Thomas Hart Benton

Benton, Thomas Hart, 1782–1858, U.S. Senator (1821–51), b. Hillsboro, N.C.

Benton moved to Tennessee in 1809, was admitted to the bar in 1811, and served (1809–11) in the state senate. In 1815, he went to St. Louis, where he became editor of the Missouri Enquirer, established a thriving law practice, and won political prestige. He entered the U.S. Senate on Missouri's admission to the Union in 1821 and was four times reelected. A supporter from 1824 of Andrew Jackson, with whom he had been at odds, Benton was a power in the administrations of Jackson and Martin Van Buren.

He played one of the most prominent parts in the successful war on the Bank of the United States. A rigid "hard money" man (he delighted in the sobriquet "Old Bullion"), Benton had the ratio of silver to gold revised from 15 to 1 to 16 to 1 in 1834 and thus brought gold into circulation again. Congress defeated his resolution requiring that the public lands be paid for in hard money only, but Jackson immediately legalized the idea in an executive order (1836), the famous Specie Circular, which Benton drew up. His currency measures, intended to discourage continued land speculation and thereby encourage actual settlement of the West, were supported by Eastern workers, who wished to be paid in specie rather than in notes of uncertain value.

Benton also supported all legislation that aided settlers and favored the development of the West, including reduction in the price of government lands, suppression of land speculation, westward removal of the Native Americans, and internal improvements. He advocated government support of Western exploration, with which he was intimately connected through the expeditions of John Charles Frémont, who married one of his four daughters, Jessie Benton Frémont. The Oregon country especially interested him, and he protested the joint occupation with Britain. Yet he insisted that the 49th parallel (the line established) was the only boundary the United States could rightfully claim and deplored the Democratic campaign slogan of 1844—"Fifty-four forty or fight." As to Texas, although he had protested the 1819 treaty with Spain as one in which the United States gave up its rights to that region, he could not acquiesce in the intrigues that led to the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War.

Benton had early come to favor the gradual abolition of slavery, and with the ascendancy of the proslavery Democrats he lost influence in the party. His antislavery sentiments ran counter to majority opinion in Missouri at that time, and with his opposition to the proslavery features of the Compromise of 1850 he was defeated for a sixth term. He returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative (1853–55) but after voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 he was again defeated for reelection. In 1856 he was also defeated for the governorship of Missouri. He compiled An Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1789 to 1856 (16 vol., 1857–61) and wrote the autobiographical Thirty Years' View (2 vol., 1854–56).

See biographies by T. Roosevelt (1886, repr. 1968), W. N. Chambers (1956, repr. 1970), W. M. Meigs (1904, repr. 1970), and E. B. Smith (1957).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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