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|Thomas Hart Benton
long-time member of the U. S. Senate
Thomas Hart Benton was born into a wealthy family at Harts Mill, near Hillsboro, North Carolina, on March 14, 1782. His father, lawyer and land speculator Jesse Benton, died in 1790. Educated by his mother, with help from his father's extensive library, Benton's only formal schooling was a brief session at Chapel Hill College (now the University of North Carolina) in 1799. In 1801, his mother moved the family to a huge tract Jesse Benton had previously acquired near what is now Franklin, Tennessee. Despite a lack of formal education, Benton was able to secure admittance to the Tennessee Bar in 1806, after which he commenced practice in Franklin.
Benton gained political prominence through a series of letters he published in the Impartial Review and Cumberland Repository that advocated reform of the legal system to do away with delays. Those letters helped get him elected to the Tennessee State Senate, where he served from 1809 to 1811.
During the War of 1812, Benton served as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson, as Colonel of a regiment of Tennessee volunteers (1812-1813), and as Lieutenant Colonel of the 39th Infantry (1813-1815). Although he never saw any major action during the war, Benton was always proud of his military service. Good friends at the war's outset, Benton and Jackson had a falling out in 1813 as the result of a tavern brawl during which Benton's brother Jesse was stabbed, Benton was thrown down a flight of stairs, and Jackson was shot in the leg by one of the Benton brothers.
In 1815, Benton moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he practiced law and edited the Missouri Inquirer, which he purchased soon after his arrival. He married Elizabeth McDowell in 1821, and the couple ultimately had two children.
Benton's advocacy for Missouri's admission to the Union as a slave state got him elected as one of the new state's first U. S. Senators in 1820, and he subsequently served in the Senate from August 20, 1821 to March 3, 1851. In 1828, he ended his feud with Andrew Jackson by endorsing him for the presidency, and he subsequently became Jackson's biggest supporter in the Senate, backing him during the Congressional fight over the Bank of the United States and authoring his Specie Circular, which advocated gold and silver coinage over paper currency. As an advocate for western expansion, Benton supported the removal westward of Indian tribes, and was an early supporter of plans to built a transcontinental railroad. To accomodate settlers who had already moved into previously unorganized territories, he authored the Pre-Emption Act of 1841, which guaranteed the right of a "squatter" who had improved previously unclaimed land to some degree to purchase up to 160 acres. Although he opposed declaring war on Mexico, he supported the Mexican-American War after it began. Although he had been a slave owner, Benton came to favor gradual abolition, and his support of anti-slavery constitutions in several Western states cost him re-election in 1850.
In 1852, Benton was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, where he served from March 4, 1853 to March 3, 1855. Staying in Washington, D. C., after losing re-election in 1854, Benton pursued literary interests there until his death, on April 10, 1858; he was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.
Benton was the author of three works: Thirty Years View... of the American Government (2 vols., 1854-1856), Abridgment of the Debates of Congress, 1789-1850 (16 vols., 1857-1861), and Historical and Legal Examination of... the Dred Scott Case (1857), the first two of which still provide valuable insight into the politics of the early- to mid-1800's.
Robinson Library >> United States >> 1845-1861 >> Individual Biography, A-Z
This page was last updated on June 28, 2018.