Benton, Thomas Hart (U.S. Senator)
Thomas Hart Benton, 1782–1858, U.S. Senator (1821–51), b. Hillsboro, N.C.
Benton moved to Tennessee in 1809, was admitted to the bar in 1811, and served (1809–11) in the state senate. In 1815, he went to St. Louis, where he became editor of the Missouri Enquirer, established a thriving law practice, and won political prestige. He entered the U.S. Senate on Missouri's admission to the Union in 1821 and was four times reelected. A supporter from 1824 of Andrew Jackson, with whom he had been at odds, Benton was a power in the administrations of Jackson and Martin Van Buren.
He played one of the most prominent parts in the successful war on the Bank of the United States. A rigid "hard money" man (he delighted in the sobriquet "Old Bullion" ), Benton had the ratio of silver to gold revised from 15 to 1 to 16 to 1 in 1834 and thus brought gold into circulation again. Congress defeated his resolution requiring that the public lands be paid for in hard money only, but Jackson immediately legalized the idea in an executive order (1836), the famous Specie Circular, which Benton drew up. His currency measures, intended to discourage continued land speculation and thereby encourage actual settlement of the West, were supported by Eastern workers, who wished to be paid in specie rather than in notes of uncertain value.
Benton also supported all legislation that aided settlers and favored the development of the West, including reduction in the price of government lands, suppression of land speculation, westward removal of the Native Americans, and internal improvements. He advocated government support of Western exploration, with which he was intimately connected through the expeditions of John Charles Frémont, who married one of his four daughters, Jessie Benton Frémont. The Oregon country especially interested him, and he protested the joint occupation with Britain. Yet he insisted that the 49th parallel (the line established) was the only boundary the United States could rightfully claim and deplored the Democratic campaign slogan of 1844— "Fifty-four forty or fight." As to Texas, although he had protested the 1819 treaty with Spain as one in which the United States gave up its rights to that region, he could not acquiesce in the intrigues that led to the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War.
Benton had early come to favor the gradual abolition of slavery, and with the ascendancy of the proslavery Democrats he lost influence in the party. His antislavery sentiments ran counter to majority opinion in Missouri at that time, and with his opposition to the proslavery features of the Compromise of 1850 he was defeated for a sixth term. He returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative (1853–55) but after voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 he was again defeated for reelection. In 1856 he was also defeated for the governorship of Missouri. He compiled An Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1789 to 1856 (16 vol., 1857–61) and wrote the autobiographical Thirty Years' View (2 vol., 1854–56).
See biographies by T. Roosevelt (1886, repr. 1968), W. N. Chambers (1956, repr. 1970), W. M. Meigs (1904, repr. 1970), and E. B. Smith (1957).
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Benton, Thomas Hart (1782-1858)
Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858)
A Western Jeffersonian . Thomas Hart Benton’s rise as a political leader mirrored that of the West. Born near Hillsboro, North Carolina, Benton spent some time at the state university before being expelled for stealing. To escape the controversy, he moved west to Franklin, Tennessee, in 1801 and became a farmer. Benton read law and entered politics, winning election to the state senate in 1809.
Missouri . During the War of 1812 Benton served as Andrew Jackson’s aide-de-camp; the two men had a competitive and often violent relationship despite their common political principles. Partly to remove himself from Jackson’s circle, he moved to St. Louis in 1815 to practice law and edit a newspaper. When Missouri became a state, Benton was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1851—he was the first senator to serve three decades in the chamber.
Transition to Nationalism . At the dawn of his political career, Benton was a booster for his region. He spoke of the Pacific Northwest as if it belonged to the United States by right, and he chided John Quincy Adams for failing to include Texas in the 1819 treaty that decided the nation’s southern border. He also tirelessly supported (and was rewarded by) business interests of American fur traders and their “rights” to harvest pelts west of the Rockies. As his years of service multiplied, Benton’s politics and policies became more national in scope. For example, he spoke frequently of using the Missouri and Columbia Rivers as potential trade routes for Pacific nations, and he introduced legislation to protect traders on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails from criminals. He also became a leading advocate for offering government lands to actual settlers: as early as 1824 Benton offered a bill to provide for the gradual reduction of the price of unsold public land. Benton’s advocacy of “graduation” and “preemption” rights both pointed to his support of popular democracy and Jeffersonian notions of a nation of freeholders.
Issues . Benton achieved his greatest fame in his pitched battles against the Second Bank of the United States and paper money. His attacks against the “Monster” bank in favor of hard currency earned him his nickname of “Old Bullion.” Finally, although a slaveholder himself (and a representative of a slave state), Benton came to oppose the expansion of slavery into new Western territories. He continued to oppose abolitionism, but wanted new territory to be reserved for freehold farmers. Slavery’s extension, he said in 1848, would only divide the Union. After he was defeated for reelection in 1850, Benton went on to oppose the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the presidency of fellow Democrat James Buchanan.
William N. Chambers, Old Bullion Benton: Senator from the New West, 1782-1858 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956).
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