Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thomas H. Benton: the fury of Missouri

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Charles Lucas, a U.S. attorney for the territory of Missouri, should have taken a cue from his first major confrontation with Thomas Hart Benton. Lucas and Benton, a rival lawyer, had sparred bitterly in the courtroom but things had not reached a head until Benton insulted Lucas by quipping to a panel of judges that he did not "propose to answer any charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path." Lucas was angered enough that he demanded satisfaction, and met Benton at the popular "Bloody Island" dueling spot in August of 1817. The two men exchanged shots from 30 feet, resulting in a slight wound to Benton and Lucas nearly bleeding out through a shot to the neck. This was a rather telling example of Benton's skill with a firearm, and friends of Lucas grumbled that Benton had specifically demanded such a distance to increase his advantage over Lucas. Though Lucas himself never accused Benton of being unjust, he agreed to Benton's proposal that the two duel at nine feet to settle the rumors. At this second contest in September, Benton fatally shot Lucas in the heart. Lucas allegedly had harsh words that Benton persecuted and murdered him, but ultimately proclaimed his forgiveness of the man before he died.

It was not the first run-in with firearms Benton had in his life, and it would not be the last. The duel with Lucas soured him on the idea of ever killing another man, however, and he never took up another duel challenge in his life.

Benton was born near Hillsborough, North Carolina in March of 1782. He attended Chapel Hill College (later the University of North Carolina) as well as the College of William and Mary. He didn't finish his studies at either institution, since his father left behind a 40,000-acre estate in Tennessee when he died and Benton moved there with his family to help manage it. He was admitted to the bar at Nashville in 1806, and started practicing in Franklin. From 1809 to 1811, he served in the state senate and helped pass one law reforming the judicial system and another giving slaves the right to a jury trial in criminal matters.

Later, Benton served in the military as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson. He was a colonel of a regiment of Tennessee volunteers during the War of 1812, and appointed lieutenant colonel of the Thirty-ninth United States Infantry in 1813. It was in this same year that Benton's relationship with Jackson began to deteriorate. Benton's brother, Jesse, and a man named William Carroll were both slightly injured in a duel where Jackson acted as a second to Carroll. The incident led to a series of sniping verbal attacks between Benton and Jackson, culminating when Benton commented that he considered another man a superior officer to the general. Jackson threatened to publicly horsewhip Benton at their next meeting, but the encounter was not to go in his favor. In a brawl in Nashville in September of 1813 between Benton, Jesse, Jackson, and a handful of other people, Jackson was shot and wounded seriously enough that he had to be taken away from the scene. He left his small sword behind, and Benton reportedly broke it in the public square while continuing to denounce the general.

The incident did nothing to improve Benton's standing in Tennessee, as he found that Jackson's friends would make sure that he never had a political future in the state. Benton's solution was to move, and he relocated to St. Louis, Missouri in 1815. He continued to practice law, but also became an editor with the Missouri Enquirer. He equated the modern newspaper with the forums in ancient Greece and Rome, and became an outspoken author in a number of different political debates. In 1819, he voiced opposition to a treaty between the United States and Spain assuring the latter country that the U.S. would relinquish any claims to Texas the Louisiana Purchase had stirred up; he even went so far as to say that war with Spain over the issue would be "the most happy event for ourselves and the human race." Benton also supported the U.S. possession of Cuba, Mexican independence, trade with India via the Pacific Northwest, and the admission of Missouri as a state.

Benton got his wish in the last matter with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted the state alongside Maine to balance the free and slave states in Congress. In 1821, the newly formed legislature unanimously chose David Barton, speaker of the state house of representatives and president of the state's constitutional convention, to serve in the Senate. Members deadlocked on their second choice in the crowded field of candidates, which included Benton as well as Lucas' father. They turned to Barton for help, and he recommended Benton. The legislature approved Benton with 27 votes, seven short of a unanimous consensus, and Benton received the six-year term instead of the four-year term after drawing straws with Barton.

Benton spent the next 30 years in the Senate, first as a Democratic-Republican and later as a Democrat. During his time in the chamber, he chaired the committees on Indian affairs, military affairs, and foreign relations. In the first position, Benton was an advocate of Indian removal. He figured that such relocation would open the way for white settlement and the collection of natural resources, along with the strange justification that prohibiting Indians from having contact with whites would prevent them from becoming depraved. He said such policies were designed "to cherish and protect the Indians, to improve their condition, and turn them to the habits of civilized life," yet he also commented at another point that it freed the land of a "useless and dangerous population."

Land issues were especially close to Benton's heart. He supported land reform, namely a preemptive right to settlers, periodic price reductions of homesteads to allow prices to conform to the quality of the land, and donations of land to poor settlers to allow them to work it for a period of time as a way of payment. He also favored western exploration, especially the Pacific Northwest, but not so much that he joined the "fifty four-forty or fight" crowd who demanded a larger chunk of land during negotiations with Britain. In this regard, he helped to establish the present day 49th Parallel border with Canada.

The rift between Benton and Jackson healed with time. Benton lent his support to Democratic-Republican Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky in the 1824 presidential election, but later defected to Old Hickory. Jackson won the popular vote with 152,901 votes as well as the electoral vote, but none of the four candidates received a plurality. The matter had to be resolved in the House of Representatives, which awarded the White House to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (who received 114,023 votes). As a further show of support, Benton backed a proposal to amend the Constitution to allow the popular vote to decide presidential contests.

Benton also sided with Jackson in his ongoing disagreements with Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. The chief issue between them was the question of nullification, or whether states had the right to overturn unpopular federal laws. Calhoun was specifically interested in disabling tariffs that were harmful his state, but Jackson and Benton both opposed nullification. Benton shared Jackson's distaste of the Bank of the United States, and launched several resolutions on the issue; these included one questioning whether the Bank's accounts were properly balanced and another requiring the Bank to compensate citizens for its use of public money. He became such a supporter of having gold back up accounts to avoid inflation through paper money that he was nicknamed "The Gold Humbug" by opponents, who began calling gold coins "Benton's mint drops." Supporters of the gold standard adopted the more complimentary nickname "Old Bullion" for the senator

Undoubtedly, Benton's most visible act of support for Jackson was also related to the Bank and financial matters. Jackson was elected President in 1828, and in 1832 he vetoed a congressional approval of the Bank's recharter and withdrew federal funds from the institution. Two years later, Congress censured him on the accusation of exceeding his authority. Benton immediately tried to get the resolution expunged, but it was shot down. He tried two other unsuccessful versions before a fourth one to expunge the censure resolution from the Senate Journal finally passed in January of 1837, with Jackson not far from retiring from his second term as President. The measure was controversial enough that Benton's friends tried (and failed) to persuade the senator to take up arms for his own personal protection, and Benton launched a few salvos at anti-Jackson "ruffians" in the galleries as the measure was going through.

Opposition to Benton at home grew strong enough at times to threaten his seat, but he was able to survive in Washington. Despite his earlier support of war to retain claims to Texas, he was nearly turned out of the Senate by voters for opposing the annexation of the territory. The criticism, he explained, was over where the territory's borders lay and the process of the land's acquisition rather than the annexation itself. He opposed the Mexican War, but supported a speedy end to the conflict once the first shots were fired. In Benton's mind, however, part of this process involved a leadership position for himself. He was able to pressure President James K. Polk into nominating him for as a commanding lieutenant general of all U.S. troops in the war, but he was never confirmed. Polk also considered him for a major-general position, but Benton declined to accept.

It was as a result of these machinations that Benton ran afoul of Henry S. Foote, a lawyer who became a Democratic senator and began serving in 1847. Foote first met Benton in 1837, and later wrote that while he and Benton agreed on several matters he considered the Missouri senator imperious and pompous. "On meeting him face to face my first unfavorable impressions of him were greatly strengthened," Foote said, "and the excessive vanity and egotism constantly displayed by him, both in conversational scenes and in the Senate, inspired me with feelings of disgust and aversion which I have seldom experienced." Foote criticized Benton's attempt for a command position as an "unjust and ungenerous" effort to suppress the leadership of General Winfield Scott. He raised a more serious accusation after the war ended in 1848, accusing Benton of procuring a meeting with the Mexican minister to try to rescind the treaty ceding the empire's northern lands to the United States. Foote's accusation was enough to get Benton voted out as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs at the Democratic caucus, though Benton resigned the position once he got the news.

Benton had a rather curious opinion about slavery. He was certainly no abolitionist (he was, in fact, a slaveowner), but he described the practice as evil, saying during one debate, "The incurability of this evil is the greatest objection to the extension of it." The Missouri Compromise had banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri's southern border, and Benton generally agreed that the practice should not be tampered with in areas where it existed, but also not expanded to new territories. One notable exception to this was the Wilmot Proviso of 1847, an ultimately unsuccessful proposal by Democratic Representative Daniel Wilmot of Pennsylvania to forbid slavery in the California and New Mexico territories seized in the Mexican War. Benton may have agreed with the sentiment, but felt it was a non-issue and "firebrand" resolution since slavery was already banned there under the laws of the former Mexican government. "The proviso was nugatory, and could answer no purpose but that of bringing on a slavery agitation in the United States; for which purpose it was immediately seized upon by Mr. Calhoun and his friends, and treated as the greatest possible outrage and injury to the slave states," Benton declared in his memoir, Thirty Years' View. Benton was strongly committed to preventing secession, to the point that a 1909 book, The South in the Building of a Nation, bluntly declared, "The reason Missouri did not secede was Col. Thomas Hart Benton."

A few years later, debates over the imminent admission of California as a free state led to heated debates over how best to handle the resulting slave vs. free state imbalance in Congress. Benton was opposed to the idea of taking on several proposals in a single bill, suggesting during the debates that the Fugitive Slave Law to return escaped slaves to the South was defective and proposing a bill to eventually divide Texas into two slave states. Foote continued to goad Benton, positing that Clay's support of a speedy California admission was a result of conversations with his son-in-law, John C. Fremont, who had taken on a few government posts in the territory and would be appointed a senator upon California's admission.

Foote had tried to get a rise out of Benton on plenty of occasions, possibly in an attempt to force the senator to pick up his dueling pistols once again. Though the compromise debates were raising plenty of tempers, the circumstances leading to confrontation between the two senators may have been a result of different issues. There are several different accounts as to what sparked the incident. Benton and Foote may have traded barbs over who was more cowardly, or Foote may have named Benton as lead "calumniator" of a lower class than those who signed Calhoun's "Southern Address." Foote recalls that it had to do with remarks over Calhoun, who died at the end of March of 1850. Benton certainly wasn't kind to the former Vice President on his passing, giving the opinion that he had been a key proponent of disunion. "There may be no vitality in his body, but there is in his doctrines," Benton opined. "The last thing I did before leaving home was to denounce him and his treasonable sentiments and I shall do the same thing when I return home...Calhoun died with treason in his heart and on his lips...Whilst I am discharging my duty here, his disciples are disseminating his poison all over my state." Foote said that Benton made further derogatory remarks in April, as Calhoun's body was being taken back to South Carolina. He said he tried to get Democratic Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina to denounce Benton on behalf of his state, but that Butler wasn't sure what the issue was about when he did so. Foote said Benton's action came after he added his own words to strengthen the criticism.

Whatever the cause, the Senate remembered what came next fairly clearly. Benton was incensed enough that he shot up from his chair and began to rush toward Foote. The Missouri senator was a large, powerful man and that made any efforts to try to stop him all the more difficult. Foote retreated into the aisle, fearing that Benton would try to attack him as he'd threatened to do after earlier insinuations. He took out a pistol he had with him and kept the barrel pointed at the floor, but he later admitted that he would have shot Benton if he had advanced much farther than he did. The weapon only seemed to strengthen Benton's resolve, but he opted to keep his distance once it was out. He shouted that he did not carry any weapon, and dared Foote to carry out the deed, even opening up his vest to help his fellow senator find a target. "Let him fire!" he boomed. "Let the assassin fire!"

The matter resolved itself peacefully. Foote gave up the gun to fellow Democratic Senator Daniel S. Dickinson of New York, and it was locked away. Benton returned to his desk, shouting some more abuse at Foote before taking his seat. The matter was referred to a seven-man committee, which had to be appointed since no one wanted to volunteer and suffered from several members trying to withdraw. The lukewarm final report criticized the disorder and the presence of firearms in the Senate, but also found Foote innocent of any assassination attempt against Benton. The committee said it was the first incident of its kind in the Senate and announced the hope that it would be the last, recommending no further action on the idea that it would serve as "a sufficient rebuke and warning not unheeded in the future." Benton and Foote continued to snipe at each other, but never got into so severe an incident again. A retrospective by Joseph Morgan Rogers, friendly to Benton, declared Foote's behavior "the greatest indignity the Senate had ever known."

Benton's enemies finally ousted him in the election in 1850, and Whig candidate Henry S. Geyer took his spot. He wasn't out of Congress long, winning an 1852 election for a place in the House of Representatives. The New York Times gave the opinion that while they disagreed with Benton on most issues, they could still appreciate him as a politician. On one hand, he was "assuming, domineering, and even insolent to a most extraordinary degree, and generally contrives to make himself thoroughly uncomfortable to the party which he has always opposed, and which he will undoubtedly continue to oppose to the end of his life." At the same time, he was in favor of a federal democracy rather than states' rights, and therefore a "real Democrat. He is not shamming, or seeking simply selfish ends, as many of his party leaders are, in professing a belief in Human Rights." In addition to returning as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill to repeal the Missouri Compromise, criticizing it as another threat of disunion and a "bungling attempt to smuggle slavery" into the territories. He colorfully described the bill as a "shilly-shally, willy-won'ty, don'ty-can'ty style of legislation."

Benton lost the 1854 election to Opposition Party candidate Luther M. Kennett. He stayed in Washington, D.C. and turned to literary matters, completing an account of his 30 years in the Senate and working on a collection of abridged debates in Congress from 1789 to 1856. Unfortunately, a good portion of his manuscript papers were destroyed when his house burned down in March of 1855. He made an unsuccessful bid in Missouri's 1856 gubernatorial election, and was so committed to Jacksonian politics that he backed Democratic presidential candidate James Buchanan over Fremont, his son-in-law and the Republican candidate. Though he felt Fremont's election would inflame sectional differences, he ultimately became a critic of the Buchanan Administration and lent his support to the Republican Party in his waning days.

Benton died of cancer in April of 1858. The New York Leader eulogized him, saying, "He was an affectionate husband, a devoted father, a true friend, and a sincere Christian. In this respect his example is worthy the attention of all; and his memory will long be held in respect by a grateful country."

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Benton And Clay" in the National Era on Aug. 2 1849, "Benton In Congress" in the New York Times on Aug. 16 1852, "The Destruction Of Colonel Benton's House" in the New York Times on Mar. 1 1855, "Thomas H. Benton: Sketch Of His Life And Public Services" in the New York Times on Apr. 10 1858, Thirty Years' View by Thomas Hart Benton, Munsey's Magazine Vol. 58, The Life of Thomas Hart Benton by William Montgomery Meigs, Thomas H. Benton by Joseph Morgan Rogers, The United States Democratic Review Vol. 42 Issue 1, A History of Missouri by Eugene Morrow Violette, A History of Missouri: 1820 to 1860 by William Earl Parrish and Perry McCandless, The South in the Building of the Nation edited by Julian Alvin Carroll Chandler et. al., President Zachary Taylor: The Hero President by Elbert B. Smith, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union by Robert Vincent Remini, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Casket of Reminiscences by Henry Stuart Foote, My Quarter-Century of American Politics, Vol. 2 by Champ Clark, On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How it Changed the Course of American History by John C. Waugh

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