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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 17: Manifest Destiny and Its Legacy, 1841 - 1848


Thomas Hart Benton (1782 - 1858)

Benton, the most prominent Jacksonian Democratic senator of the early nineteenth century, was a grand spokesman for national greatness and the common person.

Having grown up on the Tennessee frontier, he moved to St. Louis in 1815 and became editor of the second newspaper printed west of the Mississippi. In his youth he was involved in numerous duels, including one in which he and his brother nearly killed Andrew Jackson. He later became one of Jacksons closest political allies.

Benton was a huge man with great energy and long-winded speaking capacity. When not orating in the Senate, he undertook speaking tours of up to a thousand miles on horseback, and huge crowds gathered to hear him talk for two or three hours. Mark Twain used one of Bentons visits to Hannibal, Missouri, as the basis for an episode in Tom Sawyer.

Like most Jacksonians, Benton tried to divert national attention away from the slavery issue, thinking that it would disappear. But he harshly condemned southerners who threatened secession over slavery.

Quote: I shall not fall on my sword, as Brutus did . . . but I shall save it, and save myself, for another day, and for another usefor the day when the battle of the disunion of these states is to be foughtnot with words but with ironand for the hearts of the traitors who appear in arms against their country. (Senate speech, 1844)

REFERENCE: William Chambers, Old Bullion Benton: Senator from the New West (1956).


James K. Polk (1795 - 1849)

Polk was the dark-horse presidential winner of 1844 who carried out his ambitious program of Manifest Destiny.

The scion of a stern Scots-Irish family, he was very serious and fanatically hardworking, never able to relax or get away from politics.

He was Andrew Jacksons leader in the House of Representatives during the Bank War. Although called a dark-horse nominee in 1844, Polk was actually a very well known Democrat and would probably have been the vice-presidential candidate with Van Buren in 1844 if the former president had not opposed the Texas annexation.

During his presidency Polk operated almost entirely alone, having no personal friends, and his diaries show that he was often secretive and manipulative. He exhausted himself with overwork and died only a few months after leaving office.

Quote: After repeated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are at war.War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself. (War Message to Congress, 1846)

REFERENCE: Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse (1997).


Antonio López de Santa Anna (1795 - 1876)

Santa Anna was the Mexican military dictator who lost both the Texas war for independence and the Mexican War.

The uneducated son of a minor Spanish bureaucrat, Santa Anna emerged from the turmoil of the independence movement to dominate Mexican politics. He was an unscrupulous manipulator and opportunist who ruled by granting favors to the army and exploiting the peasant masses. When not at war, Santa Anna spent most of his time in cockfighting and gambling. He loved to stage fantastic, expensive public entertainments, which he would attend with his numerous mistresses.

He lost a leg defending Vera Cruz against a French raid in 1838 and used this sacrifice as proof of his patriotism when it was questioned. He was frequently driven into exile in Cuba and Colombia but usually managed to return to power when civilian politicians led the country to chaos.

Quote: Mexicans! You have a religionprotect it! You have honorfree yourself from infamy! You love your wives, your childrenthen liberate them from American brutality! (Appeal to the Mexican populace, 1847)

REFERENCE: Oakah L. Jones, Santa Anna (1968).


Winfield Scott (1786 - 1866)

Scott, the American commander in the Mexican War, was the most important U.S. military leader between the Revolution and the Civil War.

Scott first became a national hero as a young officer in the War of 1812, when he was wounded in the Battle of Lundys Lane. He fought in several Indian wars in the 1830s before becoming head of the army in 1841. He was called Old Fuss and Feathers because of his love for military pomp and detailed regulations. His campaign from the coast at Vera Cruz over the mountains to Mexico City is still considered a military masterpiece. During the year in which he ruled the city under military occupation, he was considered very fair and just by the Mexicans.

Although he had a decent understanding of politics from a military perspective, his Whig candidacy for the presidency in 1852 was doomed by sectional conflict within the party. He was still holding on as the aged commander of the U.S. army at the outbreak of the Civil War, but was shortly replaced.

Quote: The object of all our dreams and hopes, toils and dangersonce the gorgeous seat of the Montezumas. That splendid city will soon be ours! (Speech to troops, 1847)

REFERENCE: James McCaffrey, Army of Manifest Destiny (1992).



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