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Thomas Hart Benton (senator)
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Thomas Hart Benton (senator)

Thomas Hart Benton (March 14, 1782 - April 10, 1858), nicknamed Old Bullion, was an American Senator from Missouri and a staunch advocate of westward expansion of the United States. He served in the Senate from 1821 to 1851, becoming the first member of that body to serve 5 terms.

Benton was born in Harts Mill, North Carolina, near the present-day town of Hillsborough. His father, a wealthy lawyer and landowner, died in 1790. Benton also studied law at the University of North Carolina, but in 1799 left school to manage the family estate.

Attracted by the opportunities in the West, the young Benton moved the family to a 40,000 acre (160 km²) holding near Nashville, Tennessee. Here he established a plantation with accompanying schools, churches, and mills. His experience as a pioneer instilled a devotion to Jeffersonian democracy which continued through his political career.

He continued his legal education and was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1805, and in 1809 served a term as state senator. He attracted the attention of Tennessee's "first citizen" Andrew Jackson, under whose tutelage he remained during the Tennessee years.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Jackson made Benton his aide-de-camp, with a commission as a lieutenant colonel. Benton was assigned to represent Jackson's interests to military officials in Washington D.C; he chafed under the position, which denied him combat experience. When, in 1813, he heard of insults Jackson had made against his brother Jesse, Benton physically assaulted Jackson in a Nashville hotel. Violence erupted between the two men's entourages, and they became bitter personal enemies.

After the war, in 1815, Benton moved his estate to the newly-opened Missouri territory. As a Tennesseean, he was under Jackson's shadow; in Missouri, he could be a big fish in the as yet small pond. He settled in St. Louis, where he practiced law and edited the Missouri Enquirer, the second major newspaper west of the Mississippi River. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 made the territory into a state, and Benton was elected as one of its first senators.

After the presidential election of 1824, which candidate Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams due to technicalities in the U.S. Electoral College, Benton and Jackson put their personal differences behind them and joined forces. Benton became the senatorial leader for the Jacksonian Party, and as such argued vigorously against the Bank of the United States. When Jackson was censured by the Senate in 1834 for cancelling the Bank's charter, Benton led an "expungement campaign" to remove the motion from the official record.

Benton was an unflagging advocate for "hard money", that is, currency backed by gold. Soft currency, in his opinion, favored rich urban Easterners at the expense of the small farmers and tradespeople of the West. He proposed a law requiring payment for federal land in hard currency only, which was defeated in Congress but later enshrined in an executive order, the Species Circular, by Jackson (1836). His position on currency earned him the nickname Old Bullion.

Senator Benton's greatest concern, however was the territorial expansion of the United States to meet its "manifest destiny" as a continental power. He originally considered the natural border of the US to be the Rocky Mountains, but expanded his view to encompass the Pacific coast. He considered unsettled land to be insecure, and tirelessly worked for settlement. His efforts against soft money were mostly to discourage land speculation, and thus encourage settlement.

Benton was instrumental in the sole administration of the Oregon territory. Since the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, Oregon had been jointly occupied by both the United States and United Kingdom. Benton pushed for a settlement on Oregon and the Canadian border favorable to the United States. The current border at the 49th parallel set by the Oregon Treaty in 1846 was his choice; he was opposed to the extremism of James Polk's "Fifty-four forty or fight" 1844 campaign slogan. His support let the newly elected President back off from that position and come to a reasonable resolution.

Benton was the author of the first Homestead Acts, which encouraged settlement by giving land grants to anyone willing to work the soil. He pushed for greater exploration of the West, including support for his son-in-law John C. Frémont's numerous treks. He push hard for public support of the intercontinental railway and advocated greater use of the telegraph for long-distance communication. To his discredit, he was also a staunch advocate of the disenfranchisement and displacement of Native Americans in favor of European settlers.

Benton's reputation as a senator was always one of integrity and honor. He was an orator and leader of the first class, able to stand his own with or against fellow senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun. Although an expansionist, his personal morals made him opposed to greedy or underhanded behavior -- thus his opposition to Fifty-Four Forty. Benton advocated the annexation of Texas and argued for abrogation of the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty in which the United States relinquished claims to that territory, but he was opposed to the machinations that led to its annexation in 1845 and the Mexican-American War. He believed that expansion was for the good of the country, and not for the benefit of powerful individuals.

His loyalty to his party was also legendary. Benton was the legislative right-hand-man for Andrew Jackson, and continued this role for Martin Van Buren. With the election of Polk, however, his power began to ebb, and his views diverged from the party's. His career took a distinct downturn with the growing issue of slavery. Benton, a southerner and slaveowner, became increasingly uncomfortable with the topic. He was also at odds with fellow Democrats such as Calhoun, who he thought put their opinions ahead of the Union to a treasonous degree. With troubled conscience, in 1849 he declared himself "against the institution of slavery," putting him against his party and popular opinion in his state.

In 1851, he was denied a sixth term by the Missouri electorate; the polarization of the slavery issue made it impossible for a moderate and unionist to hold that state's senatorial seat. In 1852 he successfully ran for the United States House of Representatives, but his opposition to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise led to his defeat in 1854. He ran for governor of Missouri in 1856, but lost. The same year his son-in-law, John C. Frémont, ran for President on the Republican Party ticket, but Benton was a party loyalist to the end, and voted Democratic.

He published his autobiography, Thirty Years' View, in 1856, and died in Washington D.C two years later. His descendants have continued to be prominent in Missouri life; his great-nephew, also Thomas Hart Benton, was a 20th-century painter.

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