John Bell, 1797–1869, American statesman, b. near Nashville, Tenn. A leading member of the Nashville bar, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1827–41), was speaker in 1834, and for a few weeks in 1841 was Secretary of War under President William Henry Harrison. At first a Jacksonian, Bell broke with Jackson in the fight over the Bank of the United States and ultimately became the chief leader of the Whigs in Tennessee, dominating state politics for nearly two decades. As U.S. Senator (1847–59), he was the leader of the conservative Southern element that, though supporting slavery, placed the Union first. He admitted the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories, supported the Compromise of 1850, objected to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and opposed the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution. In 1860, Bell was the presidential candidate of the moderate Constitutional Union party and won the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. The lower South seceded with Lincoln's election, but Bell held Tennessee in the Union until after the firing on Fort Sumter. Bell counseled resistance to the Union invasion, but, disheartened and in ill health, he took no active part in the Civil War.
See biography by J. H. Parks (1950).
John Bell was born February 15, 1797, near Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated from Cumberland College in Nashville in 1817 and was admitted to the bar in the same year. He practiced
law in Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, before entering politics.
From 1827 to 1841, Bell served as a congressman for Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He voiced strong opposition to Andrew Jackson's program for the deposit of federal funds into state banks and to the elimination of the bank of the united states.
Bell was secretary of war in 1841 and then U.S. senator for Tennessee for twelve years beginning in 1847.
"It follows that popularity is not always the best test of merit, or of general propriety."
In 1860 Bell was the unsuccessful presidential candidate of a small party known as the Constitutional Union Party. He favored a cautious policy concerning slavery and opposed the South's secession from the Union until the battle of Fort Sumter signaled the outbreak of the Civil War; he then encouraged Tennessee to join the Confederacy.
Bell died September 10, 1869, in Stewart County, Tennessee.
J. Harvey (1987)