Notice the slogan on the banner, "The Union-It Must Be Preserved"
The other day I spent some time at the Missouri Historical Society looking through their collection of the papers of Thomas Hart Benton where I found this campaign circular from the state election of 1856. This would be the last campaign of the man who had so much influence on Missouri’s early history, and on the nation at large. Benton, a slaveholder from Tennessee, had been an advocate of slavery in Missouri during the debates over the Missouri Compromise, and had become Missouri’s first U. S. Senator, serving nearly thirty years from 1821-1851. In 1852, he won a term in the House. These years of Benton power coincided with the years of Colonel Frederick Dent’s arrival in Missouri (1817), his financial success as a merchant in the fur trade in St. Louis, his purchase in 1820 of the White Haven farm, and the time when U. S. Grant courted and married Julia, Colonel Dent’s first born daughter.
Benton, as I wrote in an earlier post, was a dedicated Democrat and supporter of Andrew Jackson. Benton was a leading champion of westward expansion and a dedicated Unionist. It was his strong belief in the United States as a nation that led him to oppose South Carolina’s Democrat Senator John Calhoun during the debates over the Wilmot Proviso. Benton, a slave-owner himself, had no sympathy for the abolitionist cause, but he was also afraid that Calhoun’s unceasing attempts to protect slave-holders’ rights by uniting the southern slave states against the free states of the north threatened the disunion of the states. His fear that the Union was threatened by extremists on both sides of the slavery issue led him to oppose the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Missouri’s other Senator, David Rice Atchison, was firmly pro-slavery and quite willing to cooperate with Calhoun. Benton’s opposition to Calhoun, Atchison, and the expansion of slavery caused a bitter divide in the Democratic Party in Missouri between Benton and anti-Benton factions. (This division of the party over slavery issues wasn’t just limited to Missouri. There was a time when some prominent Democrats believed their party would actually become the anti-slavery party; Salmon P. Chase, for example.)
By the time of the elections of 1856, Benton’s influence had waned in Missouri. Partly this was due simply to the fact that he had been around so long, but also he found himself caught between the strongly pro-slavery faction of the Democratic Party in Missouri, led by Atchison, Claiborne Fox Jackson, and others, and the increasingly strident anti-slavery faction. Benton’s chief political lieutenants, Frank Blair and B. Gratz Brown, with their St. Louis German constituency, were becoming more and more outspoken in their opposition to slavery. To an extent, Benton had been with them, which is why the pro-slavery faction hated him. Benton opposed the expansion of slavery into new states and territories, but as Brown and others began agitating for the abolition of slavery in Missouri as well, Benton felt betrayed. What Benton really wanted was to just have everyone shut up about the slavery issue so the country could get on with its business growth and westward expansion.
Benton did not win the Governor’s seat in 1856. On August 4th he garnered a majority of votes in the St. Louis area, but out-state Missouri was overwhelmingly in favor of the proslavery anti-Benton faction. He lost to the proslavery Trusten Polk. 1856, of course, was the same year that the Republican Party ran its first candidate for President, John C. Fremont, Benton’s own son-in-law. Yet despite the high hopes of Blair and Brown, Benton refused to endorse his son-in-law. On November 3, 1856, Benton addressed a crowd in St. Louis. As one of Benton’s biographers wrote, “Frank Blair had built a strong following for Fremont, and the city’s vote might change the fate of America. Thomas Hart Benton knew this and had come for a last persuasive effort.” He endorsed James Buchanan, saying that although he loved and had supported Fremont in his western explorations,
“…knowing from the first that Mr. Fremont was to be the candidate of a sectional party, I told him that it was impossible that I could support any such nomination. No matter what came, he must be national, he must have a vision that could look over the Union. He must not be a dividing line, he must be national, or I [sic] cannot only not endorse him but I must take ground against him.”
When Buchanan won, Benton’s daughter, Jesse was convinced it had been her father’s influence that had cost her husband the White House.
What is striking about this is how similar Benton’s views were to the explanation Ulysses S. Grant gave for voting for Buchanan. From his Memoirs:
“It was evident to my mind that the election of a Republican President in 1856 meant the secession of all the Slave States, and rebellion. Under these circumstances I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no man could foretell. With a Democrat elected by the unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years. I very much hoped that the passions of the people would subside in that time, and the catastrophe could be averted altogether; if it was not, I believed the country would be better prepared to receive the shock and to resist it. I therefore voted for James Buchanan.”
Did the great Democrat Thomas Hart Benton have an influence on Ulysses Grant? Grant himself wrote that he “was a Whig by education and a great admirer of Henry Clay.” But, in Missouri, the Whig party had never commanded a very large following, and over the years had either sat out elections or sided with one faction or another of the Democrats. By the mid 1850’s when Grant came to farm White Haven the Whig Party was disintegrating. As Grant wrote, “the Whig Party had ceased to exist before I had the privilege of casting a ballot.” (Note also that B. Gratz Brown had come from a strong Whig family background in Kentucky and had become a Benton Democrat.)
In examining Benton’s possible influence on Grant, it is also intriguing to consider the views of Colonel Dent, but this is a challenge because there appears to be only second hand accounts of Colonel Dent’s politics, and often these are post-war reminiscences. Without doubt, Colonel Dent considered himself a Democrat. It has been said that this is why Grant did not get the County Engineer position in 1859; because he had been residing at White Haven living and working with his slave-holding Democrat father-in-law. But which faction of the Democrats in Missouri did Colonel Dent actually identify with? There are some clues. For example, as early as February 5, 1846, Grant wrote a letter to Julia from Texas in which he asked her, “Has John [Julia’s older brother] made application for an appointment in one of the new Regiments that are to be raised I hope he has not let the opportunity slip. With Mr. Benton’s influence he could probably get a Captaincy.” Years later in January of 1854, Grant wrote Julia from Ft. Humboldt, California: “Hunt is making application for promotion in a new Regiment, should be raised this Winter, and any assistance that could be given by your father, or brother Lewis, in the way of writing to Col. Benton he would gladly receive, and, appreciate.” Clearly, Grant believed that there was a relationship of some importance between Benton and the Dents from early on. Was Dent still listening to Benton as Benton began to argue against the expansion of slavery?
Colonel Dent is often painted as a fire-eating secessionist in complete opposition to his son-in-law, but the true picture of Colonel Dent and his relationship with his son-in-law is more complicated. On May 10th, 1861, the very day of the Camp Jackson affair, Grant was at the White Haven farm and wrote to Julia back in Galena: “Your father says he is for the Union but is opposed to having an army to sustain it. He would have a secession force march where they please uninterrupted and is really what I would call a secessionist.” On May 15, Grant wrote Julia, “As I told you your father professes to be a Union man yet condemns every measure for the preservation of the Union.” Obviously, Grant and his father-in-law were not on the same page in 1861, but it is interesting to note Dent’s insistence that he is for the Union. Benton had died in 1858, and many of his supporters, under the leadership of Blair and Brown, became Republicans. One of the more fascinating what-if questions in American history is how would Andrew Jackson have responded to the secession crisis in 1861? This is equally true of Thomas Hart Benton. Was Colonel Dent, by this time an aging patriarch with a declining fortune, left politically rudderless with the passing of Benton? In her Memoirs, Julia recalled the scenes of patriotism she witnessed in Galena, Illinois in the spring of 1861. She remembered a torchlight parade and thought of it as a serpent out to “crush in its folds the beloved party of my father, of Jefferson, of General Jackson, of Douglas, and of Thomas Benton.” And as I noted in an earlier post, there is the passage where she quotes her father in the midst of the war saying: “Good Heavens! If Jackson had been in the White House, this never would have happened. He would have hanged a score or two of them and the country would have been at peace. I knew we would have trouble when I voted for a man north of Mason and Dixon’s line.”
I am not aware of any extant direct correspondence between Benton and Colonel Dent. Perhaps someone who has done more research knows of more evidence of the relationship between the two, but I think in some cases the differences of opinion between Grant and Dent in the 1850s have been exaggerated and I would like to know more about all this. As slim as the evidence appears to be, I don’t think we can have an accurate picture of Grant without a study of antebellum Missouri politics. Yesterday I asked, was Grant a Democrat? I still think the answer is…not really. But if he was, what kind of a Democrat was he?