Bell, John, 1797–1869, American statesman, b. near Nashville, Tenn. A leading member of the Nashville bar, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1827–41), was speaker in 1834, and for a few weeks in 1841 was Secretary of War under President William Henry Harrison. At first a Jacksonian, Bell broke with Jackson in the fight over the Bank of the United States and ultimately became the chief leader of the Whigs in Tennessee, dominating state politics for nearly two decades. As U.S. Senator (1847–59), he was the leader of the conservative Southern element that, though supporting slavery, placed the Union first. He admitted the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories, supported the Compromise of 1850, objected to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and opposed the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution. In 1860, Bell was the presidential candidate of the moderate Constitutional Union party and won the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. The lower South seceded with Lincoln's election, but Bell held Tennessee in the Union until after the firing on Fort Sumter. Bell counseled resistance to the Union invasion, but, disheartened and in ill health, he took no active part in the Civil War.
See biography by J. H. Parks (1950).