Thomas Hart Benton
Against the Compromise of 1850
June 10, 1850
The Senate debate over Henry Clay's compromise resolutions continued for months. In February and March, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster delivered powerful speeches in support of the compromise, and William H. Seward spoke strongly against it. In June came the turn of Thomas Hart Benton, who vehemently expressed his opposition to the compromise on June 10, 1850(pdf).
At that time, Benton's career in the U.S. Senate was rapidly moving toward its close. He had spent his prime years in the body, serving continuously since 1821. After holding his seat for almost thirty years, he was, at the age of sixty-eight, still a powerful and imposing figure in Washington, but he was losing his political base at home. The previous year, the Missouri legislature had adopted John C. Calhoun's resolutions supporting slavery and had instructed the state's U.S. senators to support them. Benton, a Democrat who opposed both abolitionism and the extension of slavery into new territories, refused. Never one to keep his disapproval quiet, Benton toured the state, issuing a direct challenge to the legislature by speaking fiercely against the proslavery resolutions at every stop. Benton felt equally strongly about Henry Clay's proposed compromise, which he attacked ferociously on June 10.
On the Senate floor, the tall, ruggedly built Benton was known less for his oratory than for a prodigious marshalling of facts to support or oppose legislation. Although the senator had completed only one year of college, he was a painstaking researcher and an energetic student of history, with a retentive memory. He often overwhelmed his listeners with enormous amounts of detail, believing that if fellow senators or the voters possessed all the facts, they would invariably come to agree with his point of view. A member of the House of Representatives described him as intellectually inferior to Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, adding, "But this was compensated for by an indomitable industry, an iron constitution, and an undying memory."
A magazine of the time described Benton as a public speaker:
Not possessing that captivating, popular eloquence of Clay, nor the power and stately grandeur of Webster . . . he has yet always maintained a rank among the ablest debaters in the Senate. It is seldom, if ever, that there has been a member of that body whose mind was so richly stored with the facts of either American or English history, or who could use them to much better advantage.
This approach led one expert in rhetoric to offer the judgment: "Evidently Benton does not belong with those select few who managed to speak to posterity as well as to their own age and their own people. His speeches are a part of the historical record rather than a part of literature."
Benton derided Clay's carefully crafted compromise as "a parcel of old bills," each of which could have been passed long since, that had been "bundled into one" by the committee "and then called a compromise--where there is nothing to compromise." He was most offended by the inclusion in the package of the California statehood bill, which he considered far too pressing and important to have its fate entangled with such controversial measures as a fugitive slave law and the suppression of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Also combined in the disparate package were provisions regarding the boundary of Texas and the territories of Utah and New Mexico. Lacing his remarks with heavy doses of sarcasm, Benton attacked the very idea of any further compromises over slavery beyond those in the Constitution.
The omnibus approach to the compromise died with the defeat of some of its components on July 31. Within two months, however, skillful maneuvering by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois achieved separate passage of each of the pieces.
In opposing the compromise, Benton not only antagonized colleagues in the Senate but alienated possible support back in Missouri. His speech to the railroad convention in October 1849 had won him some Whig supporters, but they lost interest once he attacked the compromise so carefully wrought by the Whig hero, Henry Clay. Benton took the passage of the individual bills as a vindication of his position that the compromise should pass as separate measures if at all, but being right could not save his political career. In January 1851, the legislature failed to reelect him to the Senate and chose instead a Whig candidate. Never one to give up, Benton ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1853 to 1855. He spent his remaining years writing the masterful Thirty Years' View, memoirs of his Senate career.
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1994.).