Bell, John (Senator)

Born: 1796-02-18 Davidson County, Tennessee

Died: 1869-09-10 Stewart County, Tennessee

John Bell graduated from Cumberland College in 1814 and began practicing law soon thereafter. He won election to the Tennessee State Senate in 1817, after which he relocated to Nashville. There he married Sally Dickinson, with whom he had five children. In 1827, Bell secured a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives where he remained until 1840, serving as speaker during the 1833-1834 term. Initially a Jacksonian Democrat, Bell disagreed with Andrew Jackson's dismantling of the U.S. National Bank, and officially aligned himself with the Whig Party following Martin Van Buren's election to the presidency. Bell became secretary of war in 1841 as reward for his support of William Henry Harrison's presidential campaign, but resigned before the end of the year due to Harrison's death and the ascension of John Tyler. After his resignation from the cabinet, Bell temporarily retired from politics and occupied himself with his various investments - many of which he had acquired through his second wife, Jane Erwin Yeatman, who he married in 1835 following Sally's death in 1832.

Bell ran successfully for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly in 1847, the members of which selected him for the U.S. Senate, where he remained until 1858. There he became involved in the growing sectional tension stemming from the territorial cessions acquired from the Mexican War. Although he initially opposed the Compromise of 1850, he switched to support it when it became clear that the majority of Tennesseans did so. He also disapproved of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and was the only southern senator to vote against it. He likewise went against the majority of southern politicians by opposing the Lecompton Constitution in 1858.

The Democrats gained control of the Tennessee legislature in 1859, ending Bell's senatorial career. Along with several Whig stalwarts from the Upper South, he formed the Constitutional Union Party and was selected as its 1860 presidential nominee. Bell understood he had little chance of electorally defeating the other three candidates (Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrats, Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckinridge). He hoped he could divide the electorate enough to force the election into the House of Representatives where he might emerge as the candidate best able to facilitate sectional compromise. He carried Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, but Lincoln carried the North, securing a Republican presidency. Although Bell tried to keep Tennessee in the Union following Lincoln's election, the state joined the Confederacy. Union forces damaged most of Bell's investments in central Tennessee during the war, and he spent the majority of the conflict trying to rebuild them.

Paul H. Bergeron, Antebellum Politics in Tennessee (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982); Joseph Howard Parks, John Bell of Tennessee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Daniel W. Crofts, "Bell, John," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:509-511.