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“Now Defend Yourself, You Damned Rascal!”
Andrew Jackson challenged Thomas Hart Benton in a bloody frontier brawl, but they later formed a political team which left its mark on America.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
The senatorial censure had been a sore spot for the tired old man in the White House, and this final victory over his most dedicated enemies was sweet. He assured Benton of “my high regard, and exalted opinion of your talents, virtue, and patriotism.”
There was a final sequel. Senator Benton lived to write a history of his times, and the major theme of its huge first volume was the greatness of Andrew Jackson. If the making of a great man depends in part upon the historian, Benton made a significant contribution to Jackson’s fame, because later scholars drew heavily upon Benton’s work.
What was the importance of this friendship for the two men and their America? In 1812 Jackson’s powerful enemies were eager to stifle his ambitions. The opportunity for the military fame which made Jackson President came because in a time of crisis Jackson had already mobilized an army which could not be ignored. The ideas and much of the work that went into creating this army came from recruiting officer Benton. An extensive poll of historians in 1948 judged Jackson to be one of America’s six great Presidents because he planted his ideas and policies permanently in the life of America despite the most determined efforts of able and powerful opponents. And the victories supporting Jackson’s claim to greatness usually found Benton leading the charge. Ironically enough, Benton’s own career may have been furthered most by the quarrel and fight with Jackson because it caused his removal to the new frontier territory of Missouri, where the opportunities were greater and the competition less than in Tennessee.
The American people took Old Hickory Jackson and Old Bullion Benton to their hearts, indicating perhaps that they were truly representative of their America. Both men—by turns generous, kind, suspicious, openhearted, proud, gentle, jealous, violent, and tender—were capable of profound love and unrelenting hatred, the highest creativity and the most destructive ruthlessness. Occasionally disagreeable, they were never weak, cowardly, or dull. They sometimes personified the worst, but often the best, of young America in its great age of growing pains, and never more so than in their relations with one another.