Benton, Thomas Hart

Born: 1782-03-14 Harts Mill, North Carolina

Died: 1858-04-10 Washington, D.C.

Thomas Hart Benton attended the University of North Carolina, but was expelled for misusage of funds entrusted to him by his roommates. In 1801, Benton and his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He became a teacher, lawyer, and member of Andrew Jackson's circle. After establishing a legal practice in Franklin, Benton won election to the Tennessee Senate in 1809 and remained there until 1811. During the War of 1812, he served as a colonel in command of a regiment and aid to Jackson. In June 1813, Jackson facilitated a duel between Jesse Benton, Thomas's younger brother, and William Carroll, in which Benton was wounded and humiliated. Thomas swore revenge against Jackson, who not only facilitated the duel, but acted as Carroll's second. In September, Jackson and the Bentons engaged in a brawl during which Jackson was severely wounded. Now estranged from Jackson, Benton left Tennessee and resettled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he became one of the city's most prominent citizens. He married Elizabeth McDowell in 1821, with whom he had six children. One of his daughters, Jessie Benton, married John C. Fremont.

In 1820, he won election as one of Missouri's first two Senators and remained in that office until 1850. In the U.S. Senate, he primarily pushed for measures that assisted frontier settlers, such as transportation to the west and allotment of public lands. Benton and Jackson reconciled after Jackson won the presidency in 1828, and Benton remained a leading Democrat for the duration of his political career. Due to growing friction with John C. Calhoun, Benton became an advocate of limiting slavery's expansion into the western territories and disapproved of the gag rule. Benton was one of the leading proponents of Manifest Destiny but tempered his expansionism by favoring the compromise line in the Oregon dispute and opposing large territorial cessions from Mexico. He rejected the Wilmot Proviso but believed natural forces would prevent slavery's expansion into the northwest and was one of two deciding votes admitting Oregon as a free state.

Missouri state legislators favoring southern interests began pressuring Benton to represent them more directly in the Senate but he refused, making several public speeches in favor of Union and compromise. This lost him the support of enough Missourians to result in the loss of his Senate seat in 1850. However, before stepping down, Benton worked with Henry Clay to create the Compromise of 1850, although he opposed Clay's efforts to pass it as one "Omnibus Bill." Debate over the issue actually resulted in Mississippi senator, Henry S. Foote, pulling a pistol on Benton, which made Benton a hero in the North. He won election to the House of Representatives in 1852, where he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and favored government construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. He lost his seat in 1854 and supported James Buchanan in the election of 1856, even though the Republican candidate, Fremont, was his son-in-law, because he feared a president with an entirely northern support base would provoke civil war. He opposed the Dred Scott decision and wrote a book voicing his dissenting opinion. He spent his final months finishing his memoir and other political writings before dying of cancer in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 1858.

Elbert B. Smith, "Benton, Thomas Hart," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:618-20; Elbert B. Smith, Magnificent Missourian: The Life of Thomas Hart Benton (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1958); Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years' View; or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1883); Thomas Hart Benton, Historical and Legal Examination of that Part of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dred Scott Case (New York: D. Appleton, 1857); Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 181-86.