Benton Gets Jackson's Censure Expunged

"Thomas H. Benton"
John Rogers


Thomas Hart Benton

Benton, he took a prominent part in the deliberation of the Senate. Few public measures were discussed that he did not participate in. He was distinguished for his iron will. As a public speaker, he was not interesting. Senator Benton was the author of the expunging resolution, which I was an [eye]witness to in the Senate. He was distinguished for his learning, he had a practical mind and a strong memory. As a public speaker he was not interesting, but his speeches were read with great interest and his influence was widely felt.

I remember on one occasion when I was quite a boy, he wanted to see a friend who was on the floor of the Senate and requested me to find him. I found him and pointed him out on one of the sofas. I made use of the word “setting,” instead of “sitting.” He stopped and put his hand on my head and said, “My boy, don’t say that again, hens set [?].” and went where his friend was. In January 1836, a resolution was passed by the effort of Senator Benton, by which the resolution of censure was cancelled. The cancellation was done by drawing black lines around it and Mr. Benton carried away the pen as a trophy. From the moment of the condemnation of General Jackson, Senator Benton gave notice of his intention to move the expunction of the sentence from the journal periodically and continually until the object should be effected or his political life come to its end. He made his formal motion at the session [18]34-35. The incriminating resolution which was his object to expunge was presented to the Senate December 26, 1833. The vote was taken upon it [the] 28 of March.

About a fortnight thereafter he announced to the Senate his intention to commence a series of motions for expunging the resolution from the journal. On the 26 of December, the third anniversary of the day on which Mr. Clay had moved the condemnatory resolution, Mr. Benton laid upon the table the resolve to expunge it, followed by his third and last speech on that subject. Mr. Benton gave orders to have an ample supply of cold hams, turkey, wines, and cups of hot coffee, ready on the afternoon of Monday. As the darkness of the night came on and the chandelier was lit up the Chamber then crowded with members of the House, and the lobbies and galleries filled. The committee room had been resorted to but the great part of the Senate was not in a humor to eat.

Midnight was now approaching. The floor of the Senate was crammed with persons and it seemed that all Congress was there.

The vote was then taken and the resolution passed. The passage of the resolution was then announced from the chair.

Mr. Benton then arose and said nothing now remained but to execute the order of the Senate. The secretary thereupon produced the original manuscript journal of the Senate and opening at the page which contained the condemnation sentence of March 28, 1834, proceeded in open Senate to draw a square of broad black lines around the sentence and to write across its face in strong letters these words, “Expunged by order of the Senate this 16 day of March 1837.” Up to this moment the crowd in the circular gallery looked down upon the Senate menacing in their looks. Its appearance became such that Senators Linn, Benton, and other Senators sent out and had brought in arms. Other friends gathered about him—among them were Mrs. Benton. She wish[ed] to be near him in this concluding scene. As soon as the Secretary of the Senate began to perform the expunging process, instantly a storm of hisses [and] groans arose from the left wing of the circular gallery over the head of Senator Benton. The presiding officer of the Senate gave the order to clear the galleries. Mr. Benton opposed the order to clear the galleries, the order was revoked. The order to seize the disturbers was given and executed by the Sergeant at Arms (John Shackford) and his assistants. They were seized and brought to the bar of the Senate. The expunging process then went on quietly.

Mr. Benton was commonly called the “Illuminated Senator,” and the “Old Bullion,” “Hard Money Man.”

In the Senate July 21 1848, the Naval appropriation bill being up, no quorum voted. Mr. Benton insisted that the sergeant at arms call in the Senate. [1E172-1E180]

Editor's Note:

In 1834 the Senate censured President Andrew Jackson for refusing to turn over government documents relating to the Bank of the United States. Jackson believed that the bank was a threat to the republic, while others believed it was important for protection of domestic and overseas interests. Senator Thomas H. Benton’s determination to expunge Jackson’s censure was particularly interesting because several years earlier Benton and Jackson had fought a duel in which Benton had succeeded in wounding Jackson.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Thomas Hart Benton (Democratic Republican, Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1821-1851.
  • General Jackson - This refers to Andrew Jackson, one of the founders of the Democratic Party and the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829-1837. After serving in the American Revolutionary War, Jackson was elected as Tennessee’s first congressman, then was a U.S. senator in 1797, but quit within a year. He later served in the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War. Jackson served as president of the United States from 1829-1837, and returned to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1823-1825.
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • House - The U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Committee room - Since there were limited amenities and no offices in the Capitol, food was often set up in committee rooms during long or late-night Senate sessions.
  • Secretary - The secretary of the Senate is an officer elected by the Senate since 1789, originally  tasked with keeping minutes and records, and purchasing supplies. Today, the secretary has expanded responsibilities, including legislative, financial, and administrative functions.
  • Lewis Fields Linn (Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1833-1843.
  • Presiding officer of the Senate - The presiding officer sits in a chair in the front of the Senate Chamber and announces vote results, controls debates by calling on members to speak, and may rule on any point of order. The Constitution mandates that the vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate and as such is the presiding officer of the Senate, but does not vote except to break ties. The Constitution also authorizes the Senate to elect a president pro tempore (traditionally the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service) to preside in the vice president’s absence. Today the president pro tempore does not normally preside over the Senate, but instead delegates that responsibility to junior senators of the majority party.
  • Sergeant at Arms - This position was originally that of doorkeeper, and was established in 1789. The doorkeeper tended the Senate Chamber door and enforced order in the galleries. Over the years, the title and duties grew; the title is now "sergeant at arms and doorkeeper." The sergeant at arms serves the Senate as its chief law enforcement officer, protocol officer, and executive officer.