There is a wonderful neoclassical bronze statue of Thomas Hart Benton, complete with toga and sandals, in Lafayette Park. I recently put the compass of my iPhone in a line with the Benton statue’s nose. West 270 degrees bang on. There’s a reason for this.
Thomas Hart Benton (1782 – 1858), occasionally confused with his famous artist grand-nephew of the same name, was a larger-than-life character. Teddy Roosevelt emulated him, and wrote a long biography of Benton in 1887. Benton, in fact, is singular in having two eventual presidents write admiring essays of him – the other being John F. Kennedy in Profiles In Courage.
Originally from North Carolina, Benton passed the bar in Tennessee and served a term as state senator there. He made his way to Missouri as a young and ambitious lawyer at the very time statehood for Missouri was imminent. He practiced law and edited the Missouri Enquirer in St Louis, then served as an aide to Andrew Jackson during the war of 1812. Benton developed a lifelong antipathy toward Great Britain, and a single-minded affinity for U.S. dominion over the American West.
A loyal Jacksonian Democrat, he also shared Old Hickory’s irascibility. Roosevelt wrote that Benton displayed an “aggressive patriotism” and “immense capacity for work”, but was “unfortunately deficient in the sense of humor”. During a trial in St Louis, he and the opposing lawyer, Charles Lucas, accused each other of lying. They settled the issue twice by duel on Bloody Island, the second occasion proving fatal to Lucas. Jackson himself was not immune to Benton’s wrath, having been shot in the shoulder during a melee with Benton and his brother in 1813.
Thomas Hart Benton was fixated on a goal that followed from his conviction that U.S possession of the lands west to the Pacific Ocean was its destiny. He was determined to be the prime mover toward this achievement. An extreme bibliophile, and also a renowned, if erudite windbag, he would quote freely from Greek and Roman texts in the course of everyday conversation. He proved himself capable of holding down a twelve hour filibuster during his thirty years in the U.S. Senate. From his Capitol soapbox Benton continually argued for American expansion west. He believed that no great empire had ever risen without direct access to trade with the Orient. He also feared that the British were scheming to establish positions from Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay to secure those Asian trade routes first.
“Old Bullion”, as he became known, was an devout proponent of hard money, a dollar of gold for each dollar. His feeling about soft paper money was that it enabled eastern interests to speculate on western land, whereas he wanted that land purchased directly by those who intended to live there. He was also a vocal advocate of clearing the path for this expansion by dispossessing and displacing native Americans.
The overriding issue, however, by the 1850’s was slavery, and Benton, who owned slaves himself, grew to oppose the expansion of it into the new West, in the belief that the politics of slavery inhibited the pace of westward national migration. He publicly declared himself against all slavery in 1849, pitting himself against both his party and the prevailing sentiment in his state. His opposition to slavery was so nettling to some that Henry Foote, a fellow senator from Mississippi, attempted to shoot Benton during a Senate session in 1850.
His adversarial position on this issue cost him his Senate seat in 1851, denying him a sixth term. He tried, with little success, for the rest of his life to recapture his political power, He died of cancer in 1858, and was lionized in death. Eugene Violette wrote in 1916: “Notwithstanding his faults and shortcomings, Benton has been considered, from his day to this, as Missouri’s greatest citizen.”
His funeral and burial in St. Louis was a three day event, attended by thousands. After a long wake at Mercantile Library at Locust and Broadway, and a two hour sermon, the funeral party made a five block procession to a train taking Benton to Bellefontaine Cemetery.
In 1864, Harriet Hosmer was commissioned to create a fitting monument to Benton.. The State of Missouri allotted $2500 for this purpose, and Wayman Crow led the raising of $33,500 more by public subscription. The resulting 10’ tall bronze was installed in Lafayette Park in 1868, a decade after Benton’s death. A crowd of forty thousand turned out for the dedication of what became the first public monument west of the Mississippi. Thirty cannon shots marked the years of Benton’s service in the Senate.
“ There is the East, there is India.”
This concise quote at the statue’s base was taken from a speech extolling the virtues of a transcontinental rail system. It was delivered at the Old Courthouse in St Louis, October 16, 1849, to the National Railroad Convention. It’s a tidy summary for the career of a man Roosevelt described as “fond of windy orations” to the point that “fairly foamed at the mouth”. By looking away from England and the US East Coast, he looked far west, the better to exploit the treasures of the Far East.
Or, you could say the quote simply observes that the Earth is round.
Note: Thomas Hart Benton found a place on the Delmar Loop walk of fame in 2014, in the same class as baseball’s Tim McCarver and comics artist Lee Falk (The Phantom, Mandrake The Magician). Fame takes many forms. His star, interestingly, is near the door of the Chinese Noodle Cafe.
Thanks to my research sources:
Meacham, Jon; American Lion: Andrew Jackson In The White House; Random House; 2009
Roosevelt, Theodore; Thomas Hart Benton: 1887; Haskell House Publishing (20020
Sides, Hampton; Blood And Thunder; Doubleday; 2006
Violette, Eugene Morrow; A History Of Missouri; D.C. Heath And Co. 1918
https://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/bentonsenator/ State Historical Society Of Missouri
https://racstl.org/public-art/thomas-hart-benton/ Regional Arts Committee Of St Louis
http://www.civilwarmo.org/educators/resources/info-sheets/thomas-hart-benton ; 2011; An Exhibit Of The Missouri History Museum.