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Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858)

Thomas Hart Benton, the famous Missouri senator, spent fifteen of his most formative years as a resident of Williamson County. It was here that he was admitted to the bar and elected to his first political office. Benton was born March 14, 1782, in Hillsboro, North Carolina, to Jesse and Ann Gooch Benton. His father, a lawyer, died in 1791, leaving a widow and eight small children. Before his death, the elder Benton had been involved in the ill-fated Transylvania Company and land speculation in Middle Tennessee. In 1800 Ann Benton brought her family to a 2,500-acre tract on Leipers Fork in Williamson County. The settlement was originally called Bentontown and later Hillsboro for their hometown in North Carolina.

Educated at the University of North Carolina, Thomas Hart Benton returned to Tennessee and briefly taught school in Maury County. In 1804, he began to study law and was admitted to the Franklin bar in 1806; his name appears on more lawsuits than any other lawyer in that town.

Benton's political career began in 1809, when he was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. He sponsored a number of bills, including one calling for judicial reform, which resulted in the establishment of the circuit court system in Tennessee. He also sponsored a bill guaranteeing slaves the right to a trial by jury in matters outside the jurisdiction of their masters.

Benton helped persuade Andrew Jackson to raise an army to fight in the Creek Indian Wars and the War of 1812; he himself commanded a regiment of men. After the war, Jackson sent Benton to Washington to investigate travel pay for the soldiers, which he successfully obtained.

In 1813 Jackson and Benton became involved in a dispute that almost ended their friendship. Benton's brother Jesse and William B. Carroll fought a duel, and Jackson acted as Carroll's second. Though neither his brother nor Carroll was seriously injured, Benton, who was absent when the original duel occurred, believed Jackson should have prevented the duel or refused to act as Carroll's second. In September of that year the Bentons met Jackson in a Nashville tavern, and a brawl broke out. Benton shot Jackson in the left shoulder, severing an artery. The wound required a protracted recuperation, but Jackson and Benton later reconciled.

In 1815 Benton moved to Missouri, prompting gossips to speculate that Tennessee was not big enough for both Benton and Jackson. Five years later, Benton was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served for the next thirty years. In the Senate, Benton supported the establishment of the Pony Express, the telegraph system, interior highways, a transcontinental railroad, and a sound currency, for which he received the nickname "Old Bullion." Above all else, Benton stood for the preservation of the Union and violently opposed secession.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010