An Atypical Senator for an Atypical Missouri

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

To go with its demographic oddities, the Missouri that might fill with white settlers and free itself from slavery had an oddity for a Senator. Thomas Hart Benton, born on March 14, 1782, started life in North Carolina. He went off to study law at North Carolina College. Though Benton had the good judgment to pick well-heeled parents, cash belonging to his fellow students somehow ended up in his pockets. Benton admitted taking the money and decamped in disgrace to find his fortune in the new frontier just over the mountains: Tennessee.

In Tennessee, Benton earned a reputation as a tough frontiersman and bought a sizable patch of land he turned into a plantation. Along the way he also finished his law degree and spent some time in the state Senate. Benton’s bear hunting and dueling ways brought him to the notice of another rough frontier sort, Andrew Jackson. The two men took a shine to one another and when the War of 1812 came, Jackson made Benton his aide-de-camp and a lieutenant colonel. Then he sent Benton off to Washington to lobby the War Department, quite the opposite of the job Benton wanted.

Then two men found themselves in a bar together. Benton’s younger brother clashed with one of Old Hickory’s friends. Sufficiently lubricated, Benton and Jackson got involved. Benton spoke up. The general challenged him. Benton accepted and in short order both men fired. Jackson did violence to Benton’s sleeve, shooting a hole through it. Benton shot Old Hickory in the arm, walked up and seized the general’s sword, and broke it in front of him. Jackson bled enough to soak two mattresses. Benton, knowing full well that in shooting Mr. Tennessee he also shot dead his hopes of a political career in the state, picked up and relocated a second time.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Across the Mississippi, Benton found his new home in St. Louis. There he worked as a lawyer and fought more duels. When not shooting people, Benton made enough of a name for himself in Missouri’s small pond to win election as one of its first senators in 1821. Missouri elected him again and again, for a total of five terms. No other senator served so long, not even Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. In Washington, Benton stood by the Democratic party when it formed. One supposes that if Jackson demanded too much for him, Benton reserved the right to shoot him a few more times. Old Bullion certainly let the Senate know he could carry a grudge and hate with the best of them. They called him Big Bully Bottom Benton. Big Bully shot dead a man who called him a puppy.

At any rate, Benton proved a stalwart Jacksonian. To him, the government had a duty to fight against banks and paper money in order to secure a continental paradise for all white men. The Jackson administration taught him a very un-Southern lesson in where to find his other enemies: From Calhoun and the Nullifiers, Benton learned that slavery agitators would break the union if they could. Their every contrived crisis, from the tariff to the gag rule to Texas and Wilmot served that aim. They would bury the white man’s paradise in the grave of sectional strife.

None of that made Benton an abolitionist. He wanted all of Texas, with or without slavery but best if some of it turned free soil. He did not inveigh against slavery, but preached silence on the subject. It would go away on its own and Northern agitators produced much sound and fury but little substantial threat to the insitution. Furthermore, the North policed them quite thoroughly and kept them to the political fringes. Many Northerners saw him as a lone American voice in an increasingly disunionist South. To the South, especially to Missouri’s slaveholders, Benton often looked like a secret free soiler.

When the Missouri legislature passed resolutions against his heterodoxy in 1849, Benton eased off his enthusiasm for slicing up Texas. Then they demanded he stand with the South behind Calhoun’s Southern Address. Old Bullion the Big Bully cherished his principles and hatreds too much to knuckle under to the architect of his woes and refused.

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