Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) – Missouri House & Senate Member – Guest Essayist: Ben Phibbs

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“For the President and the Party: The Loyal Career of Senator Thomas Hart Benton”

“Now you…rascal, I am going to punish you. Defend yourself!”[1] The taunt ferociously barreled into the infant autumn air of Nashville, Tennessee, flying comfortably from the tongue of a notorious brawler with a slender, scarred frame that lamented yet another submission to a fearless ego. The day was September 4, 1813, and young Andrew Jackson had just challenged a man to a duel. But the victim cautiously retreating from an advancing Jackson’s pistol was concealing his own proclivity for mischief. In fact, when he was only 16, he had threatened to shoot a fellow student while attending the University of North Carolina and had even been expelled for stealing from the Philanthropic Society.[2] In the intense street battle that ensued, Jackson sustained a bullet wound in his shoulder that would accompany him to death, and his opponent, after tumbling down a flight of stairs, emerged to break the general’s sword over his knee.[3] But while any man who dared to tussle with Jackson undoubtedly demonstrated a strong will and foolish tenacity, the one who subdued the American Lion in 1813 would later distinguish himself as an even stronger man. For, anyone who selflessly relinquishes prejudice to free himself for an unshakable defense of his former enemy against the advances of the Bank, the censure of the Senate, and even the fragility of his legacy, is truly called loyal. Senator Thomas Hart Benton was loyal.

Benton’s thirty years in the Senate testify to his unshakable devotion to President Jackson; not even two terms into his career, Benton was confronted by one of the most infamous constitutional debates in the nation’s history: the bank battle. President Jackson hated the national bank, for, since its establishment in 1791, Alexander Hamilton’s creation had morphed into a financial control center for the nation’s available credit. Rallying his base, Jackson determined to halt Congress’s effort to re-charter the bank, asserting the monopolistic tendencies of the “hydra-headed monster of corruption,” and the superiority of hard money (gold and silver coins) over paper currency.[4] The battle, however, would be uphill. In 1819, the Supreme Court had declared the bank to be constitutional; furthermore, the bank directors boasted powerful allies in the Republican Party, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Aware of the mounting opposition from such senators of the North, Senator Benton, the faithful Democrat and first senator of Missouri, resolved to aid the president.

With a thundering voice, Benton protested the renewal of the charter through Jackson’s bipartite stance. First, he declared that the bank was “an institution too great and powerful to be tolerated in a government of free and equal laws,”[5] reflecting the Western skepticism of the Democratic Party toward the powerful business practices of the North. As a recent immigrant to the West, Benton believed that the power of the purse, which affords extensive influence over public loans, should not be concentrated in a body disparate from the people, lest the temptations of collusion and favors should “aggravate the inequality of fortunes” and injure the “laboring classes.”[6] Second, he warned against the dangers of paper currency, insisting that “gold and silver is the best currency for the republic.”[7] The bank’s “unlimited supplies of paper,” he contended, exacerbated the debt, and its fluctuations had the capability to “make and break fortunes.”[8] In fact, Benton’s defense of hard money soon earned him the nickname, “Old Bullion.”[9] Old Hickory considered Benton a leader in the Senate and beckoned him to regularly visit the White House to provide detailed accounts of the debates.[10] Indeed, Benton was the voice of Jackson’s party. His concern for the local banks and state governments, particularly in the South and West, appealed to a democratic ethos. Benton’s loyal defense of the masses against the conniving few represented in Congress what Jackson was in the White House. Strengthened by Benton’s alliance, and the popular sentiments which he represented, Jackson vetoed the re-charter bill in an unprecedented constitutional stroke.

The ripe constitutional question provoked by Jackson’s veto invites the scrupulous attention of historians; indeed, Jackson’s purely political strike upset the understanding of the executive’s veto as a constitutional check, not a partisan strongarm. However, the bank veto lamentably overshadows a suspenseful scene in the final months of Jackson’s presidency—one in which Senator Benton was the star. Two years after Jackson denied the re-charter of the national bank, he unilaterally determined to slay the “hydra-headed monster” once and for all by removing all of its deposits and redistributing them to state banks. Predictably, Jackson’s enemies in the Senate were enraged at his rash decision, and under the leadership of Senator Clay, officially censured the president for his act. Now Benton, having proved himself loyal during the bank battle, not only viewed the Senate’s condemnation of Jackson as retaliation to the veto, but also as an affront to Jackson himself in the final year of his public service. So then, determined once again to defend both the policies and the honor of his party leader, Benton confidently rose, surrounded by the piercing glares of Whig men, and proposed a resolution to expunge the censure of President Jackson from the record.

Benton eloquently supported his resolution on two fronts. First, the Missouri senator attacked the legality of the censure, claiming that it was “illegal and unjust.” Benton reminded his colleagues that any criminal charge against the president was prescribed by the Constitution to originate in the House and that, by avoiding the impeachment process, the Senate had condemned the president without a fair trial.[11] Second, and more importantly, Benton built a constructive case for the reputation of President Jackson. He chronicled the successes of the ambitious president’s administration, touting peace in foreign policy and financial security in domestic policy. Truly, Jackson had assured that merchants were not again robbed, intimidated, or impressed by foreign powers on the sea and had kept the debt and taxes low, allowing domestic industry to thrive and causing Benton to conclude, “At home and abroad, the impress of his genius and of his character is felt.”[12] For his defense, Benton was met with a furious mob of opponents. In fact, during the proceedings, the Bank men and other enemies of Jackson collected in the galleries directly above Benton’s head so that some of his friends even sent for guns.[13] Nevertheless, the untried Benton stood, advancing the “ball” that “the people have taken…up and rolled…forward.”[14] For it was the people whom Benton had in mind when he rose to defend the president. Indeed, that is why he supported Jackson. Benton overcame the bitterness of the duel because Jackson bolstered the popular voice with his achievements, including his bank veto. So then, when he saw that those achievements were in danger, Benton resolved to loyally demonstrate his faith in the credibility of Jackson’s democratic ideals. The president embodied the people; thus, by defending the president, Benton defended a movement that transcended one man.

Senator Benton, in two dramatic showdowns, exemplified great loyalty for President Jackson and for the Democratic Party movement. However, Benton did not cease his devotion when the American Lion retired. Rather, the aging senator understood that the legacies of great men are fragile things, subject to defamation and even abandonment if not vigorously protected. In fact, the threat to Jackson’s memory in the final days of his presidency taught Benton that the democratic ideals which his party leader espoused must outlive the president himself. For this reason, Old Bullion spent 14 more years as a senator, seeking ways to more deeply entrench the popular roots of Jackson’s presidency. He decided to work upon a foundation that he had already established from the beginning of his career in Washington: the facilitation of westward expansion.

As an immigrant to the newly annexed state of Missouri, Benton is perhaps best remembered for his energetic advocacy of westward expansion and the “manifest destiny” of the United States. He had developed this enthusiasm early in his public career, and it never waned until his retirement. His first objective had been to ensure that eager settlers were able to purchase land cheaply—a democratic virtue—which he accomplished through supporting pre-emption and graduation. Pre-emption was designed to protect the claims of “squatters,” those desiring to settle a piece of land, from “speculators,” those who wanted to purchase the land without settling it[15]; graduation stipulated that the price of land would gradually decrease “according to actual valuation,” ensuring that settlers did not pay more for less quality.[16] Benton’s greatest achievement, however, was the negotiation of the Oregon territory, through which he demonstrated a final measure of loyalty to president and party. Jackson, Benton, and the Democrats preached manifest destiny, the divinely ordained duty of the United States to expand its influence to the Pacific Ocean. And while Jackson did not witness its fulfillment, Benton ensured that the president’s ambition was carried on through “Young Hickory,”[17] President James K. Polk. Working closely with the president, Benton assured him that the rash demands of the radicals, who were prepared to violently confiscate the 54th parallel from Britain, did not upset the delicate negotiations process.[18] Carefully counting his support in the Senate, Benton stood upon the 49th parallel, and, along with 40 of his colleagues, advised the president to reject the radicals and sign the treaty. Of course, “It was a new thing under the sun to see the senator daily assailed”[19] for his position; nevertheless, Benton retired confidently, knowing that the Jacksonian democracy which he had defended for thirty years would reach from sea to shining sea.

During the furious debate regarding President Jackson’s veto, Senator Clay charged that Benton had preserved an “adjourned question of veracity” between himself and the president. Benton, recalling the duel, replied, “We fought, sir; and we fought, I hope, like men. When the explosion was over, there remained no ill will, on either side…If there [had], a gulf would have separated us as deep as hell.”[20] Benton, like Jackson, was a fighter. If he desired, his heart could have harbored an unquenchable vengeance and bitterness toward the president. However, Benton’s thirty years in the Senate testify to his even stronger desire to satisfy his more noble convictions. He understood that Jackson was the charismatic voice of the people who exhibited a Jeffersonian trust in their virtue and that any personal prejudice wielded against him would only suspend the accomplishment of a democratic agenda. In this way, Senator Benton surrendered his pride to loyalty, and when the Bank, the censure of the Senate, and the passage of time threatened President Jackson, Benton fought back with the same intensity that he exerted in Nashville decades ago. To Benton, an affront to Jackson was an affront to the people whom he trusted to govern rightly. Sadly, when he departed from this loyalty on the question of slavery, his constituents rejected his sixth term.[21] However, as a true delegate, Benton could still write near the end of his life, “I have seen the capacity of the people for self-government tried at many points, and always found equal to the demands of the occasion.”[22]

Ben Phibbs, winner of Constituting America’s “We The Future” Contest for Best Essay, is a 18-year old homeschool senior from North Carolina who plans to attend Patrick Henry College in preparation for a career in constitutional law. Inspired by his parents to revere the treasured tradition of American Republicanism, Ben has, from a young age, admired the rich history of the Founding and laudable structure of the Constitution. For enrichment and service, Ben participates in debate and moot court and leads his church youth band. 

[1] Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. (New York: Random House, 2008), 29-30.

[2] https://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/bentonsenator/

[3] http://www.americanheritage.com/content/%E2%80%9Cnow-defend-yourself-you-damned-rascal%E2%80%9D

[4] George Tindall and David Shi, America: A Narrative History. (New York: WW Norton and Co., 2013), 345-46.

[5] Thomas H. Benton, Thirty Years’ View Vol.1. (Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2014), 191.

[6] Ibid, 193.

[7] Ibid, 187.

[8] Ibid, 193.

[9] https://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/bentonsenator/

[10] Meacham, 278.

[11] Benton, 532.

[12] Ibid, 722-23.

[13] Meacham, 336.

[14] Benton, 727.

[15] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 292.

[16] Donald Cole, Martin Van Buren and the Political System. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 327.

[17] Tindall and Shi, 442.

[18] Thomas Benton, Thirty Years’ View Vol.2. (Project Gutenberg Ebook: 2014), 675.

[19] Ibid, 677.

[20] Thirty Years’ View Vol.1., 264.

[21] https://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/bentonsenator/

[22] Thirty Years’ View Vol.2., 777.

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1 reply
  1. Cathy Gillespie
    Cathy Gillespie says:

    Ben, we congratulate you as the first of our “We The Future” Essay Winners to write an essay for our popular “90 Day Study” series! To date, your essay has been shared over 345 times on social media! That means over 345 different individuals have shared your essay with their friends on social media, resulting in your essay educating tens of thousands! Thank you for taking the time to write and research such a well-done piece on Senator Thomas Hart Benton and continuing to support our shared mission of Constitutional education! All our best, Janine Turner, Cathy Gillespie, Juliette Turner & the entire Constituting America Team!

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