Missouri’s Other Atypical Senator

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Missouri, just to look at the demographics, hardly seems like the place to draw slavery radicals. It lacked the thick black belts of the Lower South. At its most enslaved, it could just barely match the figures for a typical Upper South state in the confines of three counties. In a state like that, one would expect a politician like Thomas Hart Benton. The Constitution, however, grants each state two senators. Since 1844, Missouri had sent David Rice Atchison to Washington alongside Benton. Both men had counties named after them, Atchison’s (1.79% enslaved) in the Platte Purchase area of northeast Missouri and Benton’s (9.17% enslaved) near the center of the state.

More people probably know Atchison from a popular myth than from his actual history. Suffice it to say that he never served as President, not even for the one day claimed. Atchison himself never thought so. But he did sleep through most of March 4, 1849. Atchison put in long hours and late nights for several days before polishing off the work of the previous Congress and, in all likelihood, a considerable amount of alcohol. Bourbon Dave liked his drink. He had both to sleep off that Sunday.

At first Benton and Atchison worked well together. Both men wanted Texas, but Benton didn’t mind if it came in free or a section of it got sliced off and made free. Atchison wanted it to save it from a conspiracy by the British to emancipate the Lone Star Republic. Benton denied, rightly so, that any such conspiracy existed. He also pointed to the excitement proslavery elements had for adding a new frontier to slavery the chief obstacle to Northern support for the annexation. If Atchison and his fellows just quieted down, they could get a new slave state or two at the small cost of a new free state or two carved from the same land, filled up by yeoman farmers not repulsed by so much din about the glories of bondage.

To Atchison, who rarely found a bit of proslavery paranoia he could resist and set about casting himself as Calhoun’s disciple, Benton spoke rank treason. What could he mean, except that slavery made lepers out of its practitioners? What kind of Southern man could think such a thing? And what did it say about the North that Benton must really speak for, if it found slaveholders so toxic that it could not abide their presence?

Atchison had his own Missouri, in the west section of the state along the Missouri river. There he kept his own plantation in Clay County (26.54% enslaved) and for a time represented Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in land disputes. Once he and Benton split, they stayed split. Benton’s support of the Wilmot Proviso and Taylor’s No Territory plan made him plenty of enemies in Missouri, and not just in Atchison’s gray belt counties. Bourbon Dave assembled a the bipartisan movement for Missouri’s anti-Benton resolutions and held his fellow Democrat’s feet to the fire.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

The man who put a bullet in Andrew Jackson did not back down and took to Missouri’s dusty roads at age 68 in 1849. He rode into the heart of Missouri’s not-so-black belts, Bourbon Dave’s country, and there Old Bullion mounted stump and stage to confront proslavery hysteria. Nothing that so alarmed slavery interests amounted to a genuine threat, not even the Wilmot Proviso. The North scorned abolitionists nearly so much as the South did. Bourbon Dave and his confederates wanted not security for slavery and slavery’s future, but secretly intended to break the Union for its own sake. Benton owned slaves and did not fear for his property, not in Missouri or anywhere else. Atchison and his ilk caused most of the Northern hostility toward slaveholding with their ceaseless agitation. Better they settle down and be silent on the subject. Be silent and let the tide of white immigrants fill Missouri and the West.

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

But what did Benton, personally, think about slavery? He opposed its expansion. Had Missouri entered the Union free, he would oppose slavery coming there. He would see it kept where it then rested and not expanded at all. Didn’t they understand that proslavery campaigns only discouraged white settlement and kept Missouri smaller than it could be? A decade later, an Illinois lawyer would run for president on a very similar platform.

Benton insisted it would take slow centuries to naturally end slavery, but Atchison and his supporters heard abolitionism. If whites flooded in and all Missouri looked more like St. Louis, would Old Bullion remain silent then? Or would he embrace a social revolution, pushing measures to sell slaves South until the institution withered on the vine? Come 1850, Benton’s party threw in with the Whigs and replaced him with Henry S. Geyer. Atypical Missouri proved, at least in that moment, quite typical indeed.



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