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Profiles in Courage

A portrait of Thomas Hart Benton

Summary of Thomas Hart Benton (Chapter IV) from Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

Thomas Hart Benton, senator from Missouri, was included in the book primarily for his actions in 1847-1849 against John C. Calhoun's resolutions to keep Congress from interfering with the introduction of slavery in new territories. Although Missouri was a slave-owning state, and Benton himself owned slaves, he was deeply opposed to the introduction of slavery into new territories. Benton was concerned that the issue was being exploited by Southern and Northern partisans and would be a barrier to western expansion. Calhoun was successful in getting legislators from slave-owning states, including the rest of the Missouri delegation, to back his resolutions. Benton's refusal to vote for Calhoun's resolutions cost him the popularity he previously had in his state, and he was stripped of all of his committee memberships except Foreign Relations. In 1850, Benton was still opposed to the series of measures known as the Great Compromise and did not hesitate to make his feelings known in the strongest possible terms. However, Benton was constantly called out of order by Vice President Millard Fillmore, the presiding officer. On April 17, 1850, when Fillmore called Benton out of order again, debate became so heated that Benton was almost shot by Henry Foote of Mississippi. Benton was voted out of office in 1851, returned to Congress in 1853 as a representative, but lost his seat in 1855 and spent the remaining years of his life fruitlessly seeking a return to public office. Although his uncompromising stand on prohibiting slavery in new territories ended his political career, the wisdom of Benton's opinion was borne out a few years later and was one of the factors that kept Missouri from seceding from the Union.

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