Thomas Hart Benton Biography

Biography of Thomas Hart Benton, the Senator from Missouri, who did more than anyone to push for westward expansion. Learn all about it.

In July, 1845 New York City journalist John L. O'Sullivan coined a phrase that would become a catch cry in the nation's westward expansion. He spoke in an article in favor of United States annexation of Texas about the American people's "╦ťmanifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.' Those multiplying millions were eager to push west and readily picked up on Sullivan's call to manifest destiny.

To really put the wheels of expansionism in motion, however, the message of manifest destiny had to be actively sold to the masses. The leading political advocate of the push west was Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a formidable public orator. A number of Benton's fellow members of Congress were not so keen on the expansionist movement. A main objection was that the Government wouldn't be able to control such a far flung nation. There was also the difficulty of assimilating the foreign culture of the Spanish if the South West were to become a part of the United States.

In order to overcome the objectors, those who pushed the westward expansion wagon stated that their cause was a God ordained mission. Following in the tradition of the Puritan Fathers, Americans had a responsibility before their maker to extend the benefits of democracy, economic progression and individual liberty to the farthest corners of the nation. They decried the wasteful non use of the land by the Mexicans and Spanish, claiming that it was a sin against God not to fully utilise every inch of the land. Besides, they said, Mexicans and Spanish did not possess the industrious of Americans. The land simply had to be taken from them. How this was to be achieved was graphically demonstrated in the case of Texas. From 1820 onwards individual Americans had entered and settled on the Mexican province of Texas. By 1836 they were actually in the majority. They then revolted against the Mexicans, winning their independence. Nine years later they were invited to become a part of the United States.

Senator Benton had long been an advocate of an overland trade route to the Pacific Coast. From here goods could be shipped directly to Asia. Benton argued that such an overland route would cut 20,000 miles off the sea route around Cape Horn. Benton also saw life in the west as a way that poor farmers and workmen in the East could fulfil their destiny and carve out an exciting new American way of life, completely distanced from any British colonial influence.

Despite his fervor for westward expansion, Benton was also capable of taking moderate stands on issues involving United States territory. During the 1845-46 Congressional debates over the disputed Oregon territory, he was in favor of giving Britain control over everything north of the 49th parallel, rather than clamouring for all of the land up to Alaska's southern border, like other expansionists. Benton was also in favor of moderation with regard to the dispute with Mexico over the Southwest territory. His views, however, were not heeded and full scale war broke out. The result of the war with Mexico was that the United States acquired California. The goal of the expansionists was now accomplished - the borders of the nation had been pushed to their limits. Millions of settlers would pour into the newly acquired territory.

With the achievement of his long term cause, Thomas Hart Benton's political career declined. He lost his Senatorial seat in 1850. He ran for Governor of Missouri in 1856, losing decisively. He died 18 months later of cancer. The city of St. Louis honoured him with a bronze statue that was, appropriately, facing towards the West.

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