After thirty years as Missouri’s U.S. Senator, Thomas Hart Benton’s fall from power was immediate and complete. His loyalty to his values made him a subject for John Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.
(An earlier edition was published by the Georgia Numismatic Association’s, GNA Journal as “The Senator Who Fell From Grace with the South.”)
|State Historical Society of Missouri|
Thomas Hart Benton was born at Harts Mill, near Hillsboro, N.C. on March 14, 1782. His father died in 1791, leaving behind claims to land in Tennessee where Thomas settled the family. Mostly self-taught, he earned admission first to Chapel Hill College and then to William and Mary College where he studied law. Returning to Tennessee, he was admitted to the bar in 1806. In 1809 he won election to the state senate, serving one term.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Andrew Jackson tapped Benton to be his aide-de-camp. Jackson mustered 2500 men marching them from Nashville to Natchez, claiming that he would seize Mobile and Pensacola. Instead, Secretary of War John Armstrong disbanded the army. Jackson hired transportation and led them back to Nashville. Benton's petitions to the War Department finally garnered a reimbursement on expenses for Jackson.
As the army ended its campaign, Thomas's younger brother, Jesse, challenged William Carroll to a duel. Carroll asked Jackson to be his second. Jackson declined. On Monday, June 14, 1813 at six o'clock in the morning, Jesse Benton suffered a bullet wound to both cheeks of his buttocks. Hardly fatal, it was painful and embarrassing; and Thomas Benton blamed Jackson. Benton felt that Jackson should have prevented the dual by persuasion. (Although punishable now under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in the 19th century duelling per se was not contrary to the Rules of War published by Congress. See A Treatise on the Military Law of the United States: Together with the Practice and Procedure of Courts-martial and Other Military Tribunals by George Breckenridge Davis, John Wiley & Sons, 1913, on Google Books here.)
In early September 1813, the Bentons had their revenge. They ambushed Jackson, John Coffee, and Stockley Hays at the Old Nashville Inn. Thomas Hart Benton pulled a horseship on Jackson. Jesse Benton shot Jackson twice, leaving him with a ball and a slug. Jackson's return fire and the Bentons’ answering barrage all failed. Coffee, Hays, and a bystander, James Sitler, rushed in and overpowered Jesse. In the fracas, Thomas fell backwards down a flight of stairs. The battle ended. (Although the ball was removed, Jackson carried the slug for the rest of his life.) When Jackson and Benton met face to face again in 1823, their common vision and political goals made them allies. They erased the ten years of enmity with a handshake.
Benton was instrumental in developing the West. He introduced bills to distribute lands in ways that allowed true settlement by farmers while thwarting speculators. He advocated for the pony express, the telegraph, interior highways, the opening of the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, and transcontinental railroads. He even hoped that explorers of the far northwest would find a land route to India.
The “Bentonian Currency Mint Drop” tokens lampooned Benton's faith in hard money. According to historian William Graham Sumner, Benton was “...the strongest bullionist in the administration circle.” Benton said that gold was the best protection for the middle class, the merchant, farmer, and tradesman. He said that none of them could expect by their honest labor to become rich overnight whereas paper money allowed eastern speculators to do just that.
To bring American gold into line with the international gold-silver ratio, Benton introduced the legislation that lowered the fineness of the Half Eagle $5 gold coin to from .9167 to .8992 for the issues of 1834-1839. Working with Sen. William McKendree Gwin of California, he introduced a bill to establish branch Mint at San Francisco. Benton's power made him chair of many important committees, including Indian Affairs, Military Affairs, and Foreign Relations. He authored the resolution to expunge from the Senate Journal the resolution of censure against Andrew Jackson.
A westerner and a southerner, Benton's ultimate loyalty was to the Union. Not even his passion for the West - John Fremont was his son-in-law - would allow him to go along with the Compromise of 1850, hammered out by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. To Benton, it was a surrender to the fire-eaters who threatened dissolution of the Union if they were not allowed to extend slavery into the West.
Yet, though personally opposed to slavery, Benton was no abolitionist. So, when he fell from grace with the South for this stand, he had no friends in the North, and no friends at home in Missouri. The first U.S. Senator to serve five consecutive terms, Thomas Hart Benton suffered a humiliating defeat in 1850. After losing his senate seat, Benton won a single term in the House of Representatives from 1853 to 1855, but his political career was over. He retired to Washington DC to write his autobiography. Benton died on April 10, 1858.
When he was on the rise and powerful, Benton's name christened towns and counties in the West and South: Fort Benton, Montana; Benton County, Iowa, Benton County, Oregon, and Benton County, Washington. After his fall, Benton County, Alabama, became Calhoun County. Benton County, Florida, reverted to Hernando County. However, after the Civil War, Brunson Harbor, Michigan, was renamed Benton Harbor in his honor.
“During his years as a senator, Benton became concerned that the issue of slavery would divide the country. He had pushed for Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, viewing the abolition of slavery as dangerous to the union and harmful to blacks.Around 1835 Benton slowly began to change his views. While he did not view slavery as wrong or wish to abolish it completely, he did not want to see it spread into the territories.
“In 1849 Benton traveled around Missouri delivering speeches on slavery. In Jefferson City, he declared, “My personal sentiments, then, are against the institution of slavery, and against its introduction into places in which it does not exist. If there was no slavery in Missouri today, I should oppose its coming in.”Benton spent his last session in Congress speaking against slavery. This change in position cost Benton much support, and he lost the 1851 senatorial election.”
– The State Historical Society of Missouri here: https://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/bentonsenator/
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