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The Civil War in Missouri

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Thomas Hart Benton

Main Idea

  • Thomas Hart Benton was Missouri’s premier politician from the time it became a state in 1821 until 1854. 
  • His defeat marked the beginning of a conflict that would divide the nation over the issue of slavery.

Early Years

Highlights

  • Thomas Hart Benton was born to a wealthy family in Virginia in 1782. 
  • His father, Jesse Benton, was a lawyer and land speculator who entered land deals with Daniel Boone. After his father’s death his mother took them to live in Tennessee Territory. 
  • Without any formal education Benton studied and became a lawyer like his father, and before long was a rising figure on the frontier. 
  • In 1812, when the nation went to war, Benton enthusiastically offered his services to Colonel Andrew Jackson. Jackson would make Benton his aide-de-camp. 

In-Depth

Thomas Hart Benton was born to a wealthy family in Virginia in 1782. His father, Jesse Benton, was a lawyer and land speculator who entered land deals with Daniel Boone. After his father’s death his mother took them to live in Tennessee Territory. Without any formal education Benton studied and became a lawyer like his father, and before long was a rising figure on the frontier. He 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. These letters made him very popular among the people, and they elected him to the Tennessee State Senate. 

When the nation went to war in 1812, Benton enthusiastically offered his services to Colonel Andrew Jackson, who made Benton his aide-de-camp. While Benton would engage in skirmishes with Creek Indians he desired to be on the major front fighting the British. He would miss his chance and would not be among those who fought with Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Despite this he would remain proud of his service. He would sign his letters “Lieutenant Colonel, 39th Infantry,” for many years after the war was over. 

Missouri and National Politics

Highlights

  • In 1815, Benton decided to start a new life for himself in the Missouri Territory. He arrived in St. Louis and found a home with a prominent figure in the town, Charles Gratiot. He began a new law career in St. Louis.
  • In 1821, when Missouri became a state, Benton launched his national political career by being elected to the U.S. Senate. 
  • Benton also married Elizabeth McDowell in 1821. They would go on to have two children. In the meantime, Benton’s political career took shape. In 1829, when Andrew Jackson became president, Benton became his chief supporter in the Senate.
  • Benton’s career took a downturn when he declared his opposition to slavery in 1849. Finally, in 1854 Benton’s opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to his defeat in the Senate. 
  • His defeat ended an era and began a new period of conflict over the issue of slavery, which would shape Missouri and the nation as a whole. He died two years later in 1856.

In-Depth

In 1815, Benton decided to start a new life for himself in the Missouri Territory. He arrived in St. Louis and found a home with a prominent figure in the town, Charles Gratiot. He began a new law career in St. Louis. He was a skilled lawyer, but also very hot tempered. In fact, he engaged in a duel with Charles Lucas, another young lawyer. The two men stood 30 feet apart and shot with pistols. Lucas was shot in the neck, and Benton was barely hit. This did not satisfy Benton however, and when Lucas returned to health they dueled again. This time Benton shot Lucas through the arm and into the heart, killing him.

This event would haunt Benton for the rest of his life. Despite this, Benton’s political fortunes continued to rise. He purchased a newspaper called the St. Louis Enquirer and made it a strong competitor to the longer established St. Louis Gazette. In 1821, when Missouri became a state, Benton launched his national political career by being elected to the U.S. Senate. 

Also in 1821, Benton married Elizabeth McDowell. They would go on to have two children. In the meantime Benton’s political career took shape. In 1829, when Andrew Jackson became president, Benton became his chief supporter in the Senate. Benton would support Jackson in his most intense fights, those against the Bank of the United States and during the Nullification Crisis. 

A staunch advocate of westward expansion, Benton would author the first Homestead Act. This act would allow for grants of land to anyone willing to work the land and live there for five years. Toward the same end he advocated for the creation of the transatlantic railroad in order to expand travel and commerce throughout the nation. Benton’s advocacy of westward expansion was for the benefit of common people, not the enrichment of a few. For this reason he opposed such events as the Mexican-American War. 

Benton’s support of “hard” money, like gold and silver, earned him the nickname “Old Bullion.” Benton believed that the stability of hard currency over paper was important and advantageous to western farmers.

Benton’s career took a downturn when he declared his opposition to slavery in 1849. This went against his party and popular opinion in the state of Missouri. Finally in 1854, Benton’s opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to his defeat in the Senate. Thus began a new period of conflict over the issue of slavery that would shape Missouri and the nation as a whole. He died two years later in 1856.

Vocabulary 

Speculator – one who engages in business transactions involving considerable risk but offering the chance of large gains.

Aide-de-camp - a subordinate military or naval officer acting as a confidential assistant to a superior, usually to a general officer or admiral.