Pictorial and Genealogical Record
of Greene County, Missouri • 1893

Together with Bibliographies of Prominent Men of Other Portions of the State, Both Living and Dead

HON. THOMAS HART BENTON is a product of Hollsborough, Orange County, N. C., where be was born March 14, 1782. Being left fatherless at the age of eight years his mother sent him to a grammar school for a short time, after which-he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which institution he quitted without receiving a degree, after which he commenced the study of law in William and Mary's College, Virginia. Upon her removal to Tennessee the mother settled on some land belonging to her husband's estate, but young Thomas had no taste for agriculture, and as be was fond of books he devoted himself to reading in order to better prepare himself for the profession of law which he had decided upon following. In 1811 he began practicing at Nashville, and there soon rose to eminence. He was shortly elected to the Legislature, in which he served one term, but during this time be secured the passage of a law reforming the judicial system, and one giving to slaves the benefit of a trial by jury. At that time Andrew Jackson was a judge of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and he became Benton's personal friend and patron, and during the War of 1812 he served under this noted man as commander of a regiment of volunteers, from which he received the title of Colonel. The intimacy of these men continued for some time, then was cut short by a sudden and violent quarrel, and during Jackson's attempt to strike Benton with a horsewhip be was severely wounded by a pistol shot fired by the latter. Although they were bitter enemies for a long time, a partial reconciliation was afterward effected, but they never again became intimate. In 1813 Mr. Benton was appointed by President Madison Lieutenant-Colonel in the Thirty-ninth Infantry ; but while on route to join, his command in Canada, peace was declared, and he resigned in 1815. He then went to St. Louis and was soon in the enjoyment of a lucrative legal practice. Being a man of decided opinions and aggressive temperament he entered the field of politics and established the Missouri Inquirer, and as he was fierce and outspoken in his denunciations, he was the principal in many disputes, altercations and personal encounters. At that day the "code" was in vogue and in a duel with Mr. Lucas he killed his opponent, an act he sincerely regretted to the day of his death. Mr. Benton strongly urged the admission of Missouri with a slave constitution, through the columns of his paper, and in 1820 was elected one of the senators from the now State. He at once took high rank in the national councils, for be possessed a vigorous intellect, large and liberal culture and was studious, temperate and resolute. He was soon an acknowledged leader in a body which contained some of the most eminent men of the nation. He originated a bill granting the right of pre-emption to actual settlers and a gradual reduction in the price of public land in proportion to the time it had been in market, besides a donation of homesteads to certain persons. His speeches in this behalf attracted the attention of the whole country, but nevertheless failed in their effect on Congress. His steadfast support of the administration gave him great influence with the Democracy, and he succeeded in inducing the President to embody the substance of a bill in one of his messages, which secured its final adoption. To him is also due the credit of the opening of the saline and mineral lands of Missouri, and be was instrumental in securing the repeal of the salt tax in 1829-30. He favored a railroad to the Pacific, the opening. of trade with New Mexico, the establishment of military stations throughout the interior, the policy of cultivating friendly relations with the Indians, and secured an appropriation for marking out and maintaining post-roads, the value of which is acknowledged everywhere. At the expiration of the charter of the United States Bank he advocated a gold and silver currency as the only remedy for the financial difficulties, and made many speeches on the subject and won himself a reputation throughout the Old World as well as his own country. His attitude on this question won him the sobriquet of "Old Bullion." He supported President Van Buren's financial policy and was also deeply interested in the annexation of Texas, the boundary of Oregon and various other important matters. He urged a vigorous prosecution of the Mexican War, and so great was the confidence reposed in Mr. Benton by President Polk that he proposed to confer upon him the rank of Lieutenant-General with full power to carry out his conceptions, but the bill was never passed. He opposed the compromise measures offered by Henry Clay in 1850 in regard to the slavery question after the acquisition of Mexican territory, and he warmly espoused the cause of President Jackson in his opposition to Calhoun in regard to nullification, the result of which was a bitter personal enmity which lasted throughout their lives. He denounced Mr. Calhoun's resolutions in regard to the admission of states, the territorial powers of Congress and the use of common property, all bearing upon the slavery question, as "firebrand resolutions." Although they never came before the Senate they were adopted by some of the slave holding states and were passed by both branches of the Missouri Legislature. These measures he denounced as not expressing the views of the people, as countenancing the doctrines of secession and nullification, and refused to obey them. He made a direct appeal to the people by a thorough canvass of the State, and his speeches added new lustre to his already brilliant fame as an orator. However, be here met his first defeat at the hands of the pro-slavery Democracy. The close of his term ended thirty years of service in the national councils, and he withdrew from the Senate, of which he had so long been an active and prominent member. In 1852 he was elected to Congress over all opposition and exerted himself to destroy the influence acquired by the nullification party and supported the administration of President Pierce, but thinking it had fallen under the influence of Calhoun's followers, he withdrew it; in return for which the administration displaced all his appointments in Missouri. He opposed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and denounced the Kansas-Nebraska bill in a remarkable speech in the House, which aroused the country against the measure but failed to defeat its passage. At the election in 1854 he was defeated and retired to devote himself to literature, but his friends prevailed upon him to accept the nomination for Governor in 1856, but Trusten Polk was elected. During the Presidential contest of the same year Col. Benton supported Mr. Buchanan in preference to his own son-in-law, Colonel Fremont, having confidence in Mr. Buchanan's ability to restore the Jacksonian Democracy while he feared Col. Fremont's election would endanger the Union, but this opinion he subsequently changed from. He resumed his literary labors after his defeat for Governor, and completed his "Thirty Years' View," a comprehensive narrative of his own official experience. At the age of sixty-seven be began the laborious task of condensing the debates of Congress from their commencement until 1850, and concluded the work upon his deathbed, dictating in whispers when unable to speak aloud. He was a man of strong intellect, great will power, ambition, and exerted all his energies to accomplish the success which lie eventually achieved. He had a faculty of judging men and their motives and he was thus enabled to exercise a controlling influence in the councils of both nation and state, and for years his power in Missouri was almost unlimited. During the latter years of his life he was actuated by a sincere desire for the welfare of his country without regard to partisanship, and his unfaltering devotion to the Union will ever be remembered gratefully by all who love progress and liberty. In the home circle he was pleasant, companionable and genial, but in official intercourse was reserved and austere. It was said of him in 1846 that "his action and gestures are expressive and he has that gentle self-possession of manner which is so usual in those who are conscious of superior strength." After becoming Senator be was married to Elizabeth McDowell, a daughter of Col. James McDowell, of Rockbridge County, Va., by whom be had four children: Mrs. William Carey Jones, Mrs. Jessie Ann Fremont, Mrs. Sarah Jacob, and Madam Susan Boileau. His wife died in 1854 from a stroke of paralysis received in 1844, and from the time of that calamity her husband was never known to go to any place of festivity or amusement. He died in Washington, April 10, 1858, and the entire nation mourned him. His remains were taken to St. Louis, and buried by the side of his wife in Bellefontaine cemetery, and in that city a colossal statue, by Harriet Hosmer, has been erected to his memory in Lafayette Park.


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