Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Benton, Thomas Hart
BENTON, Thomas Hart, statesman, b. near Hillsborough, Orange co., N. C., 14 March, 1782; d. in Washington, 10 April, 1858. He was the son of Col. Jesse Benton, lawyer, of North Carolina, who was private secretary to Gov. Tryon, the last of the royal governors of North Carolina. His mother was Ann Gooch, of the Gooch family of Virginia. He was a cousin of the wife of Henry Clay, and was consequently often quoted during his public life as a relative of the great statesman himself. He lost his father before he was eight years of age, and was left with a large family of brothers and sisters, all of tender age, to the care of his mother. As Thomas was the eldest, his opportunities for study were few. He was for some time at a grammar-school, and afterward at the university of North Carolina, but did not complete a course of study there, as his mother removed to Tennessee to occupy a tract of 40,000 acres that had been acquired by his father. The family settled twenty-five miles south of Nashville, where for several years the main work was the opening a farm in the wilderness. The place, a tract of 3,000 acres, was known as “The Widow Benton's Settlement,” and was on the extreme verge of civilization. The great war-trail of the southern tribes led through the estate. Settlers gradually came, and with them a better assured protection. The place was called Bentontown, and the name is retained to this day. Thomas studied law with St. George Tucker, entered the U. S. army in 1810, and was admitted to the bar in Nashville in 1811 under the patronage of Andrew Jackson, at that time a judge of the supreme court, and one of his warmest friends. He was elected to the legislature, where he obtained the passage of a law for the reform of the judicial system of the state, and another by which the right of trial by jury was given to slaves. In the war of 1812 he was Jackson's aide-de-camp, and he also raised a regiment of volunteers. Owing to a quarrel in which his brother Jesse and William (afterward Gen.) Carroll became involved, he and his long-time friend Gen. Jackson became bitterly estranged for many years. A duel had been arranged between Jesse Benton and Carroll, and Gen. Jackson was Carroll's second. Jesse sent an offensive account of the matter to Thomas, who was then serving under Gen. Jackson in his military capacity. On 4 Sept., 1813, Jackson with some friends happened to meet the Benton brothers in the streets of Nashville. Jackson advanced upon Col. Benton and struck him with a horse-whip; a mêlée followed, and pistols and knives were freely used, and Jackson received a ball in his left shoulder, while Jesse Benton received severe dirk-wounds and thrusts from a sword-cane. The president appointed Col. Benton, in 1813, a lieutenant-colonel in the U. S. army, and he set out to serve in Canada, but peace having been declared, he returned and resigned his commission. In 1815 he took up his residence in St. Louis, and resumed the practice of law. He established a newspaper, the “Missouri Inquirer,” by which he became involved in several duels, and in one of them killed his opponent, a Mr. Lucas. He deeply regretted the event, and carefully destroyed all the private papers connected with the matter. His journal took a vigorous stand in favor of the admission of Missouri to the union, notwithstanding her slavery constitution, and at the end of the controversy he was rewarded for his efforts by being chosen, in 1820, one of the senators from the new state. For a year he devoted himself to a close study of the Spanish language, in order to accomplish his work more thoroughly. Possessed of a commanding intellect and liberal culture, an assiduous student, resolute, temperate, industrious, and endowed with a memory whose tenacity was marvellous, he soon placed himself among the leaders in the national councils. One of his earliest efforts was to secure a reform in the disposition of the government lands to settlers. A pioneer himself, he sympathized with the demands of the pioneer, and in 1824, 1826, and 1828 advocated new land laws. The general distress that prevailed thnnighout the country, and bore with especial hardship on the land-purchasers of the west, forced attention to this subject. Col. Benton demanded: 1, a pre-emptive right to all actual settlers; 2, a periodic reduction according to the time the land had been in the market, so as to make the prices correspond to the quality; 3, the donation of homesteads to impoverished but industrious persons, who would cultivate the land for a given period of years. He presented a bill embracing these features, and renewed it every year until it took hold upon the public mind, and was at length substantially embodied in one of President Jackson's messages, which secured its final adoption. By his earnestness in advocating this bill and securing its final adoption, he gained the lasting friendship of every pioneer and settler in the great west. His position in the senate, and his firmness as a supporter of Jackson's administration, gave him great influence with the democratic party, and he impressed his views upon the president on every occasion.
Col. Benton also caused the adoption of a bill throwing the saline and mineral lands of Missouri, which belonged to the United States, open for occupancy. There was at this time a certain tribute levied on the people of the Mississippi valley, which proved in many cases a most unequal burden and was frequently oppressive. One part, which met with more hostility than any other, was known as the salt-tax. Benton took up the matter, and in the session of 1829-'30 delivered such elaborate arguments against the tax, and followed them up with such success, that it was repealed. He was one of the earliest advocates of a railroad to the Pacific, and was prominent in directing adventure to explorations in the far west, in encouraging overland transit to the Pacific, and in working for the occupancy of the mouth of the Columbia. As early as 1819 he had written largely on these subjects, and on his entry into congress renewed his efforts to engage the nation in these great enterprises. He first elaborated the project of overland connection, listened to the reports of trappers and voyageurs, and as science expanded, and knowledge of the great wilderness toward the mountains became more definite, his views took form in the proposals that culminated in the opening of the great central Pacific railway. He also favored the opening up and protection of the trade with New Mexico; encouraged the establishment of military stations on the Missouri, and throughout the interior; and urged the cultivation of amicable relations with the Indian tribes, and the fostering of the commerce of our inland seas. He turned his attention to the marking out of the great system of post-roads, and providing for their permanent maintenance.
In the first annual message of President Jackson strong ground was taken against the United States bank, then the depository of the national moneys, and subsequently, when he directed the withdrawal of the deposits and their removal to certain state banks, the result was disastrous to the business of the country. Benton took up the matter, addressed himself to a consideration of the whole question of finance, circulating medium, and exchange, and urged the adoption of a gold and silver currency as the true remedy for the existing embarrassments. He made on this subject some of the most elaborate speeches of his life, which attracted attention throughout the United States and Europe, and the name of “Old Bullion” was given to him. His style of oratory at this period was unimpassioned and very deliberate, but overflowing with facts, figures, logical deduction, and historical illustration. In later life he was characterized by a peculiar exuberance of wit and raciness that increased with his years. The elaboration of his views on the national finances paved the way for subsequent legislation, and did much to bring about the present sub-treasury system of the United States.
To Col. Benton is to be given the credit of moving the famous “expunging resolutions.” A formidable combination had been effected in the senate, headed by Calhoun, Clay, and Webster, and a resolution condemning the president's course had been adopted. Benton took it upon himself to have the resolution expunged from the records. From 1841 till 1851, under Presidents Tyler, Polk, and Taylor, he participated in the discussions that arose in regard to the Oregon boundary, the annexation of Texas, and other important subjects. The democratic administration of Mr. Polk was nominally in favor of lat. 54° 40' N. as the boundary of Oregon, and his party had promised this in its platform, but was opposed with so much force by Mr. Benton, that Mr. Polk acquiesced in his views and accepted lat. 49° N. as the line. By this the United States relinquished a piece of territory that would now make its possessions continuous to Alaska and give it every harbor on the Pacific coast. During the Mexican war Col. Benton's services, and intimate acquaintance with the Spanish provinces of the south, proved most useful to the government. On his suggestion the policy of a “masterly inactivity,” at first determined upon by the president, was abandoned, and that of a vigorous prosecution of the war adopted in its stead. At one time it was proposed by President Polk to confer upon him the title of lieutenant-general with full command of the war, in order that he might carry out his conceptions in person. Questions in regard to slavery were brought on by the acquisition of Mexican territory. These were adjusted by the compromise acts of 1850, which were introduced by Mr. Clay, were opposed by Col. Benton, and defeated as a whole, but passed separately. In the nullification struggle, Benton became Calhoun's leading democratic opponent, and their opposition to each other increased into a life-long animosity. The compromise of 1833 brought a lull in the storm; but the same views soon reappeared in connection with the far more complicated question of slavery. The Calhoun doctrine was introduced into the discussion of the abolition petitions in the house of representatives in 1835, and was definitely presented in the session of 1846-'7. On 19 Feb., 1847, Mr. Calhoun, in answer to the “Wilmot proviso,” which excluded slavery from all territory subsequently to be acquired, introduced resolutions that embodied his doctrine as to state rights. Col. Benton, although representing a slave state, would not deviate from the positions he had maintained on former occasions, he denounced Calhoun's resolution as a “fire-brand.” Calhoun expressed his surprise, saying he expected Benton's support because he represented a slave state. Benton replied that he had no right to expect any such thing, and from this moment the two intellectual giants were matched in a ferocious warfare against each other's ideas and interests. The resolutions never came to a vote, but they were sent to the legislature of every slave state, were adopted by several of them, and were made the basis of after-conflict and party organization. It was Calhoun's determination to make them a basis of instruction to senators in congress, and in his hostility to Benton he confided them to certain democrats in the Missouri legislature whom he knew to be unfriendly to his re-election. By skilful management the resolutions were passed in both branches without Col. Benton's knowledge, and a copy was sent to Washington. He promptly denounced them as not expressing the sense of the people, and containing disunion doctrines designed to produce separation and disaster, and declared that he would appeal from the legislature to the people. On the adjournment of congress he returned to Missouri and canvassed every section of the state in a series of speeches famed for their bitterness of denunciation, strength of exposition, and caustic wit. The result was the return of a legislature in 1849-'50 with Benton men in the plurality, but composed of opposite wings, and he was defeated by a coalition between his democratic opponents (known as “anties”) and the whigs. At the close of his term he therefore retired from the senate, after six successive elections and thirty years' continuous service. In 1852 he announced himself a candidate for congress, made a direct appeal to the people in his congressional district, and was elected over all opposition. He gave his warm support to the administration of Franklin Pierce; but when the Calhoun party obtained the ascendency he withdrew. The administration then turned on him, and displaced from office all his friends throughout Missouri. Soon afterward the Kansas-Nebraska bill was brought up, and he exerted himself with all his strength against it, delivering a memorable speech, which did much to excite the country against the act, but failed to defeat its passage. At the next election he was not returned to congress. Retiring from active politics, he devoted two years to literary pursuits, when he became a candidate for governor in 1856, his old friends rallied to his political standard, and his course became a triumphal procession; but a third ticket was in the field, and by the dividing of forces his election was lost. In the presidential election of the same year Col. Benton supported Mr. Buchanan in opposition to his own son-in-law, Col. Frémont, giving as a reason that Mr. Buchanan, if elected, would restore the principles of the Jackson administration, while he feared that the success of Frémont would engender sectional parties fatal to the permanence of the union. Afterward, during the Buchanan administration, he modified many of his opinions, and in several instances took a decided stand in opposition.
The first volume of his “Thirty Years' View” of the workings of the government (New York, 1854) presented a connected narrative of the time from Adams to Pierce, and dealt particularly with the secret political history of that period. The second and last volume appeared in 1856. He then undertook the task of abridging the debates of congress from the foundation of the government. Although at the advanced age of seventy-six, he labored at this task daily, and brought the work down to the conclusion of the great compromise debate of 1850, in which, with Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and Seward, he had himself borne a conspicuous part. The last pages were dictated in whispers after he had lost the power of speaking aloud. The work was published under the title of “An Abridgment of the Debates of Congress” (15 vols., New York). Having completed this work, Mr. Benton sent for several old friends to bid them farewell. Among them was the president, whom he thanked for taking an interest in his child, and to whom he said: “Buchanan, we are friends. I supported you in preference to Frémont, because he headed a sectional party, whose success would have been the signal for disunion. I have known you long, and I knew you would honestly endeavor to do right.” A week before his death he wrote to friends in congress requesting that neither house should take notice of his death; but congress, nevertheless, adjourned for his funeral.
After becoming senator Col. Benton married Elizabeth, daughter of Col. James McDowell, of Virginia. In 1844 she suffered a stroke of paralysis, and from that time he was never known to go to any place of festivity or amusement. She died in 1854, leaving four daughters, the second of whom married Gen. John C. Frémont. Notwithstanding the temptations to which his public life subjected him, he abstained wholly from the use of tobacco, gaming, and liquors, saying that his mother had wished it, and he should adhere to her wishes through life. Besides his works already mentioned, he published “An Examination of the Dred-Scott Case.” A fine bronze statue of him has been erected in the park in St. Louis. The steel portrait represents him in early life; that in the text, as he appeared in later years.