Congressional Lions: Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton served as a United States senator from Missouri for 30 years—from 1821 until 1851. His service stretched roughly from the era when the founding generation passed from the scene until the turbulent decade leading up to the eruption of the American Civil War. I discuss his extraordinary life and times in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.
First elected after the Compromise of 1820 made Missouri a state, he served until the state legislature denied him a sixth term following passage of the Compromise of 1850. He was an anti-slavery man in a state—and a nation—torn apart by the slavery issue. Today Benton is most closely associated with the concept of Manifest Destiny. Confident, forward-looking Americans, mostly freed from European entanglements because a vast ocean and limited transportation options provided a 3,000-mile buffer zone, turned their attention to the west. A huge continent stretched before them. It had yet to be fully explored, but Lewis and Clark demonstrated that it could be traversed, and what could be traversed could be conquered. What could be conquered could be governed if it was annexed in a way that foiled Mexican and European competitors from staking out defensible claims. In the first volume of his History of the United States of America, published in 1834, the great historian George Bancroft included the motto “Westward the star of empire takes its way.” It was the credo of the age. As a senator, Benton supported legislation that encouraged settlers to move ever westward. His son-in-law, the legendary explorer John Charles Frémont, known as the Great Pathfinder, became a symbol of the restless desire of Americans to discover and stake out western territory.
He was born in Harts Mill, a crossroads in Orange County, North Carolina, situated near the present-day town of Hillsborough, on March 14, 1782, one of the eight children of Jesse Benton, a wealthy lawyer and landowner, and Anne Gooch Benton. Unfortunately, his father died in 1790, when Thomas was eight years old.
Following in his father’s footsteps, the young man chose to become a lawyer. He studied law at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he joined the Philanthropic Society. Benton left after about a year. His reasons for an abrupt departure are not quite clear. Some accounts suggest that he departed to accompany his family to the area of middle Tennessee known as the Cumberland settlement near Franklin, where Jesse Benton had purchased a large tract of land before his death. Other accounts suggest that he had stolen money from his fellow students and the university had expelled him. A possibly apocryphal tale had young Benton addressing a group of jeering students as he left the campus. “I am leaving here now but damn you, you will hear from me again,” he is reputed to have said.
After the Bentons moved to Tennessee, young Thomas came to know Andrew Jackson during these years. The general, 15 years Benton’s senior, influenced him greatly. With Jackson's encouragement, and acting as the proverbial self-made man, Benton studied the law on his own, painstakingly teaching himself the necessary legal doctrines and concepts. After he was admitted to the Tennessee bar, he first practiced law in Franklin before moving to Nashville. He later recalled that he struggled to establish his practice. As late as 1812, by his own admission, Benton was “a young lawyer with more books than briefs.” He demonstrated an aptitude for politics, however, serving a term in the Tennessee State Senate, beginning in 1809.
Even before the War of 1812 began, Benton enlisted in the army and served as a lieutenant colonel as well as Andrew Jackson’s aide-de-camp. He had worshiped Old Hickory, but their warm relationship did not survive the war. Jackson dispatched Benton to Washington, D.C., to lobby on Jackson’s behalf. In Benton’s absence, Jackson served as a second to a man who challenged Benton’s brother, Jesse, to a duel. Benton was furious when he learned that his patron had showed such disrespect toward Benton’s brother. Benton later participated in a frontier brawl against Jackson, a sordid episode wherein Jackson was wounded.
After earning an honorable discharge from the army in 1815, Benton chose not to return to Tennessee. He settled in St. Louis, a burgeoning town in the Missouri Territory. He had struggled as a young lawyer in Tennessee before the war, but his fortunes improved considerably when he moved to St. Louis. He arrived with $400 in his pocket and knowing no one, but he quickly distinguished himself. Almost everyone who encountered him during those years remembered his regal bearing and extraordinary self-confidence. A contemporary described Benton as striking: “His personal appearance was the most commanding of any man I ever met. At first glance, a stranger would say that he was born to command.”
Given his confidence and obvious abilities, Benton ascended into a position of community leadership within a few short years. He became a trustee on the school board, where he served with many prominent citizens of the town. He also became a reporter for, and eventually an editor and part owner of, the St. Louis Enquirer, one of the leading newspapers west of the Mississippi River.
In 1817, he became involved in a controversy that would haunt him for the rest of his life. During a court case, he and Charles Lucas, opposing counsel, exchanged words in the heat of the contest, each accusing the other of lying. Later, outside of court, they saw each other as Benton was preparing to vote. Lucas asked whether Benton had paid the taxes necessary to cast a ballot. Well known for his volcanic temper, Benton interpreted the comment as an attack on his good character. He responded with a series of epithets, which Lucas characterized as “vehement, abusive, and ungentlemanly language.” Although the exact language was later disputed, Benton supposedly referred to Lucas several times as a “puppy,” a term that undermined the lawyer’s dignity. Lucas responded with a short note agreeing to meet Benton for a duel. Benton was a better marksman, and he eventually killed Lucas in the encounter.
Benton’s supporters justified their man’s actions. He had done what was necessary to defend his honor, and Lucas knew or should have known the risks. Anti-Bentonites claimed, however, that Lucas was a much younger man who was not adept at firing pistols. Benton should not have accepted the challenge. Giving into his violent temper, the older man had, in essence, murdered a young fellow when less dangerous means for resolving their dispute could have been found. For his part, Benton was of two minds. He occasionally expressed regret that he had killed a man, and he was never a principal in another duel. Yet, in some respects, he relished the frontier legend of Benton the fighting man, the man of deeds as well as words. Throughout his life, despite his probably heartfelt regret, he also alluded to the incident with a tinge of pride in his fighting prowess. He once famously responded to a fellow senator who had dismissed him as quarrelsome. Through clenched teeth, the Missourian spoke with barely contained anger. “I never quarrel, sir,” he said. “But sometimes I fight, sir; and whenever I fight, sir, a funeral follows, sir.”
The episode did not harm his political career. Within a few years, the Missouri Territory became a state under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. Afterward, the state legislature elected Benton to serve as one of its first United States senators.
When he entered the United States Senate, he was not yet 40 years old. Benton’s colleagues viewed him as an exuberant, youthful, restless public figure, a sort of personification of the western man. He developed a reputation as an indefatigable worker, always ready with a suitable statistic or quotation from his readings. Contemporaries remarked on his oratory, and it was not always complimentary. Some observers were put off by what they saw as a bombastic, pompous, almost histrionic style. He became a master of sarcasm, biting wit, and the well-placed put down. If his speeches were not known for their eloquence—he was certainly no Daniel Webster or Henry Clay—Benton usually accomplished his goals if for no other reason than because of his dogged perseverance.
He knew that his detractors dismissed him as arrogant and vain, a bloviating bore who frequently embarrassed himself with his interminable speeches and florid language. He was unperturbed and unrepentant. When asked about his public persona, Benton bluntly confessed that he harbored a high opinion of his own gifts. “So I have been informed,” he said of the charge that he was egotistical, “but I speak of what I know to be the truth, while others cloak their remarks about themselves in a mock humility and hypocrisy.”
As a new senator, he worried about the ill effects of the Panic of 1819, a deep recession that struck the nation shortly before he joined the Congress. Benton feared that the lack of “hard money”—that is, gold coin (specie) or bullion, rather than paper money—hurt farmers and the working classes. He became a prominent advocate of the hard money position throughout his long career. So effectively did he lobby for hard money policy that Benton earned the nickname “Old Bullion.”
Benton was a pragmatic senator. Despite his personal animus toward Andrew Jackson, he recognized that Old Hickory was popular in Missouri. Throwing his support behind a war hero was good politics. He later claimed that he and Jackson had reached an understanding, and their previous friendship had recommenced. It is difficult to know whether this was a genuine change of heart or a political calculation. In any case, Benton once again became a Jackson man. When the House of Representatives threw the election to John Quincy Adams and against Jackson in the 1824 presidential contest, Benton was as outraged as anyone.
Because he was so vocal, energetic, and domineering, Thomas Hart Benton became an especially influential senator, even during his first term. He served on important committees, including Public Lands, Indian Affairs, and Engrossed Bills. Later he served on the Military Affairs Committee. Late in his career, he served on the Senate Finance Committee as well as the Foreign Relations Committee.
Benton is primarily remembered for his ongoing campaign to expand the territorial lands of the United States. When he entered Congress, he believed that the nation’s boundary should extend to the Rocky Mountains. Later, he changed his opinion, arguing that the natural boundary of the United States should be the Pacific Ocean. He became one of the most vociferous proponents of Manifest Destiny in the nation’s history.
He reached the apex of his power as a senator supporting President Jackson and his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. By the time that James K. Polk became president, Benton’s authority had waned. His opposition to the war with Mexico (at least until the shooting started) and his ambivalence toward slavery made him a suspect figure. Anti-slavery men did not trust Benton because he owned slaves. Slave owners thought his support for the institution too tepid, and they could not countenance his vacillation on the question. Slave owners viewed every legislative proposal to limit the spread of slavery as an existential threat to the institution, and Benton’s support for these measures indicated that he could not be trusted.
At times, especially early in his public career, he appeared to be pro-slavery, but often his public statements hinted at abolitionism, or at least strict limitations on the institution’s spread. A slave owner for much of his life, Benton nonetheless consistently voted to prohibit slavery in the territories. He was hardly an abolitionist, but he found the whole business of one person owing another distasteful. He was a singular figure among representatives of the slave states in agreeing that Congress could regulate bondage in the territories. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, an act of the Confederation Congress that predated ratification of the U.S. Constitution, had prohibited slavery in the organized territory that extended beyond the Appalachian Mountains north to the Great Lakes, south to the Ohio River, and westward to the Mississippi River. Benton believed that the ordinance served as a powerful and controlling precedent, and he viewed later developments, such as the controversial Wilmot Proviso, as restatements of pre-existing law limiting the expansion of slavery. At the same time, he fretted over incendiary measures designed to inflame passions on both sides of the question. Although he did not view the Wilmot Proviso with the vitriol heaped on it by southerners, he argued that it was unnecessarily antagonistic. He believed that pro-slavery and anti-slavery men were so invested in their positions and so enraged at their opponents that they constantly practiced a destructive form of brinkmanship that one day might explode into sustained violence, perhaps even civil war. As he explained late in his career, “If there was no slavery in Missouri today, I should oppose it coming in. If there was none in the United States, I should oppose its coming into the United States.” Because the institution existed, however, each side would have to reach an accommodation with the other.
Just as slavery was an agonizing issue for so many Americans, often dividing public opinion, especially in Border States, it was especially troublesome for Senator Benton. By the late 1840s, his safe seat in the United States Senate was on longer so safe. In his book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy singled out Benton for acting according to his conscience, even when he went against the wishes of most of his constituents. His anti-slavery position in Missouri, a slave state, drove many supporters into the opposition camp. He eked out a victory in the 1844 contest, but it was his last electoral success in a U.S. Senate race in Missouri. Benton was out of step with his state.
He approached his last election without pandering to the electorate--or to anyone. During a debate over the Compromise of 1850, a comment that Benton made angered a colleague, Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi. A long-standing dispute between Foote and Benton had led to many heated remarks over the years. It was only a matter of time before the two hot-heads came to blows. Over the course of weeks, as senators traded angry words, the famously prickly Foote and the hot-blooded Benton exchanged barbs and suggestions that they meet for a duel. Finally, on April 17, 1850, Foote verbally assailed the Missouri senator on the Senate floor with renewed vigor. In a fit of pique, the barrel-chested, hulking Benton advanced toward Foote as if to assault the man. A colleague reached out and touched Benton to restrain him. When the Missouri senator came to his senses and realized that the Senate floor was not the place to engage in fisticuffs, he turned to walk away. Foote whipped out a pistol.
It was exactly the sort of dramatic scene that the histrionic Benton favored. Spinning on his heels, he thrust out his chest and dared Foote to fire at him. “I have no pistol!” Benton exclaimed. “I disdain to carry arms! Let him fire! Let the assassin fire!”
Foote did not fire, but he told friends that he prayed for Benton’s defeat. His prayers were answered. In January 1851, the Missouri General Assembly denied Benton another term. It was a divisive, twelve-day battle, but in the end, the legislature sent Henry S. Geyer, a Whig, to represent the state for a single term in Washington, D.C. A pro-slavery man, Geyser eventually voted in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a measure that allowed residents to decide for themselves whether they would permit slavery in the territories.
Benton had been ignominiously turned out of office after three decades of service. He was the first man to serve five terms in the United States Senate, but he would not serve a sixth.
Yet he was not quite beaten. In November 1852, Benton staged a remarkable political comeback. He knew that he could not win back a seat in the Senate, and so he set his sights on the other chamber of Congress. Much to his delight, Benton was elected to the United States House of Representatives, representing the First Congressional District of Missouri, which included St. Louis.
His House career was short-lived. Entering the chamber with a well-known pedigree, Benton enjoyed an exalted status seldom afforded a freshman congressman. The House leadership selected him to serve as chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. Throughout his Senate career, he had been an active figure—perhaps too active, in the opinion of his critics—but in the House, he was curiously subdued. He served only a single term.
To everyone save Benton, it was clear that his star was setting. Yet he refused to go gentle into that good night. In 1856, he campaigned for governor of Missouri. From beginning to end, it was a fool’s errand. He, a prominent critic of slavery, had little chance of winning statewide elective office in a slave-holding state. Predictably, he handily lost the gubernatorial election.
Still determined to remain relevant and engaged in political affairs, Benton published his two-volume memoir Thirty Years' View, a self-consciously defensive retrospective of his lengthy career, in 1854. Three years later, he published a pamphlet, Historical and Legal Examination of That Part of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott Case, arguing against Chief Justice Taney’s pro-slavery opinion in the infamous court case. In Benton’s view, the court had ruled on a political question that was best left to the other branches of government to resolve.
In 1856, Benton’s son-in-law, John Charles Frémont, campaigned for president of the United States as the nominee of a new political party, the Republicans. Years earlier, Frémont had eloped with Benton’s beloved daughter, Jessie, much to the senator’s dismay. Benton had reconciled with the couple, but he still voted Democratic in 1856. Frémont lost that election to the Democrat, James Buchanan.
Benton enjoyed robust health for most of his life, but he experienced a decline beginning in the mid-1850s. By 1855, he was battling “cancer of the bowel.” He attempted to conceal his disease from his family, but to no avail. He suffered through a number of apparently painful treatments, including surgery, before dying in Washington. D.C., on April 10, 1858. He was 76 years old. Following an elaborate funeral, Benton was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Senator Thomas Hart Benton is not widely remembered by the general public in the twenty-first century, but his legend loomed large at the time of his death. He was thought to rank with the Great Triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun as one of the most effective senators of the nineteenth century. Several states named cities and counties after him. In 1899, Missouri placed a statue of the senator in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Two subsequent presidents of the United States—Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy—published books analyzing Benton’s public service and political heroism. For all of his defects—his pomposity, hot temper, and arrogance—Thomas Hart Benton remains one of the most important legislators in American history, a man who was hailed and vilified as a prominent, effective iconoclast in his day.