Scene in Uncle Sam's Senate: Benton/Hart 1850

Scene in Uncle Sam's Senate: Benton/Hart 1850


In his April 1850 address, Vice President Fillmore lamented that, since many senators appeared reluctant to call their colleagues to order, he would do his duty to contain the first spark of disorder before it ignited a conflagration that would be more difficult to control. "A slight attack, or even insinuation, of a personal character, often provokes a more severe retort, which brings out a more disorderly reply, each Senator feeling a justification in the previous aggression."

Two weeks later, Fillmore's worst fears were realized. When he ruled Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton out of order, Kentucky's Henry Clay, no friend of Benton, angrily charged that the vice president's action was an attack on the power and dignity of the Senate. The ensuing debate sparked a bitter exchange between Benton and Mississippi Senator Henry Foote (pictured). As the burly Benton pushed aside his chair and moved menacingly up the center aisle toward the diminutive Foote, Foote pulled a pistol. As pandemonium swept the chamber, Benton bellowed, "I have no pistols! Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Fillmore quickly entertained a motion to adjourn, a bit wiser about the near impossibility of maintaining order in a deeply fractured Senate.

Reference Items: Chambers, William. Old Bullion Benton: Senator from the New West, Thomas Hart Benton, 1782-1858. New York: William N. Chambers, 1956. Reissued, New York: Russell & Russell, 1970.

Subject: Polarization


Institute for American Values, 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 300, New York, NY 10170-0399