Thomas Hart Benton
Next week I’ll be giving a lecture at Emory and Henry College (in Virginia) on Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who served from 1820 t0 1850 and in his time was considered the equal of Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. Benton was Andrew Jackson’s chief supporter on issues ranging from the Bank War to the Cherokee Removal, and was the closer thing to a constitutional theorist that the Democrats had (His speeches on legal questions are quite interesting even now). By the time he left the Senate, however, he was at war with his party over the issue of slavery and dismissed as a heretic. (Think Joe Lieberman, except much more so.)
Benton’s career represents the phenomenon of generational change that I’ve written about in my books. He was perfectly in tune the grievances that brought Andrew Jackson (his mentor, though they once came to blows in a bar) to power in 1828, and shared the President’s background as a border-state leader (Benton represented Missouri in the Senate), a slaveowner, and a strong Unionist. When slavery began to supplant financial questions during the 1840s, though, Benton’s moderate views seemed obsolete and came under attack by Southerners who accused him of betraying his region. The crucial moment came in 1844 when he opposed a proposed treaty to annex Texas on the ground that this could lead to a war with Mexico and that this was nothing more than an attempt to provoke secession. He also opposed all efforts to tamper with the Missouri Compromise and thereby repeatedly clashed with Calhoun, whom he called “Catiline” (after the treacherous ancient Roman Senator). None of this proved popular in his state (basically Benton was the only slave state Senator who broke with his region) and he was turned out of office for describing slavery (in terms not unlike what Lincoln used in the 1850s) as an “evil” that should not be extended. Shortly before his death in 1858, he even wrote a scathing book criticizing Dred Scott as contrary to Democratic principles and explained that he did this on behalf of “no party.” Benton’s journey from party warhorse to apostate foreshadowed the collapse of the Democrats in 1860 along sectional lines.
(There is no bottom line to this post other than “You should learn more about Benton — he was a fascinating guy.”)