company of the fifth regiment of Massachusetts Militia. His service in the militia was honorable, and continued for many years; he rose gradually in the regular line of promotion through every grade, from a private to a brigadier-general.
In 1840, Mr. Butler was admitted to the bar. He was soon brought into contact with the mill-owners, and was noted for his audacity and quickness. He won his way rapidly to a lucrative practice, at once important, leading, and conspicuous. He was bold, diligent, vehement, and an inexhaustible opponent. His memory was such, that he could retain the whole of the testimony of the longest trial without taking a note. His power of labor seemed unlimited. In fertility of expedient, and in the lightning quickness of his devices to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, his equal has seldom lived.
For twenty years Mr. Butler devoted his whole energies to his profession. At the age of forty he was retained in over five hundred cases, enjoyed the most extensive and lucrative practice in New England, and could at that age have retired from active business with an independent fortune.
Despite his enormous and incessant labors at the bar, Mr. Butler, since early manhood, has been a busy and eager politician, regularly for many years attending the national conventions of the Democratic party, and entering actively into every campaign.
Before the Rebellion he was twice elected to the Massachusetts Legislature: once to the House in 1853, and once to the Senate in 1859; and was a candidate for governor in 1856, receiving fifty thousand votes, the full support of his party.
In April, 1860, Mr. Butler was a delegate to the Democratic convention held at Charleston. There he won a national reputation. In June, at an adjourned session of the convention, at Baltimore, Mr. Butler went out with the delegates who were resolved to defeat the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas. The retiring body nominated Mr. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, for the Presidency, and Mr. Butler returned home to help his election. It may be here stated that Mr. Breckinridge was a Southern pro-slavery unionist. Mr. Butler was the Breckinridge candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts, and received only six thousand votes.