“Now Defend Yourself, You Damned Rascal!”


Fighting one’s commander was no step to fame. Thomas Benton still hungered for military glory, but the battle with Jackson was to be his only victory in the War of 1812. Benton was an excellent recruiting officer, and Jackson used this fact for a subtle revenge. On the eve of the great Battle of Horseshoe Bend and again just before his final march to immortality at New Orleans, Jackson ordered the Colonel back to Nashville for recruiting. On the second occasion Benton pleaded for a chance to fight as a private in the ranks, but Old Hickory was adamant. Wishing to see his other “brave officers at the head of their respective commands where fresh laurels await them, and finding that they cannot fill their companies here,” the General stood by his order. Benton finally wangled an assignment to Canada, but it came after the peace treaty and Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. Leaving the army early in 1815, Benton could see only a blighted future as long as he remained in the same state with Jackson, so he decided to seek out a new career in the vast land beyond the Mississippi.

In December, 1823, almost ten years later, the newly elected Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee arrived at the capitol to take the one conspicuously vacant seat in the Senate chamber. Next to him sat Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, if anything bigger and more irritatingly self-assured than ever. They had not met since 1813. Fearing a possible explosion, several senators offered to exchange seats with them, but both men declined, taking no notice of each other.

The air about the two savage lawmakers remained charged for several days until they were assigned to the same committee with Jackson as chairman. Old Hickory finally broke the ice. Facing Benton squarely one day, he said, “Colonel, we are on the same committee; I will give you notice when it is necessary to attend.”

The younger man was equal to the occasion: “General, make the time to suit yourself.” After a session in committee together they exchanged queries as to the health of their respective wives, and a few days later Jackson left his card at the Benton lodgings: “Andrew Jackson for Colonel Benton and lady.” Finally Colonel and Mrs. Benton found themselves with Senator Jackson at a White House dinner. Benton made the first bow, accepted Jackson’s extended hand, and introduced Mrs. Benton. Civil relations were restored.

Shortly afterward Senator John Eaton wrote the always-worried Mrs. Jackson a reassuring letter: The General was now reconciled with his enemies, including “what you would never have expected, Col. Benton.” Jackson himself added a benign postscript: “It is a pleasing subject to me that I am now at peace with all the world.”

Peace, however, was not a normal state for Andrew Jackson, and it did not continue long enough to affect his character seriously. Running for President in 1824, the General received more popular votes than any other candidate but not the required majority of the electoral votes. He lost the election to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. From that point Benton was again Jackson’s man and played a leading role in 1828, when Jackson became President.

Jackson’s eight-year reign was a long succession of fierce political struggles involving personalities as often as principles. Old Hickory emerged as the champion of equality of opportunity in American life, opposed by the older economic aristocracy. In every battle Benton led the Jackson forces in the Senate.

The high point of Benton’s personal devotion to Jackson followed a harsh Senate resolution charging Jackson with improper and unconstitutional conduct in removing government funds from the control of the Bank of the United States. Benton answered with a public avowal never to rest until the Senate should “expunge” the resolution from the official record.

For three years, in every session of Congress, he sang the President’s praises and demanded his vindication, until the matter became a national issue. In 1836, when the Administration’s followers finally won a clear-cut majority in the Senate, Benton launched the battle to clear Jackson’s name.

Even with a majority, such a precedent-breaking action required careful planning. On the appointed day Benton prepared for a marathon session by stocking a committee room with “cold hams, turkeys, rounds of beef, pickles, wines, and cups of hot coffee.” When opponents kept making speeches in hope of adjournment, the “expungers” were ready. As, with the passing hours, tempers began to wear, the delights of the banquet room were offered to the opposition; some accepted, but others haughtily refused. To Calhoun the expunging was a deed worthy of “Caligula and Nero"; to Clay, “like the blood-stained hands of the guilty Macbeth,” it would never wash out; and to Webster it was a “ruthless violation of a sacred instrument.” Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, and their many followers, had been bitterly humiliated by Jackson’s victory over the Bank, and the expunging was the final rubbing of salt into raw, gaping wounds. By midnight the lobbies, the galleries, and the floor itself were jammed with excited people, and a few senators sent for arms to protect themselves from possible violence. Amid a mixture of cheers, groans, and hisses, the expunging resolution passed by a vote of 24 to 19.