Pistols in the Senate April 17 1850

Thomas Hart Benton

Here, Senator Foote suddenly broke off. Benton had stood up at his desk, pushed his chair violently from him, and started walking down the passage behind the bar toward Foote's seat. Now Foote backed down the aisle toward the Vice-President's dais, drawing and cocking as he did so a five-chambered loaded revolver. At first Benton, checked by his old friend Senator Dodge of Wisconsin, had started back toward his seat, but when he saw the pistol he turned and followed the retreating pistol-wielder down the aisle. Pandemonium ... Senators leaping from their seats ... calls for the Sergeant-at-Arms ... cries for order ... while Dodge tried forcibly to detain Benton, and a number of other Senators surrounded Foote. But Benton would not be restrained and continued his advance toward Foote, who crouched by the Vice-President's desk, pistol still pointed at Benton. As he stode forward, Benton called out in what one observer remembered as a "loud and defiant" voice:

"Let him fire! Stand out of the way! I have no pistols! I disdain to carry arms! Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!" But while Foote still held his gun, he was nearer fleeing than firing.

Finally, Senator Dickinson of New York confiscated the revolver and locked it in his desk, and both Benton and Foote were persuaded to return to their seats. Blandly, Clay intoned, "I hope that order will be preserved." Immediately, Benton rose in his place:

MR BENTON. We are not going to get off in this way. A pistol has been brought here to assassinate me ...
MR. FOOTE. I brought it here to defend myself.
MR. BENTON. Nothing of the kind, sir. It is a false imputation. I carry [no pistol], 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?

The Senate established a committee of seven to investigate the affair. Benton peppered its chairman (the Whig Senator from Maryland, James A. Pearce), with letters, expressing his willingness to testify; insisting that Senators Dodge, Jones, Bright, Bradbury, and Hamlin, all Democrats, be called as witnesses; complaining that the committee was putting himself and his antagonist "very much on a footing"; and insisting that the committee consider his charge of premeditated malice on Foote's part. He urged District Attorney Tindall of Washington to bring the matter before a grand jury for criminal action.

At the end of July, Pearces's committee reported. It condemned Foote for precipitating the threat of violence by introducing "offensive and insulting" personalities without "any sufficient provocation," noted that Benton had conducted himself "for a long time with great forbearance," but rapped him for finally respinding in kind. It absolved Foote of "any design or desire to assassinate MR. BENTON," but condemned him for "wearing arms" in the Senate, while it held him justified in the belief that Benton intended to "assault" or "intimidate" him. As to action, the committee forebore recommending any - and there the matter dropped.


Old Bullion Benton by William Nisbet Chambers, pages 361-362
Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1956