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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 538

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This is the grave of John Bell.

Born in 1796 near Nashville, Bell came from a relatively prosperous family for the Tennessee frontier. He went to Cumberland College, graduating in 1814. He then studied the law and was admitted to the bar in 1816, starting a practice in Franklin. He showed early interest in politics, serving a term in the state legislature after winning election in 1817. His main goal there was to move the state capitol to Murfreesboro, which did not happen. He went back to his law practice after that term until 1827. That year, he ran for the House in a special election battle against Felix Grundy, both claiming to be the strongest support of Andrew Jackson. Bell won and a long political career began.

Bell was a typical southern politician in those years, opposing the Tariff of 1828 for instance, which is what led to South Carolina’s extremist nullification attempts. More significantly, in his second term, Bell became chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs. That means that he was the primary author of the Indian Removal Act, a reminder that while Andrew Jackson rightly gets the blame for that horrible incident in American history, it was an overwhelmingly popular position, especially in the South and the West and that there were lots of people directly responsible, including Bell.

But he and Jackson eventually broke over the president’s attack on the Bank of the United States. In 1834, the Speaker of the House resigned. James Polk was the leading candidate of those who supported Jackson’s actions. While Bell had not really spoken about the issue, he came to represent those who supported the bank. He defeated Polk for the speakership and then announced that he had no problem with the BUS. Bell then supported Hugh White over Martin Van Buren for president in 1836. Polk defeated Bell for Speaker in 1837, leading to a huge party in Washington that symbolized how much Jackson’s people hated someone they believed a traitor. Bell got into a fight on the House floor soon after with Hopkins Turney after Bell suggested that maybe negotiating with Indians would be OK, leading Turney to insult him and Bell to punch back.

By 1840, Bell fully identified with the Whigs and helped William Henry Harrison carry Tennessee. For his work, Harrison named Bell Secretary of War. But he resigned in September after John Tyler proved an intractable enemy of everything Whigs stood for. He went back to Tennessee, restarted his law practice, and helped Henry Clay carry the state in 1844. He briefly returned to the Tennessee House in 1847, but with Whigs now carrying the state, they sent Bell back to Washington as a senator. With the Mexican War on, Bell immediately lambasted Polk, putting this in context of all the other awful things he had done over the years and in particular that since the war was about stealing huge parts of Mexico to expand slavery, it would bring the issue to the center of American politics again, which is of course what happened. An ally of Clay, Bell supported most of the Compromise of 1850, voting only against the abolition of the slave trade in D.C. After all, he was a southerner and he was going to defend slavery, which would doom the Whig Party as a functional organization by 1854.

Millard Fillmore offered Bell a chance to become Secretary of Navy, but he refused. Instead, he became one of only two southern senators to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Sam Houston was the other. He supported the Know-Nothings in 1856, though did not hold particularly strong anti-Catholic feelings for the time. But Fillmore was the candidate and they were close. He voted against allowing Kansas into the nation as part of the Lecompton Constitution attempt to subvert any sort of democracy.

By 1860, Bell was a politician without a home. He could not be a Democrat. And he was certainly not a Republican. This was the fate of the southern Whig. He could not and would not speak out against slavery, but he could long for the days when slavery was not the only political issue in the land. He had thought about creating a third party for southern moderates through the 1850s. So when the nation fell apart over the 1860 election, Bell acted and created his Constitutional Union party. He was chosen as the presidential candidate over Sam Houston, with the Boston orator Edward Everett as VP. But the party had no play at all outside the Upper South. He won Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee and was competitive in Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.

After the election, Bell reached out to Abraham Lincoln to get assurance he would not attack the South. Lincoln made him feel OK about that, but then he felt betrayed after Fort Sumter. Bell defected to those who supported committing treason in defense of slavery, shocking southern unionists. Bell did not play an important role in politics after this. He was pretty old after all. When the Union Army took back Tennessee, Bell moved to Georgia. He moved back to Tennessee after the war to manage some ironworks he owned. He died in 1869.

John Bell is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee. This brings me to another issue, which is how strongly neo-Confederate memory remains unchallenged in southern cemeteries. Look at this marker placed by the cemetery near his grave.

Look at that revolting language. He would have had to take an oath of loyalty to live in Tennessee after the U.S. took it, but that would have been “unconstitutional.” I mean, that’s really gross. Cemeteries are not a place that have seen significant controversy in the battle over American memory. Not surprisingly, I would say that’s an error and that odes to treason by racists should be eliminated from our cemeteries.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. Many thanks to all of you! If you would like this series to cover some of the other people Bell interacted with over his long political career, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sam Houston is in Huntsville, Texas and Hugh White is in Knoxville, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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