Thomas Hart Benton


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Neighborhood's namesake had storied life

By Jim Merkel - Tuesday, April 8, 2008 2:16 PM CDT


Jim Merkel photo/ Thirty thousand people attended the dedication of this statue of Thomas Hart Benton in Lafayette Park in 1868.

Users of two city parks and residents of two city neighborhoods have much to cheer about this week.

Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Thomas Hart Benton, a Missourian who championed westward expansion as a U.S. senator from the time the state was admitted to the Union in 1821 until his re-election defeat in 1851.

A lawyer and one-time newspaper editor, Benton's support of Missouri statehood vaulted him to the senate in 1820, where he became a staunch supporter of President Andrew Jackson after he took office in 1829.Although the two men were political allies, the hotheaded Benton had once fought a duel with Jackson, who carried Benton's bullet in his body for the rest of his life.

Benton's life was marked by another duel in 1813 in which he killed Charles Lucas on Bloody Island, a strip of land in the Mississippi that has since disappeared.

Benton was nearly shot on the floor of the U.S. Senate during a heated debate on the Missouri Compromise of 1850. He then served in the U.S. House Representatives from 1852 to 1854 and unsuccessfully ran for Missouri governor in 1856.

Little remembered today, Benton is memorialized in the names of Benton Park at Jefferson Avenue and Arsenal Street and two neighborhoods, Benton Park and Benton Park West.

He's also the subject of a statue that was unveiled in Lafayette Park in 1868 before a crowd seen these days only at Cardinal games.

A committee appointed to decide on a monument for Benton after his death chose the famous sculptor Harriett Goodhue Hosmer to create a statue. The 10-foot-tall monument - the first public sculpture erected in Missouri - portrays Benton in Roman garb and comes with the words, "There is the East. There is India" on the front. The lines come from a statement he made in an 1849 speech encouraging construction of a transcontinental railroad. Benton was trying to convince the Pacific Railroad Co., and St. Louis powerbrokers that the wealth of the West was like the riches of India.

Thirty thousand people turned out at the dedication of the statue on May 27, 1868.

Sadly, much of the original luster is gone from the statue and parts of the patina are corroded. The Lafayette Park Conservancy, which helps to support the park, plans to raise money to repair it - a fitting tribute to a man who urged his fellow St. Louisans to keep moving west.