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A Bloc of One

New biography gives Thomas Hart Benton, a 19th century giant of the Senate, his due

In his own time, Thomas Hart Benton was always a force to be reckoned with. But the Missouri Democrat who served nearly 30 years in the Senate has not received the love or attention from historians that some of his more celebrated contemporaries enjoy.

Ken S. Mueller sets out to rectify that omission in “Senator Benton and the People: Master Race Democracy on the Early American Frontiers,” and to a great degree — although not wholly — he succeeds.

Benton served Missouri in the Senate from the time of statehood in 1821 until he was unceremoniously tossed out of office in 1850, largely over his refusal to support the extension of slavery. (He served one term in the House, then lost again, and lost a race for governor in 1856.) A century later, his principled stand won him plaudits from John F. Kennedy, who accurately described Benton in “Profiles in Courage” as “a rough and tumble fighter off and on the Senate floor.”

But such praise was of little use to Benton when he was alive, and it has been rare enough since.

Benton was never nominated for president and was most certainly not a great compromiser like Henry Clay, whose inveterate desire to split the difference has endeared him to generations of historians and Solomonic moderates.

He was a stentorian speaker, but not a razor sharp wit, a classic phrasemaker or a lawyerly debater in the manner of Daniel Webster. Benton’s arguments were often arcane, he tended toward long-windedness and had what Mueller calls a “penchant for the melodramatic.”

While later in his career he firmly opposed the extension of slavery into the territories at a time when no other slave-state Democrat would, he was not the leader of a bloc, as was John C. Calhoun. Benton was a bloc of one.

A Representative Man

Benton’s career was more like that of a modern senator than any of the Great Triumvirate. While Clay, Webster and Calhoun moved in and out of Congress as they took executive branch positions, Benton remained a creature of the Senate.

But Benton was a more representative figure of his era than Clay, Webster, Calhoun or any other man in Congress. His “early life may be understood as a narrative of migration from one American ‘West’ to another,” Mueller writes. Beyond that, Benton’s entire life story could serve as a stand-in for the story of America itself: Born in the East, he migrated over the mountains to Tennessee, where he became first a friend and then a foe of Andrew Jackson — the two engaged in a barroom gun and knife fight in which both were wounded — then on to Missouri, always with one eye cast even further west, and an evolving ambivalence about slavery, even as he owned slaves and stood fast in defense of white supremacy.

Benton’s role as a hinge figure in the debates over burgeoning democracy and western expansion, and how each affected debates over race and slavery, form the heart of Mueller’s book.

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