Ken Mueller’s new book does not completely fill the need for a modern biography of Thomas Hart Benton, but it offers a different perspective of the longtime U.S. senator from Missouri and leading Democratic spokesman that should lead historians to take a fresh look at his place in early republic politics.
Mueller’s main argument is that while it might be difficult for modern-day Americans to understand, Benton was “both a white supremacist and a patriotic champion of democracy and Union in varying degrees” (12–13, 259). This apparent contradiction did not exist in the minds of early republic politicians such as Benton, Andrew Jackson, and others, who held both views simultaneously without acknowledging the problems inherent in such a dichotomous mindset. Mueller also emphasizes the tension that sometimes arose between Benton’s identity as a southerner and a westerner. For example, while his desire for Indian removal comported with the ideology shared by Democrats in both regions, Benton’s support of internal improvements reflected his western sentiments, which were out of step with many southern party members. [End Page 333]
Mueller does an effective job of presenting Benton’s support for “master race democracy,” which entailed securing the nation’s public lands, expanding the United States’ borders westward, and removing Native Americans, all to benefit white American settlers. His discussion of Benton’s congressional career emphasizes these issues, helping to form a cohesive picture of the Missourian’s political development in regard to “master race democracy.” Mueller also addresses Benton’s views on another related issue: slavery. He argues that Benton’s transformation from a firm supporter of slavery during the Missouri Crisis to an opponent nearly three decades later resulted from the Missourian’s belief that the South’s “plantation economy” made it into “a distinct and economically backward region out of step with the industrial development the rest of the nation was experiencing” (230, 234–35). By 1850, Mueller concludes, “slavery itself was not so much an evil” for Benton “as it was an irrelevancy” (235).
Several things prevent Mueller’s book from being completely satisfactory. The first is that with few exceptions, readers get very little sense of Benton’s private life. This is unfortunate, since there are many intriguing questions about it. For example, Mueller briefly discusses the allegation that Benton had a mulatto mistress prior to his marriage to Elizabeth McDowell (82–83). The evidence for that relationship appears minimal, so one can understand why Mueller does not address it at length. It does not explain, however, why he dismissively summarizes Benton’s marriage and family life by saying that it “was praised even by his political enemies as a model of warmth and marital fidelity” (92). Even Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton Frémont, a fascinating figure in her own right when considering the development of Manifest Destiny in the 1850s, receives only cursory mention in a later chapter.
Failing to discuss Benton’s personal life has some consequences for Mueller’s main argument about “master race democracy.” The most obvious deficiency relates to Benton’s slaveholding. Mueller suggests that Benton came from a slaveholding family and “inherited” its views toward the “peculiar institution” (16). Yet, he never gives an indication of when Benton himself became a slave owner, how many slaves he owned and for how long, and if and when he decided to put into practice his belief that slavery was irrelevant. This omission is glaring and regrettable, as Benton’s personal practice of slavery undoubtedly proved influential in shaping his political views.
Other criticisms are less important to Mueller’s argument but worth [End Page 334] mentioning. While some historians might appreciate the book’s introduction, which provides a historiographical review of previous interpretations of Benton, a shorter summary that concisely presents Mueller’s argument might have been more effective. Additionally, in the first two chapters, Benton fades into the background far too often as Mueller provides historical context, much of which seems...