When a Louisiana slave-holder was thus installed in the White House, the extreme Southern men may have thought that they were sure of him as an ally in their fight against freedom. But, if so, they soon found they had reckoned without their host, for the election of Taylor affords a curious, though not solitary, instance in which the American people builded better than they knew in choosing a chief executive. Nothing whatever was known of his political theories, and the Whigs nominated him simply because he was a successful soldier, likely to take the popular fancy. But once elected he turned out to have the very qualities we then most needed in a president,--a stout heart, shrewd common sense, and thorough-going devotion to the Union. Although with widely different training from Benton, and nominally differing from him in politics, he was yet of the same stamp both in character and principles; both were Union Southerners, not in the least afraid of openly a.s.serting their opinions, and, if necessary, of making them good by their acts. In his first and only annual message, Taylor expressed, upon all the important questions of the day, views that were exactly similar to those advanced before or after by Benton himself in the Senate; and he used similar emphasis and plainness of speech. He declared the Union to be the greatest of blessings, which he would maintain in every way against whatever dangers might threaten it; he advised the admission of California, which wished to come in as a free state; he thought that the territories of Utah and New Mexico should be left as they were; and he warned the Texans, who were bl.u.s.tering about certain alleged rights to New Mexican soil, and threatening to take them by force of arms, that this could not be permitted, and that the matter would have to be settled by the judicial authority of the United States. Benton heartily indorsed the message. Naturally, it was bitterly a.s.sailed by the disunionists under Calhoun; and even Clay, who entirely lacked Taylor's backbone, was dissatisfied with it as being too extreme in tone, and conflicting with his proposed compromise measures. These same compromise measures brought the Kentucky leader into conflict with Benton also, especially on the point of their interfering with the immediate admission of California into the Union.
This is not the place to discuss Clay's proposed compromise, which was not satisfactory to the extreme Southerners, and still less so to the Unionists and anti-slavery men. It consisted of five different parts, relating to the recovery of fugitive slaves, the suppression of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia, the admission of California as a state, and the territorial condition of Utah and New Mexico. Benton opposed it as mixing up incongruous measures; as being unjust to California, inasmuch as it confounded the question of her admission with the general slavery agitation in the United States; and above all as being a concession or capitulation to the spirit of disunion and secession, and therefore a repet.i.tion of the error of 1833. Benton always desired to meet and check any disunion movement at the very outset, and, if he had had his way, would have carried matters with a high hand whenever it came to dealing with threats of such a proceeding; and therein he was perfectly right. In regard to the proposed compromise he believed in dealing with each question as it arose, beginning with the admission of California, and refusing to have any compromise at all with those who threatened secession.
The slavery extensionists endeavored to have the Missouri compromise line stretched on to the Pacific. Benton, avowing his belief that slavery was an evil, opposed this, and gave his reasons why he did not wish to see the line which had been used to divide free and slave soil in the French or Louisiana purchase extended into the lands won from Mexico. Slavery had always existed in Louisiana, while it had been long abolished in Mexico. "The Missouri compromise line, extending to New Mexico and California, though astronomically the same as that in Louisiana, would be politically directly the opposite. One went through a territory all slave, and made one half free; the other would go through territory all free, and make one half slave." In fact Benton, as he grew older, unlike most of his compatriots, gained a clearer insight into the effects of slavery. This was shown in his comments upon Calhoun's statement, made in the latter's last speech, in reference to the unequal development of the North and South; which, Benton said, was partly owing to the existence of "slavery itself, which he (Calhoun) was so anxious to extend." It was in this same speech that Calhoun hinted at his plan for a dual executive,--one president from the Free and one from the Slave States,--a childish proposition, that Benton properly treated as a simple absurdity.
In his speech against the compromise, Benton discussed it, section by section, with great force, and with his usual blunt truthfulness. His main count was the injustice done to California by delaying her admittance, and making it dependent upon other issues; but he made almost as strong a point against the effort to settle the claims of Texas to New Mexican territory. The Texan threats to use force he treated with cavalier indifference, remarking that as long as New Mexico was a territory, and therefore belonged to the United States, any controversy with her was a controversy with the federal government, which would know how to play her part by "defending her territory from invasion, and her people from violence,"--a hint that had a salutary effect upon the Texans; in fact the disunionists, generally, were not apt to do much more than threaten while a Whig like Taylor was backed up by a Democrat like Benton. He also pointed out that it was not necessary, however desirable, to make a compact with Texas about the boundaries, as they could always be settled, whether she wished it or not, by a suit before the Supreme Court; and again intimated that a little show of firmness would remove all danger of a collision. "As to anything that Texas or New Mexico may do in taking or relinquishing possession, that is all moonshine. New Mexico is the property of the United States, and she cannot dispose of herself or any part of herself, nor can Texas take her or any part of her." He showed a thorough acquaintance with New Mexican geography and history, and alluded to the bills he had already brought in, in 1844 and 1850, to establish a divisional line between the territory and Texas, on the longitude first of one hundred and then of one hundred and two degrees.
He recalled the fact that before the annexation of Texas, and in a bill proposing to settle all questions with her, he had inserted a provision forever prohibiting slavery in all parts of the annexed territory lying west of the hundredth degree of longitude. He also took the opportunity of formally stating his opposition to any form of slavery extension, remarking that it was no new idea with him, but dated from the time when in 1804, while a law student in Tennessee, he had studied Blackstone as edited by the learned Virginian, Judge Tucker, who, in an appendix, treated of, and totally condemned, black slavery in the United States.
The very difficulty, or, as he deemed it, the impossibility, of getting rid of the evil, made Benton all the more determined in opposing its extension. "The incurability of the evil is the greatest objection to the extension of slavery. If it is wrong for the legislator to inflict an evil which can be cured, how much more to inflict one that is incurable, and against the will of the people who are to endure it forever! I quarrel with no one for deeming slavery a blessing; I deem it an evil, and would neither adopt it nor impose it on others." The solution of the problem of disposing of existent slavery, he confessed, seemed beyond human wisdom; but "there is a wisdom above human, and to that we must look. In the mean time, do not extend the evil." In justification of his position he quoted previous actions of Congress, done under the lead of Southern men, in refusing again and again, down to 1807, to allow slavery to be introduced into Indiana, when that community pet.i.tioned for it. He also repudiated strongly the whole spirit in which Clay had gotten up his compromise bill, stating that he did not believe in geographical parties; that he knew no North and no South, and utterly rejected any slavery compromises except those to be found in the Const.i.tution. Altogether it was a great speech, and his opposition was one of the main causes of the defeat of Clay's measure.
Benton's position on the Wilmot Proviso is worth giving in his own words: "That measure was rejected again as heretofore, and by the votes of those who were opposed to extending slavery into the territories, because it was unnecessary and inoperative,--irritating to the Slave States, without benefit to the Free States, a mere work of supererogation, of which the fruit was discontent. It was rejected, not on the principle of non-intervention; not on the principle of leaving to the territories to do as they pleased on the question, but because there had been intervention; because Mexican law and const.i.tution had intervened, had abolished slavery by law in those dominions; which law would remain in force until repealed by Congress. All that the opponents to the extension of slavery had to do, then, was to do nothing. And they did nothing."
Before California was admitted into the Union old Zachary Taylor had died, leaving behind him a name that will always be remembered among our people. He was neither a great statesman nor yet a great commander; but he was an able and gallant soldier, a loyal and upright public servant, and a most kindly, honest, and truthful man. His death was a greater loss to the country than perhaps the people ever knew.
The bill for the admission of California as a free state, heartily sustained by Benton, was made a test question by the Southern disunionists; but on this occasion they were thoroughly beaten. The great struggle was made over a proposition to limit the southern boundary of the state to the line of 36 30', and to extend the Missouri line through to the Pacific, so as to authorize the existence of slavery in all the territory south of that lat.i.tude. This was defeated by a vote of thirty-two to twenty-four. Not only Benton, but also Spruance and Wales of Delaware, and Underwood of Kentucky, joined with the representatives from the Free States in opposing it. Had it not been for the action of these four slave-state senators in leaving their a.s.sociates, the vote would have been a tie; and their courage and patriotism should be remembered. The bill was then pa.s.sed by a vote of thirty-four to eighteen, two other Southern senators, Houston of Texas, and Bell of Tennessee, voting for it, in addition to the four already mentioned. After its pa.s.sage, ten of the senators who had voted against it, including, of course, Jefferson Davis, and also Benton's own colleague from Missouri, Atchison, joined in a protest against what had been done, ending with a thinly veiled threat of disunion,--"dissolution of the confederacy," as they styled it. Benton stoutly and successfully opposed allowing this protest to be received or entered upon the journal, condemning it, with a frankness that very few of his fellow-senators would have dared to copy, as being sectional and disunion in form, and therefore unfit even for preservation on the records.
When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was pa.s.sed, through the help of some Northern votes, Benton refused to support it; and this was the last act of importance that he performed as United States Senator. He had risen and grown steadily all through his long term of service; and during its last period he did greater service to the nation than any of his fellow-senators. Compare his stand against the slavery extremists and disunionists, such as Calhoun, with the position of Webster at the time of his famous seventh of March speech, or with that of Clay when he brought in his compromise bill! In fact, as the times grew more troublesome, he grew steadily better able to do good work in them.
It is this fact of growth that especially marks his career. No other American statesman, except John Quincy Adams,--certainly neither of his great contemporaries, Webster and Clay,--kept doing continually better work throughout his term of public service, or showed himself able to rise to a higher level at the very end than at the beginning. Yet such was the case with Benton. He always rose to meet a really great emergency; and his services to the nation grew steadily in importance to the very close of his life. Whereas Webster and Clay pa.s.sed their zenith and fell, he kept rising all the time.
THE LOSING FIGHT.
Benton had now finished his fifth and last term in the United States Senate. He had been chosen senator from Missouri before she was admitted into the Union, and had remained such for thirty years. During all that time the state had been steadily Democratic, the large Whig minority never being able to get control; but on the question of the extension of slavery the dominant party itself began at this time to break into two factions. Hitherto Benton had been the undisputed leader of the Democracy, but now the pro-slavery and disunionist Democrats organized a very powerful opposition to him; while he still received the enthusiastic support of an almost equally numerous body of followers.
Although the extension of slavery and the preservation of the Union were the two chief and vital points on which the factions differed, yet the names by which they designated each other were adopted in consequence of their differing also on a third and only less important one. Benton was such a firm believer in hard money, and a currency of gold and silver, as to have received the nickname of "Old Bullion," and his followers were called "hards;" his opponents were soft money men, in addition to being secessionists and pro-slavery fanatics, and took the name of "softs." The principles of the Bentonians were right, and those of their opponents wrong; but for all that the latter gradually gained upon the former. Finally, in the midst of Benton's fight against the extension of slavery into the territories, the "softs" carried the Missouri legislature, and pa.s.sed a series of resolutions based upon those of Calhoun. These were most truculent and disloyal in tone, demanding that slavery be permitted to exist in all the new states to be admitted, and instructing their senators to vote accordingly. These resolutions were presented in the senate by Benton's colleague from Missouri, Atchison, who was rather hostile to him and to every other friend of the Union, and later on achieved disreputable notoriety as a leader of the "border ruffians" in the affrays on the soil of Kansas. Benton at once picked up the glove that had been flung down. He utterly refused to obey the resolutions, denounced them savagely as being treasonable and offensive in the highest degree, a.s.serted that they did not express the true opinions of the voters of the state, and appealed from the Missouri legislature to the Missouri people.
The issue between the two sides was now sharply brought out, and, as this took place towards the end of Benton's fifth term, the struggle to command the legislature which should reelect him or give him a successor was most exciting. Benton himself took an active part in the preliminary canva.s.s. Neither faction was able to get a majority of the members, and the deadlock was finally broken by the "softs" coming to the support of the Whigs, and helping them to elect Benton's rival. Thus, after serving his state faithfully and ably for thirty years, he was finally turned out of the position which he so worthily filled, because he had committed the crime of standing loyally by the Union.
But the stout old Nationalist was not in the least cast down or even shaken by his defeat. He kept up the fight as bitterly as ever, though now an old man, and in 1852 went to Congress as a representative Union Democrat. For thirty years he had been the autocrat of Missouri politics, and had at one time wielded throughout his own state a power as great as Calhoun possessed in South Carolina; greater than Webster held in Ma.s.sachusetts, or Clay in Kentucky. But the tide which had so long flowed in his favor now turned, and for the few remaining years of his life set as steadily against him; yet at no time of his long public career did he stand forth as honorably and prominently as during his last days, when he was showing so stern a front to his victorious foes.
His love for work was so great that, when out of the Senate, he did not find even his incessant political occupations enough for him. During his contest for the senatorship his hands had been full, for he had spoken again and again throughout the entire state, his carefully prepared speeches showing remarkable power, and filled with scathing denunciation and invective and biting and caustic sarcasm. But so soon as his defeat was a.s.sured he turned his attention immediately to literature, setting to work on his great "Thirty Years' View," of which the first volume was printed during his congressional term, and was quoted on the floor of the House, both by his friends and foes, during the debates in which he was taking part.
In 1852, when he was elected to Congress as a member of the House, he had supported Pierce for the presidency against Scott, a good general, but otherwise a wholly absurd and flatulent personage, who was the Whig nominee. But it soon became evident that Pierce was completely under the control of the secession wing of the party, and Benton thereafterwards treated him with contemptuous hostility, despising him, and seeing him exactly as he was,--a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act as the servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler. He was ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him, and to act as their attorney in arguing in its favor,--to quote Benton's phrase, with "undaunted mendacity, moral callosity [and] mental obliquity." His last message to Congress in the slavery interest Benton spoke of as characteristic, and exemplifying "all the modes of conveying untruths which long ages have invented,--direct a.s.sertion, fallacious inference, equivocal phrase, and false innuendo." As he entertained such views of the head of the Democratic party, and as this same head was in hearty accord with, and a good representative of the ma.s.s of the rank and file politicians of the organization, it is small wonder that Benton found himself, on every important question that came up while he was in Congress, opposed to the ma.s.s of his fellow-Democrats.
Although the great questions to which he devoted himself, while a representative in Congress, were those relating to the extension of slavery, yet he also found time to give to certain other subjects, working as usual with indomitable energy, and retaining his marvelous memory to the last. The idea of desponding or giving up, for any cause whatever, simply never entered his head. When his house, containing all the ma.n.u.script and papers of the nearly completed second volume of his "Thirty Years' View," was burned up, he did not delay a minute in recommencing his work, and the very next day spoke in Congress as usual.
His speeches were showing a steady improvement; they were not masterpieces, even at the last, but in every way, especially in style, they were infinitely superior to those that he had made on his first entrance into public life. Of course, a man with his intense pride in his country, and characterized by such a desire to see her become greater and more united in every way, would naturally support the proposal to build a Pacific Railroad, and accordingly he argued for it at great length and with force and justness, at the same time opposing the propositions to build northern and southern trans-continental roads as subst.i.tutes for the proposed central route. He showed the character of the land through which the road would run, and the easiness of the pa.s.ses across the Rockies, and prophesied a rapid increase of states as one of the results attendant upon its building. At the end of his speech he made an elaborate comparison of the courses of trade and commerce at different periods of the world's history, and showed that, as we had reached the Pacific coast, we had finally taken a position where our trade with the Oriental kingdoms, backed up by our own enormous internal development, rendered us more than ever independent of Europe.
In another speech he discussed very intelligently, and with his usual complete command of the facts of the case, some of the contemporary Indian uprisings in the far West. He attacked our whole Indian policy, showing that the corruption of the Indian agents, coupled with astute aggressions, were the usual causes of our wars. Further, he criticised our regular troops as being unfit to cope with the savages, and advocated the formation of companies of frontier rangers, who should also be settlers, and should receive from the government a bounty in land as part reward for their service. Many of his remarks on our Indian policy apply quite as well now as they did then, and our regular soldiers are certainly not the proper opponents for the Indians; but Benton's military views were, as a rule, the reverse of sensible, and we cannot accept his denunciations of the army, and especially of West Point, as being worth serious consideration. His belief in the marvelous efficacy of a raw militia, especially as regards war with European powers, was childish, and much of his feeling against the regular army officer was dictated by jealousy. He was, by all the peculiarities of his habits and education, utterly unfitted for military command; and it would have been an evil day for his good fame if Polk had succeeded in having him made lieutenant-general of our forces in Mexico.
His remarks upon our Indian policy were not the only ones he made that would bear study even yet. Certain of his speeches upon the different land-bounty and pension bills, pa.s.sed nominally in the interests of veterans, but really through demagogy and the machination of speculators, could be read with profit by not a few Congressmen at the present time. One of his utterances was: "I am a friend to old soldiers ... but not to old speculators;" and while favoring proper pension bills he showed the foolishness and criminality of certain others very clearly, together with the fact that, when pa.s.sed long after the services have been rendered, they always fail to relieve the real sufferers, and work in the interests of unworthy outsiders.
But his great speech, and one of the best and greatest that he ever made, was the one in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which was being pushed through Congress by the fire-eaters and their Northern pro-slavery followers. His own position upon the measure was best expressed by the words he used in commenting on the remarks of a Georgian member: "He votes as a Southern man, and votes sectionally; I also am a Southern man, but vote nationally on national questions."
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had expressly abolished slavery in the territory out of which Kansas and Nebraska were carved. By the proposed bill this compromise was to be repealed, and the famous doctrine of non-intervention, or "squatter sovereignty," was to take its place, the people of each territory being allowed to choose for themselves whether they did or did not wish slavery. Benton attacked the proposal with all the strength of his frank, open nature as "a bungling attempt to smuggle slavery into the territory, and throughout all the country, up to the Canada line and out to the Rocky Mountains." He showed exhaustively the real nature of the original Missouri Compromise, which, as he said, was forced by the South upon the North, and which the South now proposed to repeal, that it might humiliate the North still further. The compromise of 1820 was, he justly contended, right; it was like the original compromises of the Const.i.tution, by which the Slave States were admitted to the formation of the Union; no greater concession of principle was involved in the one case than in the other; and, had either compromise failed, the Union would not now be in existence. But the day when compromises had been necessary, or even harmless, had pa.s.sed. The time had come when the extension of slavery was to be opposed in every const.i.tutional way; and it was an outrage to propose to extend its domain by repealing all that part of a compromise measure which worked against it, when the South had already long taken advantage of such parts of the law as worked in its favor. Said Benton: "The South divided and took half, and now it will not do to claim the other half." Exactly as a proposition to destroy the slavery compromises of the Const.i.tution would be an open attempt to destroy the Union, so, he said, the attempt to abrogate the compromise of 1820 would be a preparation for the same ending. "I have stood upon the Missouri Compromise for about thirty years, and mean to stand upon it to the end of my life ... [it is] a binding covenant upon both parties, and the more so upon the South, as she imposed it."
The squatter sovereignty theories of Douglas he treated with deserved ridicule, laughing at the idea that the territories were not the actual property of the nation, to be treated as the latter wished, and having none of the rights of sovereign states; and he condemned even more severely the theory advanced to the effect that Congress had no power to legislate on slavery in the territories. Thus, he pointed out that to admit any such theories was directly to reverse the principles upon which we had acted for seventy years in regard to the various territories that from time to time grew to such size as ent.i.tled them to come into the Union as states. After showing that there was no excuse for bringing in the bill on the plea of settling the slavery question, since there was not a foot of territory in the United States where the subject of slavery was not already settled by law, he closed with an earnest appeal against such an attempt to break up the Union and outrage the North by forcing slavery into a land where its existence was already forbidden by law. His speech exceeded the hour allotted to it, and he was allowed to go on only by the courtesy of a member from Illinois, who, when some of the Southerners protested against his being heard farther, gave up part of his own time to the grand old Missourian, and asked the House to hear him, if only "as the oldest living man in Congress, the only man in Congress who was present at the pa.s.sage of the Missouri Compromise bill." Many a man at the North, ashamed and indignant at seeing the politicians of his own section cower at the crack of the Southern whip, felt a glow of sincere grat.i.tude and admiration for the rugged Westerner, who so boldly bade defiance to the ruling slave party that held the reins not only in his own section, but also in his own state, and to oppose which was almost certain political death.
The Gadsden treaty was also strongly opposed and condemned by Benton, who considered it to be part of a great scheme or movement in the interests of the slavery disunionists, of which he also believed the Kansas-Nebraska bill to be the first development,--the "thin end of the wedge." He opposed the acquirement even of the small piece of territory we were actually able to purchase from Mexico; and showed good grounds for his belief that the administration, acting as usual only in the interest of the secessionists, had tried to get enough North-Mexican territory to form several new states, and had also attempted to purchase Cuba, both efforts being for the purpose of enabling the South either to become again dominant in the Union or else to set up a separate confederacy of her own. For it must be kept in mind that Benton always believed that the Southern disunion movements were largely due to conspiracies among ambitious politicians, who used the slavery question as a handle by which to influence the ma.s.s of the people. This view has certainly more truth in it than it is now the fashion to admit. His objection to the actual treaty was mainly based on its having been done by the executive without the consent of the legislature, and he also criticised it for the secrecy with which it had been put through. In bringing forward the first objection, however, he was confronted with Jefferson's conduct in acquiring Louisiana, which he endeavored, not very successfully, to show had nothing in common with the actions of Pierce, who, he said, simply demanded a check from the House with which to complete a purchase undertaken on his own responsibility.
Throughout his congressional term of service, Benton acted so as to deserve well of the Union as a whole, and most well of Missouri in particular. But he could not stem the tide of folly and madness in this state, and was defeated when he was a candidate for reelection. The Whigs had now disappeared from the political arena, and the Know-nothings were running through their short and crooked lease of life; they foolishly nominated a third candidate in Benton's district, who drew off enough votes from him to enable his pro-slavery Democratic compet.i.tor to win.
No sooner had he lost his seat in Congress than Benton, indefatigable as ever, set to work to finish his "Thirty Years' View," and produced the second volume in 1856, the year when he made his last attempt to regain his hold in politics, and to win Missouri back to the old Union standard. Although his own son-in-law, Fremont, the daring western explorer, was running as the first presidential candidate ever nominated by the Republicans, the old partisan voted for the Democrat, Buchanan.
He did not like Buchanan, considering him weak and unsuitable, but the Republican party he believed to be entirely too sectional in character for him to give it his support. For governor there was a triangular fight, the Know-nothings having nominated one candidate, the secessionist Democrats a second, while Benton himself ran as the choice of the Union Democracy. He was now seventy-four years old, but his mind was as vigorous as ever, and his iron will kept up a frame that had hardly even yet begun to give way. During the course of the campaign he traveled throughout the state, going in all twelve hundred miles, and making forty speeches, each one of two or three hours' length. This was a remarkable feat for so old a man; indeed, it has very rarely been paralleled, except by Gladstone's recent performances. The vote was quite evenly divided between the three candidates; but Benton came in third, and the extreme pro-slavery men carried the day. After this, during the few months of life he yet had left, he did not again mingle in the politics of Missouri.
But in the days of his defeat at home, the regard and respect in which he was held in the other states, especially at the North, increased steadily; and in the fall of 1856 he made by request a lecturing tour in New England, speaking on the danger of the political situation and the imperative necessity of preserving the Union, which he now clearly saw to be gravely threatened. He was well received, for the North was learning to respect him, and he had gotten over his early hostility to New England,--a hostility originally shared by the whole West. The New Englanders were not yet aware, however, of the importance of the secession movements, and paid little heed to the warnings that were to be so fully justified by the events of the next few years. But Benton, in spite of his great age, saw distinctly the changes that were taking place, and the dangers that were impending,--an unusual thing for a man whose active life has already been lived out under widely different conditions.
He again turned his attention to literature, and produced another great work, the "Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1787 to 1856," in sixteen volumes, besides writing a valuable pamphlet on the Dred Scott decision, which he severely criticised. The amount of labor all this required was immense, and his health completely gave way; yet he continued working to the very end, dictating the closing portion of the "Abridgment" in a whisper as he lay on his death-bed. When he once began to fail his advanced years made him succ.u.mb rapidly; and on April 10, 1858, he died, in the city of Washington. As soon as the news reached Missouri, a great revulsion of feeling took place, and all cla.s.ses of the people united to do honor to the memory of the dead statesman, realizing that they had lost a man who towered head and shoulders above both friends and foes. The body was taken to St. Louis, and after lying in state was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, more than forty thousand people witnessing the funeral. All the public buildings were draped in mourning; all places of business were closed, and the flags everywhere were at half-mast. Thus at the very end the great city of the West at last again paid fit homage to the West's mightiest son.
Benton's most important writings are those mentioned above. The "Thirty Years' View" ("a history of the working of the American government for thirty years, from 1820 to 1850") will always be indispensable to every student of American history. It deals with the deeds of both houses of Congress, and of some of the higher federal officials during his thirty years' term of service in the Senate, and is valuable alike for the original data it contains, and because it is so complete a record of our public life at that time. The book is also remarkable for its courteous and equable tone, even towards bitter personal and political enemies. It shows a vanity on the part of the author that is too frank and free from malice to be anything but amusing; the style is rather ponderous, and the English not always good, for Benton began life, and, in fact, largely pa.s.sed it, in an age of ornate periods, when grandiloquence was considered more essential than grammar. In much of the Mississippi valley the people had their own canons of literary taste; indeed, in a recent book by one of Benton's admirers, there is a fond allusion to his statement, anent the expunging resolution, that "solitary and alone" he had set the ball in motion,--the pleonasm being evidently looked upon in the light of a rather fine oratorical outburst.
"The Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1789 to 1856" he was only able to bring down to 1850. Sixteen volumes were published. It was a compilation needing infinite labor, and is invaluable to the historian. While in the midst of the vast work he also found time to write his "Examination of the Dred Scott case," in so far as it decided the Missouri Compromise law to be unconst.i.tutional, and a.s.serted the self-extension of the Const.i.tution into the territories, carrying slavery with it,--the decision in this case promulgated by Judge Taney, of unhappy fame, having been the last step taken in the interests of slavery and for the overthrow of freedom. The pamphlet contained nearly two hundred pages, and showed, as was invariably the case with anything Benton did, the effects of laborious research and wide historical and legal learning. His summing up was, "that the decision conflicts with the uniform action of all the departments of the federal government from its foundation to the present time, and cannot be accepted as a rule to govern Congress and the people, without severing that act and admitting the political supremacy of the court and accepting an altered const.i.tution from its hands, and taking a new and portentous point of departure in the working of the government." He denounced the new party theories of the Democracy, which had abandoned the old belief of the founders of the Republic, that Congress had power to legislate upon slavery in territories, and which had gone on "from the abrogation of the Missouri Compromise, which saved the Union, to squatter sovereignty, which killed the compromise, and thence to the decisions of the supreme court, which kill both." In closing he touched briefly on the history of the pro-slavery agitation. "Up to Mr. Pierce's administration the plan had been defensive, that is to say, to make the secession of the South a measure of self-defense against the abolition encroachments and crusades of the North. In the time of Mr. Pierce the plan became offensive, that is to say, to commence the expansion of slavery, and the acquisition of territory to spread it over, so as to overpower the North with new Slave States, and drive them out of the Union.... The rising in the Free States, in consequence of the abrogation of the Missouri Compromise, checked these schemes, and limited the success of the disunionists to the revival of the agitation which enables them to wield the South against the North in all the federal elections and all federal legislation. Accidents and events have given the party a strange preeminence,--under Jackson's administration proclaimed for treason; since at the head of the government and of the Democratic party. The death of Harrison, and the accession of Tyler, was their first great lift; the election of Mr. Pierce was their culminating point." This was the last protest of the last of the old Jacksonian leaders against that new generation of Democrats, whose delight it had become to bow down to strange G.o.ds.
In his private life Benton's relations were of the pleasantest. He was a religious man, although, like his great political chief, he could on occasions swear roundly. He was rigidly moral, and he was too fond of work ever to make social life a business. But he liked small dinners, with just a few intimate friends or noted and brilliant public men, and always shone at such an entertainment. Although he had not traveled much, he gave the impression of having done so, by reason of his wide reading, and because he always made a point of knowing all explorers, especially those who had penetrated our great western wilds. His geographical knowledge was wonderful; and his good nature, as well as his delight in work for work's sake, made him of more use than any library of reference, if his friends needed information upon some abstruse matter,--Webster himself acknowledging his indebtedness to him on one occasion, and being the authority for the statement that Benton knew more political facts than any other man he had ever met, even than John Quincy Adams, and possessed a wonderful fund of general knowledge.
Although very gentle in his dealings with those for whom he cared, Benton originally was rather quarrelsome and revengeful in character.
His personal and political prejudices were bitter, and he denounced his enemies freely in public and from the stump; yet he always declined to take part in joint political debates, on account of the personal discourtesy with which they were usually conducted. He gave his whole time to public life, rarely or never attending to his law practice after he had fairly entered the political field.
Benton was one of those who were present and escaped death at the time of the terrible accident on board the Princeton, during Tyler's administration, when the bursting of her great gun killed so many prominent men. Benton was saved owing to the fact that, characteristically enough, he had stepped to one side the better to note the marksmanship of the gunner. Ex-Governor Gilmer, of Virginia, who had taken his place, was instantly killed. Tyler, who was also on board, was likewise saved in consequence of the exhibition of a characteristic trait; for, just as the gun was about to be fired, something occurred in another part of the ship which distracted the attention of the fussy, fidgety president, who accordingly ran off to see what it was, and thus escaped the fatal explosion. The tragic nature of the accident and his own narrow escape made a deep impression upon Benton; and it was noticed that ever afterwards he was far more forbearing and forgiving than of old. He became good friends with Webster and other political opponents, with whom he had formerly hardly been on speaking terms. Calhoun alone he would never forgive. It was not in his nature to do anything by halves; and accordingly, when he once forgave an opponent, he could not do enough to show him that the forgiveness was real. A Missourian named Wilson, who had been his bitter and malignant political foe for years, finally becoming broken in fortune and desirous of bettering himself by going to California, where Benton's influence, through his son-in-law, Fremont, was supreme, was persuaded by Webster to throw himself on the generosity of his old enemy. The latter not only met him half-way, but helped him with a lavish kindness that would hardly have been warranted by less than a life-long friendship. Webster has left on record the fact that, when once they had come to be on good terms with each other, there was no man in the whole Senate of whom he would more freely have asked any favor that could properly be granted.
He was a most loving father. At his death he left four surviving daughters,--Mrs. William Carey Jones, Mrs. Sarah Benton Jacobs, Madame Susan Benton Boilleau, and Mrs. Jessie Ann Benton Fremont, the wife of the great explorer, whose wonderful feats and adventures, ending with the conquest of California, where he became a sort of viceroy in point of power, made him an especial favorite with his father-in-law, who loved daring and hardihood. Benton took the keenest delight in Fremont's remarkable successes, and was never tired of talking of them, both within and without the Senate. He records with very natural pride the fact that it was only the courage and judgment displayed in a trying crisis by his own gifted daughter, Fremont's wife, which enabled the adventurous young explorer to prosecute one of the most important of his expeditions, when threatened with fatal interference from jealous governmental superiors.
He was an exceptionally devoted husband. His wife was Miss Elizabeth McDowell, of Virginia, whom he married after he had entered the Senate.
Their life was most happy until 1844, when she was struck by paralysis.
From that time till her death in 1854, he never went out to a public place of amus.e.m.e.nt, spending all his time not occupied with public duties in writing by her bedside. It is scant praise to say that, while mere acquiescence on his part would have enabled him to become rich through government influence, he nevertheless died a poor man. In public, as in private life, he was a man of sensitive purity of character; he would never permit any person connected with him by blood or marriage to accept office under the government, nor would he ever favor any applicant for a government contract on political grounds.
During his last years, when his st.u.r.dy independence and devotion to the Union had caused him the loss of his political influence in his own state and with his own party, he nevertheless stood higher with the country at large than ever before. He was a faithful friend and a bitter foe; he was vain, proud, utterly fearless, and quite unable to comprehend such emotions as are expressed by the terms despondency and yielding. Without being a great orator or writer, or even an original thinker, he yet possessed marked ability; and his abounding vitality and marvelous memory, his indomitable energy and industry, and his tenacious persistency and personal courage, all combined to give him a position and influence such as few American statesmen have ever held.
His character grew steadily to the very last; he made better speeches and was better able to face new problems when past three score and ten than in his early youth or middle age. He possessed a rich fund of political, legal, and historical learning, and every subject that he ever handled showed the traces of careful and thorough study. He was very courteous, except when provoked; his courage was proof against all fear, and he shrank from no contest, personal or political. He was sometimes narrow-minded, and always wilful and pa.s.sionate; but he was honest and truthful. At all times and in all places he held every good gift he had completely at the service of the American Federal Union.
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