Thursday, November 06, 2008

"So help me God, such alone was my intention"

Before reading the Congressional Globe description of the events that took place on April 17, 1850, I had assumed that Senator Henry S. Foote was the aggressor. After all, southerner legislators tended to be proud and violent when insulted or challenged – just look at what Rep. Preston Brooks did a few years later to Charles Sumner. Foote himself was not a stranger to dueling and violence. In this case, he had pulled out a pistol on the Senate floor and threatened another Senator with it! What excuse could there be for that?

A pretty good one, it turns out. “Old Bullion” Benton was a bear of a man, had a history of violence, and was known as a crack shot. In 1813, before he became Andrew Jackson’s fast friend and political ally, Benton and his brother Jesse were involved in a wild melee in downtown Nashville with Jackson and others that involved guns, knives, swords and knuckles. In the brawl, Jesse shot and nearly killed Andrew Jackson himself.

Four years later, Benton fought two duels with a lawyer by the name of Charles Lucas. In the first match, Benton shot Lucas in the neck, and rumors circulated that Benton had deliberately set the rules to take advantage of his superior marksmanship. In the second, Benton shot Lucas dead.

The slightly-built Foote might well have been alarmed when he saw Benton striding down the aisle toward him. The description of Foote’s actions by the Congressional Globe reporter makes clear that Foote was retreating down the aisle, away from Benton. The fact that Foote later disputed the term “retreating” only highlights the fact that that was exactly what he was doing.

Turning to Benton, it is noteworthy that he did not deny that he had been advancing menacingly on Foote. His entire defense was that he had no gun:
Mr. BENTON. We are not going to get off in this way. A pistol has been brought here to assassinate me. The scoundrel had no reason to think I was armed, for I carry nothing of the kind, sir.


Mr. BENTON. Nothing of the kind, sir. It is a false imputation. I carry nothing of the kind, and no assassin has a right to draw a pistol on me.

SEVERAL SENATORS. “Order,” “order.”

Mr. BENTON. It is a mere pretext of the assassin. Will the Senate take notice of it, or shall I be forced to take notice of it by going and getting a weapon myself. A pistol has been brought here and drawn upon me by an assassin.


Mr. BENTON. I have done nothing upon God Almighty’s earth to authorize any man to charge me with a breach of the peace, and I will rot in jail before I will give a promise admitting that the charge is true. I regret nothing. It is lying and cowardly to undertake to impute to me the bearing of arms here, in order to justify the use of them upon me. I have done nothing, and I will rot in jail before I will give a promise which admits, by implication, that I have been guilty of a breach of the peace.

The theatricality of Benton’s oratory as soon as he saw the gun (“I have no pistols!” “Let him fire!” etc.) suggests that he knew he was in little danger and immediately had the presence of mind to milk the scene for everything it was worth. Is it unfair to wonder whether Benton advanced on Foote knowing that Foote had a weapon and hoping that Foote would reach for it?

Finally, Foote’s repeated apologies ring true. Here was no defiant southerner proudly defending his conduct, but a somewhat shaken man trying to explain a panicked reaction (paragraph break added):
Mr. FOOTE. If my presenting a pistol here has been understood as anything except the necessary means of self-defense, after threats of personal chastisement, it is doing me a wrong. I saw him advancing towards me, and I took it for granted he was armed; for had I thought otherwise, I should have stopped to meet him in that narrow alley. But I supposed that he was armed, and therefore I determined to take ground where I could meet him more fairly, and I drew out the pistol and was ready to fire it in self-defense.

I have never sought any man’s life, nor gone in quest of any man with a view of taking his life. No, sir, never. My life has been a defensive one from my boyhood. I mention it, not from the imputations that have been thrown out here, but that all the Senators present and the American public, who may hear of this thing, may be witnesses of the fact, that whilst I was making a perfectly parliamentary speech, threatening language was used, menacing gestures indulged in, and an advance made towards me, with the view, as I supposed, of putting violent designs into effect. I therefore retreated a few steps [notice that Foote admitted that he “retreated”], with a view to get elbow room to act in my own defence, and not to shoot him. So help me God, such alone was my intention.

A few minutes later, Foote added the following:
Mr. FOOTE. I am perfectly cool, and I feel the gravity of the occasion as deeply as others. . . . I have never threatened a human being with personal attacks in my life, and of course I have never executed a threat of that kind in my life. I have never worn arms to make an attack on any person, and have never worn arms at all in the Senate except when menaced, as I was the other day in the Senate with a cudgel. My friends urged upon me that, being diminutive in size and quite feeble in health, I should at least wear arms for my own defence. It was a novel thing to me, for I am not in the habit of doing it, and I put on arms, supposing it possible that I might be attacked after what had occurred, simply for the purpose of defending myself.

Although it is impossible to be sure, on balance I credit Senator Foote’s explanation. Even if he did not think that Benton was armed, he pretty clearly was afraid that Benton was going to beat him to a pulp. At the very least, it is clear that Foote was no Preston Brooks, and this incident was no prelude to the Caning of Sumner.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails