Foote Threatens Benton

"The Sad Parting between Two Old Friends."
Unidentified Artist, after John L. Magee
ca. 1851


I witnessed the attack on Senator Benton by Senator Foote while the Compromise measures were under discussion on the 17 of April 1850—great excitement was occasioned in the Senate. On several occasions, Senator Foote had indulged in remarks personal to Senator Benton, he [Benton] complained of these personalities in severe and violent language addressed to the Senate, [and] reiterated the personalities on Foote. [He] spoke of the failures of the Senate to protect its members from such insults and declared his determination if the Senate did not protect him, to redress the wrong himself, cost what it might.

On the following day Mr. Benton brought into the Senate the newspaper report of the altercation which he said had been revised by Mr. Foote. He pronounced it a wrong report and denounced it as cowardly. On the 17 of April he said he intended by an amendment which he had offered to cut at the root of all the political agitation. To cut up the whole address of the Southern members. He proposed to show the Senate that this alarm had been without foundation.

To this Mr. Foote replied saying they all knew the history of the Southern address. It was the history of a land of patriots but by whom was this denunciation hurled against to all who subscribed this address by a gentleman, the oldest member of the Senate, the father of the Senate by a member who on a late occasion at this point of the speech of Mr. Foote, Mr. Benton rose from his seat, threw his chair violently from him [and] made for Mr. Foote. Down the passage he was stopped by Senator Dodge and several other senators. He then jumped on top of one of the desks and laid open his breast and said, “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire.” In the meantime Mr. Foote had reached the aisle in front of the secretary’s table. Mr. Foote drew his pistol as soon as Mr. Benton made a move towards him. Mr. Foote remained standing in the same position he had taken with his pistol in his hand. My impression was that it was a horse pistol, I was standing very near him. It was certainly a very long one. Mr. Dickinson a senator from New York, asked him to give up the pistol which he did. Mr. Dickinson then locked it up in his desk. Soon after both senators resumed their seats.

Mr. Benton then rose from his seat and said, “A pistol was brought here with which to assassinate me. I carry no arms sir.” Mr. Foote, “ I brought it here to defend myself.”   Mr. Benton, “Nothing of the kind sir, it is false, and no assassin has a right to draw a pistol on me.” The Vice President, “The senator will take his seat.” Mr. Foote, “Mr. President, may I proceed in order?”   Mr. Benton, “I demand the Senate shall take immediate cognizance that a pistol having been brought here to assassinate me under the pretext that I was armed. Will the Senate notice it?” Mr. Foote, “If my presenting a pistol has been understood as anything except the necessary means of self defense, after threats of personal chastisement, it is doing me a wrong. I saw him advance toward me and I took it for granted he was armed. So help me God to shoot him without an attack was not my intention. I also court investigation.” [1A13-1A17]

Editor's Note:

On April 17, 1850 the longstanding animosity between antislavery Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi slaveholder Senator Henry Foote boiled over into a violent confrontation. During the debate on the Compromise of 1850 measures, which would decide the issue of slavery in the West, Foote made disparaging remarks about Benton to newspaper reporters. Previously, Benton had risen in the Senate Chamber and demanded that Foote never refer to him by name again. When an emotional Benton rose in the Senate to challenge these remarks, an angry Foote advanced on him with pistol drawn.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Thomas Hart Benton (Democratic Republican, Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1821-1851.
  • Henry Stuart Foote (Democrat - MS) U.S. senator 1847-1852.
  • Compromise measures - The Compromise of 1850 was a series of legislative measures that sought to balance the interests of the free states and the slaveholding states. The vast territory acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) would eventually be organized into states, with the result that new senators would be added to Congress. If slavery were outlawed in all of the new territory, free states would gain clear control of the Senate. If slavery were allowed, the balance of power would shift the other way. The issue was so important that it threatened to cause war, so a compromise was struck. The compromise measures included:
    1) admitting California as a free state;
    2) providing financial compensation to Texas for releasing lands west of the Rio Grande;
    3) defining the New Mexico territory (including present-day Arizona and Utah) without any specific prohibition of slavery;
    4) abolishing the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in Washington, DC; and
    5) passing a stricter fugitive slave law, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves.
  • Senator Dodge - There were two senators named Dodge, father and son, who served the U.S. Senate at this time. It is unclear which one Bassett is referencing.
    Augustus Caesar Dodge (Democrat - IA) U.S. senator 1848-1855.
    Henry Dodge (Democrat - WI) U.S. senator 1848-1857.
  • Secretary of the Senate’s table - The secretary’s desk is located in front of the vice president of the United States’ desk, on the platform in the front of the Senate Chamber. It provides desk space for various staff from the office of the secretary of the Senate, who support the operation of the Senate.
  • Daniel Stevens Dickinson (Democrat - NY) U.S. senator 1844-1851.
  • Vice President - Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate. In the Senate Chamber, the vice president sits on the platform at the front of the Senate. He is allowed to vote only in the case of a tie. The president pro tempore, or others designated by that officer, presides in the absence of the vice president.