Saturday, November 08, 2008

"He then jumped on top of one of the desks"

I was looking around for other information about the confrontation between Senators Thomas Hart Benton and Henry S. Foote when I stumbled across a wonderful account by Issac Bassett. Bassett’s life story is itself remarkable: he was appointed as a page in the Senate in 1831, at the age of twelve. He then remained in the Senate in a series of posts – messenger, assistant doorkeeper – for over sixty years, until his death in 1895.

Bassett’s recollection of events on April 17, 1850 includes additional details not found in the Congressional Globe account (emphasis added):
Mr. Benton rose from his seat, threw his chair violently from him [and] made for Mr. Foote. Down the passage he was stopped by Senator Dodge and several other senators. He then jumped on top of one of the desks and laid open his breast and said, “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire.” In the meantime Mr. Foote had reached the aisle in front of the secretary’s table. Mr. Foote drew his pistol as soon as Mr. Benton made a move towards him. Mr. Foote remained standing in the same position he had taken with his pistol in his hand. My impression was that it was a horse pistol. I was standing very near him. It was certainly a very long one. Mr. Dickinson a senator from New York, asked him to give up the pistol which he did. Mr. Dickinson then locked it up in his desk. Soon after both senators resumed their seats.

Although unrelated, I can’t help pointing out this story, because it features Vice President Fillmore:
In olden times it was fashionable for senators to take snuff. It was the custom to keep a box of snuff on the vice president’s table. The senators would step up to the vice president’s table and take a pinch of snuff. It seemed to be a part of the senatorial dignity but soon after Mr. Fillmore was vice president, during the morning hour, when so many senators rise to offer petitions, the senators annoyed him so much that he called me up to him and said, “Bassett I want you to take this snuff box away from this table. I cannot understand what is going on in the Senate on account of the conversation of senators who come here to get a pinch of snuff. You must get some other place for it.” I suggested that on each side of the Senate there be placed a snuff box. “That is just the thing, go and have it done.” It has been done ever since. On each side of the Chamber there is secured to the walls a comely black snuff box.

For those interested, the summary of the illustration at the top is as follows:
Senators Thomas Hart Benton and Henry S. Foote are paired here in a facetious farewell scene, as Benton departs the "Shop of the Senate." In reality Benton lost his Senate seat in a January 1851 election, largely because of his refusal to honor the Missouri Resolutions on Slavery (also known as the Jackson-Napton Resolutions of 1849). He charged that the resolutions were engineered by John C. Calhoun, Foote, and a few other Senate foes. Benton's term ended on March 3. In the center stands Benton dressed as a ragged Irishman, a stock character common in Yankee theatre productions of the New York stage at the time. He smokes a cigar, and stands near a mangy donkey which is laden with saddle, pack, and whip, a bundle marked "Life & Times of Thos H. Benton [bound] for California" at his feet. His California destination has several possible explanations. It may be an oblique allusion to Benton's antislavery stance, as Benton was embroiled in the dispute during his last Senate term, on the admission of California to the Union as a free state. He was also a prominent advocate of a transcontinental railroad. Also likely is the artist's association of the recent California Gold Rush with Benton's career-long bullionist ideology. Benton looks left and shakes the hand of Foote, who is dressed as a New York fireman or street tough, with a visored cap and boots. Foote: "So, yer goin ter leave us, ha Benton? well if I had my Pocket Hankercher about me I'de cry." Benton: "Thank yer Foote! any other time will do, the fact is I won't work in no Shop where the Boss is all the time a findin fault with me work, & the Fellers in the Shop is all the time a Laughin at me." At the far left Calhoun and two others watch from a window with the sign "Cabinet Work." Weitenkampf dates the print 1850. But it is unlikely that it appeared long before the March 3, 1851, expiration of Benton's term in the Senate.

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