Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Thomas Hart Benton

I have devoted a few of these posts to leading politicians of the Jacksonian Era, the most forgotten about era of American history. Even hugely important figures such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay are largely ignored today.

The big three in the Senate at that time was Clay, Webster, and the odious John C. Calhoun. But really there was a Big Four and the fourth was Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Benton played a huge role in antebellum American history and deserves more attention.

Born in North Carolina in 1782, Benton's family joined the multitudes moving west after the Revolution, kicking Indians out of the Ohio Valley and Mid South. Polk established themselves in middle Tennessee, not far from Andrew Jackson. Jackson and Benton had a sordid early history to say the least: they were in a gunfight. In 1813, Benton, who was an officer in Jackson's forces during the first part of the War of 1812, heard that Jackson had insulted his brother. They got into it and Benton shot him in the arm. Ah, the American frontier. Where men were men and non-whites were killed. Good times.

Benton and Jackson had similar political views & what was a little gunplay between political allies? So they became close allies in the new Jacksonian party that grew after the contentious 1824 election. In 1815, Benton moved to Missouri, in part to escape the wrath of Jackson. He established himself in this new western territory, editing a newspaper that promoted Missouri statehood. When the Missouri Compromise passed in 1820, Missouri named Benton one of its first senators, a position he held until 1851.

Almost immediately, Benton established himself as a Democratic leader, particularly in the fight against the Bank of the United States. Opposed to sound financial policy, Jackson, Benton, and the Democrats worked to move financial power away from bankers and toward local people in the states, a plan that eventually contributed to the Panic of 1837. Benton became known as "Old Bullion" because he so strongly supported currency backed by gold.

The Jacksonians sure knew how to give a good nickname. Old Bullion. Very nice.

It's issues like the Bank War that helps make the Jacksonian period obscure today. How does one explain arcane early 19th century financial issues in a way to make people today care? I pride myself on being able to explain complex issues simply for students but this one is difficult. There's nothing so exciting as the Tariff of 1842!!!!!

The other issue that put Benton on the national stage was his expansionism. Few people supported American expansion so consistently as Benton. He pushed hard for the Oregon expansion, working to end the joint administration of Oregon Territory that had been established in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818. However, Benton was pretty smart though--he wasn't among the multitude of crazy people who wanted to extend the U.S.' boundaries to include present day British Columbia. Not wanting to start a war with England, Benton pushed through the extension of the 49th parallel to the Pacific, establishing our
Northwestern border. Benton had some weird ideas about expansion:

"The van of the Caucasian race now top the Rocky Mountains, and spread down to the shores of the Pacific. In a few years a great population will grow up there, luminous with the accumulated lights of European and American civilization. Their presence in such a position cannot be without its influence upon eastern Asia. The sun of civilization must shine across the sea: socially and commercially, the van of the Caucasians, and the rear of the Mongolians must intermix. They must talk together, and trade together, and marry together. Commerce is a great civilizer--social intercourse is great--and marriage greater. The White and Yellow races can marry together...Moral and intellectual superiority will do the rest: the White race will take the ascendant."

I swear Benton had the first Asian fantasy.

Benton also pushed for Texas expansion, which as Joel Silbey had recently argued, drove the U.S. toward Civil War. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but the aggressive push for Texas and the subsequent Mexican War did not help. To his credit though, Benton did not support the Mexican War.

Polk's opposition to the Mexican War helped cost him his ultimate goal: the presidency. He really wanted to replace Van Buren but the 1840 election undermined his goal. He still hoped to win, but the 1844 upset that threw Polk into the presidency made his chances even more remote. In 1848, the old wing of the party led by Van Buren lost its battle for control of the party to Lewis Cass and Benton's dreams were dead.

Benton joined Martin Van Buren in helping to establish party politics in the United States. No one did more than Van Buren in creating partisianship and forging the Democratic Party into a modern organization. Benton served as his right-hand man in this process. Benton and Van Buren were part of the first generation of Democrats who put party politics above all other matters. The generation that came of age during the Mexican War began to put sectional interests ahead of the party, infuriating the older generation like Benton, but ultimately winning the day as well.

Sectional interests eventually killed Benton's Senate career as well. Although a slaveholder, he was also a moderate. In the craziness surrounding the Compromise of 1850, Missouri had no intention of electing someone who did not support the expansion of slavery at all costs. He won a House seat in 1852, serving one term. His opposition to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise killed that too, leading to his defeat in 1854. He lost a bid for the governorship of Missouri in 1856 and then died in 1858. No doubt his case was not helped when his daughter Jessie married the abolitionist western explorer and first Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont. Benton died in 1858, having expired just before the nation he served for so long blew up over the issue that ended his own political career: slavery.

Thomas Hart Benton was a complex man. His banking proposals didn't really make much sense economically, though he also was far greater of a democrat than leading Bank men like Nicholas Biddle. It's really hard to support his expansionist positions, particularly with his weird Asian thing. But on the other hand, he was a moderate. That's really how I see him. A moderate man who put party above all. In these days of extreme partisanship, people can see that negatively. But I don't. Benton knew that creating a strong party was the way to get things done. In addition, he was a Democrat who was moderate on slavery. Although we rightly look at abolitionists as heroes in these days, we have to understand that moderation is rarely a bad thing and for a man who had his roots in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri, you weren't going to get any better.

There are shockingly few works on Benton. According to a friend, this is because Benton's papers burned in the 19th century. Ugh. The most recent works of note are William Nisbet Chambers' Old Bullion Benton: Senator from the New West, from 1956 and Magnificent Missourian: The Life of Thomas Hart Benton, by Elbert Smith and written in 1957. Both of these books are part of that classic explosion of Jacksonian scholarship after World War II that has completely died in the past 20 years. This is too interesting of a period to be ignored by historians.