A Reminiscence of Benton

IN the autumn of 1856, the writer, wishing to secure the success of a course of lyceum lectures by some celebrated names, it occurred to him, as one of the managers of the course, to apply to Colonel Benton, who was personally almost unknown in New England. He replied as follows : “I have meditated delivering a lecture this winter in different places, intended for practical effect in the present distracted state of the Union. I believe there is danger of disunion, and that the first step towards averting that danger is to face it and to fathom it. After the depth and nature of the disease are known, the remedy can be considered, which must be conciliation, an application to all the feelings of patriotism, national pride, and mutual interest, which certainly animate the great majority in both sections of the Union, and an attempt to unite them in a course of conduct which should have harmony and reconciliation for its object. The subject is a large one, and, besides requiring care and knowledge in the preparation of the lecture, would require double the usual time in delivery, — say two hours. If I go into it at all, it will be to produce effect, and therefore to be delivered in many places and to thinking audiences, such as a literary institution and moderate-priced tickets would collect. I have never received anything for lectures, leaving all the proceeds to the institutions whose invitations I have accepted ; but if I go into the business for a winter’s work, I should expect the interest to be mutual,” etc. Without giving a definite answer, he invited further correspondence.

I replied to him that such a lecture would be very acceptable to us, and, coming from a statesman of his age and long public services, must have a marked effect. Mr. Everett had gone from city to city delivering his lecture on Washington, but the Union was a far nobler theme than even the “ Father of his Country.” After a little negotiation Mr. Benton decided to come, and the details as to terms and time were arranged.

I met him at the Tremont House, in Boston, as previously agreed upon. Sending in my card, though early in the morning, he requested me to come to his room, where I found him not yet dressed, in a loose wrapper, with a cap on his head, sitting at a table, writing. And this was my first interview with “ Old Bullion,” the “ Great Expunger,” the friend of Jackson, the man for years so cordially hated and hating, almost the only survivor of that long list of able men clustering around Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, who was better acquainted with our legislation, and had more participated in it, than any other living individual. He spoke with pleasure of the attention he was receiving in Boston. Mr. Everett, Mr. Winthrop, and others had immediately called upon him. He said he had agreed to favor a photograph artist, adding, “ We must gratify these people, you know.” And after some general conversation, informing him when I must call for him, I took my leave.

For several days after this I was much in his company, and was naturally anxious to hear his views of men and things, and to study a man who had been so prominent. He was very communicative and social, never hesitating to speak with the utmost freedom of any individual, living or dead, or of any measure. He used strong language, not always refined, accompanied frequently with that emphasis of tone and manner for which he had been noted in the Senate ; and he not rarely, as is also well known of General Jackson, introduced expletives not approved by our Pilgrim fathers.

The lecture which he came to deliver, as above stated, was on the subject of the Union. It was in the November following the exciting Presidential election between Buchanan and Fremont, in which the two parties occupied substantially the same position as in 1860, and which, had it resulted in Fremont’s election, would probably have brought on the Rebellion four years earlier, and under circumstances far less favorable to the North. He urged that the agitation of the slavery question should cease, both North and South. He blamed both sections for the alienation and bitterness that had sprung up, and thought we should endeavor to cultivate the harmony and forbearance of former days. He depicted in forcible language the blessings of the Union, and the evils of disunion, to North and South ; showed how closely our interests were interwoven, how connected with our prosperity was the Union, and how as two nations we could never live in peace. Slavery, revenue laws, the navigation of the Mississippi, and other elements of discord, would continually excite ill will, if not war.

The address contained nothing original, but was carefully prepared and able, and evidently spoke the earnest convictions of the author. His elocution was not particularly attractive. He used few gestures, and showed no animation, except occasionally a few words or sentences would be marked by strong emphasis. At times his voice would sink to a whisper, or rather his words would be hissed out. He spoke for about two hours, and the reputation of the man caused him to be listened to with attention, though not with enthusiasm, for he had never been a favorite in Massachusetts. The fear of disunion did not generally prevail at that time in New England, but was regarded as the dream of croakers and timid women. It had been so long threatened that our ears had become familiar with it. Though the audience respected the views of so aged and honored a statesman, the fact that he should be so disturbed by such forebodings seemed to them an indication of his mental decay, and they did not know, they could not know, that he was depicting what was to be fulfilled in their own time with horrors of which no imagination could then have conceived.

He was much pleased with his reception, and said to me afterwards ; " They sat like statues. I could have heard a pin drop. The sacredness of the place ” (it was in a church) “did not restrain their applause.”

The next day was Thanksgiving, and he expressed much pleasure at the opportunity to celebrate with us our time-honored festival. In the afternoon he rode with a party of gentlemen to Plum Island, and from that fine beach gazed long and much absorbed on the rolling waves, and the ships in the distance. I understood him to say it was his first visit to the seaside.

During the time that I spent with him I noted down many of his remarks, which have lost none of their interest, as the persons and events are still so fresh in our minds. They are given in a disconnected manner, and many of them were in reply to questions.

“ Tyler was a trifling man, and to this characteristic he owed his preservation at the bursting of the big gun on board the Princeton. Word had been given that a song was to be sung in the cabin, and he rushed down to hear it. I was also saved by my characteristic habit of inquiry and investigation. I had been going round all day looking into everything, and as a compliment to the interest I took in the working of the ship I was invited to witness the firing, and had just before been requested to change my position that the smoke might not prevent my observation, by which I was removed from the point of danger. Tyler was a man of great good luck. It was a common saying in Virginia, that whoever stood in his way would die, and so they predicted the early death of Harrison.”

Speaking of Mr. Clay, he said ; “ He once retorted terribly on a South Carolina man. Mr. Clay had censured severely some disunion sentiments recently expressed by a person from that State, when this man rose and stated that the author of the remarks was a relative of his. Mr. Clay straightened himself to his full height, his eyes flashed fire, and in a voice of thunder he cried out: 'I care not whose relation he is, he is a TRAITOR who utters such sentiments/ Good God ! it sunk him to the earth, sir ; he was never heard from afterwards.

“ Mr. Cass is very timid, poor man ? afraid to take a decided stand. Mr. Wright” (referring to Silas Wright) " truly said of him, ‘He is an amiable man, but afraid of his own shadow.’ Though very peaceful in his private relations, never quarrelling with any one, in the Senate he is always for a war with England. He uttered so often in his speeches, ' War is inevitable,’ that it became a by-word. I once turned it on him very much to the amusement of the Senate. After one of his warspeeches I rose, and, speaking of the little danger of war, ended with his words changed, ' Peace is inevitable.’

“ Douglas was driven into the Kansas-Nebraska Bill by Atchison and others, the fire-eaters of the South. They threatened to drop him if he would not yield to all their demands.

44 To advocate disunion is to gain the favor of this administration ” (that of Pierce). " The last foreign appointment was an editor from Mobile to Mexico, whose last editorial was in favor of disunion. Those disunion dogs, vulgar fellows, get the appointments. One wrote that nasty, stinking letter from Turin. As soon as it was known there they dropped him, sir ; would not notice him as a man at all in that refined circle ; paid him only the attention due a representative from the United States ; made a distinction between the man and the representative, you understand, sir.”

I remarked to him that his vigor surprised me, and his erect and youthful appearance, so different from what I had anticipated in one of his age. He replied : " That reminds me of what occurred in Missouri last summer, when I was stumping the State. Two antiBenton men wished to get a look at me for the first time, but would not come into the room, and so peeped in at the door. I was standing up, engaged in an animated conversation with some friends, and suppose I looked more vigorous than usual, and one turned to the other and said, ‘ Good God ! we shall have to fight him these twentyyears ! ’ I keep my health by horseback riding. I might be taken by a foreigner for General Pelissier, on my black horse. But few ride so well as I ride. I was once, when riding on my black horse, with my little grandson on his white pony, taken for a riding-master. Few public men have kept horses to ride. Mr. Randolph, who rode much on horseback, was an exception.

“ Contrary to the general opinion, Mr. Randolph was a very industrious man, and labored much in the committee-room. My seal ” (exhibiting it) “ was given me by him, after his duel with Clay. You will see all about it in my ‘ Thirty Years’ View.’ He ordered it for me in London, searching out the coat-of-arms of the Benton family. He said the motto should be Fact is et verbis, instead of Facits non verbis.”

In speaking of the industry of public men, he remarked: “John Quincy Adams was the most industrious man I ever knew. I have been often compared with him in this respect, though I cannot compliment myself so highly. I am now engaged on my ‘ Abridgment of the Debates of Congress,’ in about sixteen volumes, which will occupy me two years. I hope to live till 1860, and the remaining two years I intend to devote to a history of Pierce’s administration.”

He evidently did not have a very exalted opinion of Mr. Pierce, though he said they were always very polite to each other. “ I have no favors, however, to ask of this administration, none, sir. Mr. Pierce had the high honor to come in almost unanimously, and he will go out with as great unanimity. At the Cincinnati Convention he did not know that Douglas had withdrawn, and was presented in the pitiable condition of holding on to the last for a nomination, after his chances had become hopeless.” I asked him what influences determined the result at that convention. “ An outside pressure,” he replied, with a manner indicating that he referred to himself, “ decided the nomination.”

In reply to a remark that Mr. Buchanan did not seem to have much decision, he observed ; “ It is too true, he is not a firm, decided man ; he is too apt to be swayed by others.” I asked him if he had any idea who would constitute his Cabinet. “God Almighty knows, I don’t. I am not in his confidence.”

Alluding to the statesmen then living, he said: “ I am much younger than Cass, Van Buren, and the other statesmen of my own age, much more vigorous than Buchanan. Last summer, in my electioneering campaign in Missouri, I made forty addresses of two or three hours each, to acres of people, under a solstitial sun, successive days, and travelled twelve hundred miles over rough roads, much unlike yours in New England. I have ever been temperate, and careful of my health.”

I alluded to Silas Wright as an able debater, and asked how he compared with Mr. Webster. “ They were very unlike. Mr. Webster was more labored and rhetorical. The arguments of Mr. Wright always seemed to be evolved naturally from the subject. He was very simple in his manner and habits, and a most amiable man.”

In riding through Wenham, I pointed out to him the old farm-house of Timothy Pickering, calling his attention to the row of fine larch-trees planted by his hand. “ I remember,” he remarked, “ reading in a letter of Mr. Pickering’s, where he spoke of his fondness for baked apples, — the apples taken from trees planted by himself. I knew he must be a man of simple tastes, for no one who has pampered his stomach by rich food could relish so plain a diet as baked apples.”

A gentleman observed to him that many here were very much attached to his son-in-law, Mr. Fremont. “ I shall not quarrel with them for that. I did not support him for President, because his party was a sectional party, and I could not then have delivered this address. They told many lies about him. The assertion that he was a Catholic was designed to act against him doubly ; if believed, it would alienate the Protestants, if denied, the Catholics.”

It was remarked to him, that he had been very kindly received in New England, yet he had always shown himself hostile to us and our interests ; while were one of us opposed to slavery to go South, we should be in danger of personal violence. “It is true,” he said, warmly ; “ I wish I had spoken of it in ray address.”

I alluded to the squatter-sovereignty views of Mr. Douglas, then much discussed, when he dropped the pen he held in his hand, threw back his head, and extended both arms, to give emphasis to his words : “ Squatter-sovereignty ! It is an insane, demagogical idea, as unreasonable as for a child to be independent of its father. I am utterly opposed to the further extension of slavery in any manner.”

To the observation that he had often acted “solitary and alone,” he remarked : “ If I had always consulted others, I should never have done anything. There are ever timid people to hold one back.”

I again spoke of his hostility to New England years ago, especially as manifested in the great debate between Webster and Hayne. “ My feelings were at that time all Southern, and I did not believe Southerners entertained disunion sentiments. I supposed they merely meant nullification in the Virginia sense, which was simply remonstrance. I do not think Hayne was a disunionist at that time, though he became so a few years after ; but Calhoun was. Webster saw through their disunion schemes before I did.

“ The thirty years I was in the Senate will stand as the most momentous in our country’s history.” (How differently he would think now !)

“ I have known intimately all the Presidents since Jefferson, and him to some extent.

“ Douglas is now further from the Presidency than ever. The South will ruin him.

“ The abolition of the Missouri Compromise killed poor old Cass.

“ Mr. Clayton was a very indolent man. He was accustomed to take off his clothes and go to bed at two o’clock in the afternoon. His soft-looking flesh indicated his habits.”

He asked me if Taunton, from which he had an invitation to lecture, was not the home of the man who, after so many trials, was at last elected Governor by one vote ; and he wished to know where the man lived who wheeled the barrel of apples so many miles to Boston, as the result of an election bet.

In compliance with my request to write his name in my autograph-book, he wrote as follows : —

“Thomas H. Benton, of Missouri, Senator in the Congress of the Edited States for thirty years, and all that time devoted to the harmony, the stability, and the perpetuity of the Union.”

I introduced to him the captain of a Newburyport privateersman during the war of 1812, who by his bravery had captured twenty-seven English vessels. He appeared much gratified with this interview, expressing his warm approval of the whole system of privateering. He requested me to write out and send him an account of the exploits of this captain, which I did, and received the following reply : —

“ I am much obliged to you for the letter giving me an account of the vessels which he captured during the war of 1812. His name and exploits shall appear in the notes of the ‘ Abridgment of the Debates of Congress,’ which I am drawing up, and will constitute a part of the answer to the suicidal policy of the late administration to give up privateering, which I consider as cutting off our right arm in naval warfare.”

The lecture, which he came so far to give, he delivered in many different places in New England, and everywhere he was well received, as it was generally understood that he was inclining more and more to the free sentiment of the North. Every favorable notice of himself or of his lecture gratified him much, and he requested me to cut out all such as met my eye in the journals, and send to the editor of a friendly paper in Missouri for republication.

Two years after the close of his lecturing tour. April 10, 1858, Colonel Benton died from a lingering disease, laboring and retaining his mental faculties and interest in public affairs to the last. His “Abridgment” he finished in a whisper on his death-bed ; the other work, the history of Mr. Pierce’s administration, which he had planned, he did not live to accomplish, and it is just as well, for the judgment of the community has long been definitely formed on the subject he would have treated. He was never so much respected by the country at large as during his last years, when by his independence he

had lost political influence in his own State and with the national administration. He was a devoted husband; and from 1S44, when his wife was struck by paralysis, to her death in 1854, he spent all the time he could spare from public duties in the sickroom, writing by her side. He died poor, though through government influence he could easily have become rich. Courteous and gentlemanly when in good humor, he was easily provoked, and shrank from no personal contest, of whatever nature. Under no circumstances did he despond. Able, industrious, surpassed by but few of the statesmen of his day in historical and political information, fearless, wilful, passionate, egotistical, true to his friends, never forgetting his enemies, his memory will long remain in the minds of the present generation, and keep its place in the history of the country.