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Thomas Hart Benton Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-71877).

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Benton, Thomas Hart (14 March 1782–10 April 1858), U.S. senator and congressman, was born near Hillsboro (now Hillsborough), North Carolina, the son of Jesse Benton, a lawyer and farmer, and Ann “Nancy” Gooch. Jesse Benton died in 1791, leaving eight children, considerable land, extensive debts, and an aristocratic lifestyle. The family suffered a further blow when Thomas Hart Benton, at age sixteen, was expelled from the University of North Carolina for misusing money entrusted to him by roommates. The future senator was known ever after for scrupulous honesty and belligerent defense of his honor; concern that the story of his expulsion might surface probably influenced his consistent refusals to be considered for the presidency....

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Brooks, Preston Smith (06 August 1819–27 January 1857), U.S. congressman, was born in Edgefield, South Carolina, the son of Whitfield Brooks, Sr., a planter, and Mary Parsons Carroll. Brooks was an eldest son born into one of the most influential planter families in antebellum South Carolina. Connected by marriage to the leading families in Edgefield District and upcountry South Carolina, the Brooks line stood proudly among the state’s ruling elite. The sons of planters, as befitting their status and wealth, were socialized to live by a code of honor that placed a premium on absolute loyalty to family, kin, and section. Manliness of spirit in defense of honor, the direct antithesis of the presumed submissiveness of the docile slave, was the highest and most esteemed male virtue. This was one of the most important lessons Brooks learned in his private education, first at the Moses Waddel school in Willington and then at the College of South Carolina, the training ground for the state’s future leaders....

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Hamilton, James, Jr. (08 May 1786–15 November 1857), congressman and governor of South Carolina, was born near Charleston, South Carolina, the son of James Hamilton, a rice planter and formerly an aide to George Washington, and Elizabeth Lynch, whose brother Thomas Lynch had signed the Declaration of Independence. He was educated in Newport, Rhode Island, and Dedham, Massachusetts, and then read law in Charleston. Admitted to the bar in 1810, he established a practice with ...

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James Jackson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-94984 ).

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Jackson, James (21 September 1757–19 March 1806), congressman, U.S. senator, and governor of Georgia, was born in Moreton Hampstead, Devonshire, England, the son of James Jackson, Sr., and Mary Webber, about whom nothing is known. At age fifteen he immigrated alone to Savannah, Georgia, where lawyer John Wereat took him in. Young Jackson received no formal education, but within the next few years the American Revolution transformed and gave focus to his life. In 1777 he was a delegate to the Georgia Constitutional Convention. More notably, he served in the state militia, fought in numerous engagements, including Cowpens in 1781, and became a major general in 1792. For his leadership of the patriot forces that repossessed Savannah after the British departure in July 1782, the assembly awarded him a house and lot in the town. In 1785 he married Mary Charlotte Young; they had five sons. By 1796 Jackson’s estate had grown to include several thousand acres of rice and cotton producing lands, including 4,594 acres from grants made to him by Georgia governors in recognition of war service. Showing little interest in selling this domain, he apparently was immune from the land speculation fever of his day. After studying with ...

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Jackson, John George (22 September 1777–28 March 1825), congressman and federal judge, was born near Buckhannon, Virginia (now W. Va.), the son of George Jackson, congressman and farmer, and Elizabeth Brake. Details of his formal education are obscure, but he read avidly in the classics and practical subjects, gained proficiency in Latin and Greek, and associated intellectually with the learned men of Clarksburg, where he lived most of his life....

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McDuffie, George (10 August 1790–11 March 1851), U.S. senator, congressman, and governor of South Carolina, was born in Columbia County, Georgia, the son of John McDuffie and Jane (maiden name unknown). His parents were poor Scottish immigrants, and he was put to work early on farms and in stores. While employed as a store clerk in Augusta, Georgia, he caught the eye of store-owner James Calhoun, brother of ...

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Moore, Gabriel (1785?–06 August 1844), U.S. representative and senator, Alabama governor, was born in Stokes County, North Carolina, the son of Matthew Moore, a farmer and iron worker, and Letitia Dalton. He received his education and studied law in North Carolina. By 1810 he migrated to Huntsville, Madison County, Mississippi Territory, to open a law practice and entered public service soon thereafter, first holding the position of assessor and collector of taxes for Madison County, then the most populous county in the area that ultimately became Alabama. He represented Madison County in the House of Representatives of the Mississippi Territorial Legislature from 1811 to 1817, serving as its speaker from 1815 to 1817. After Alabama became a separate territory, Moore represented Madison County in the House of Representatives of the Alabama Territorial Legislature, serving as speaker for the first session in January and February 1818. However, he did not serve as speaker for the second session in November 1818. During that session, the legislature granted his wife, whom he had married earlier that year, a divorce from him and granted her petition to resume using her maiden name of Mary Parham Caller. Soon afterward, Moore wounded his former wife’s brother in a pistol duel....

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Porter, Peter Buell (04 August 1773–20 March 1844), politician, soldier, and secretary of war, was born in Salisbury, Connecticut, the son of Joshua Porter, a speculator, and Abigail Buell. He graduated from Yale in 1791 and subsequently studied law in Litchfield under the celebrated Judge ...

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Potter, Robert (1800?–02 March 1842), North Carolina congressman and Republic of Texas political leader, was born at Brassfields, North Carolina, of parentage unknown to present-day historians, other than the fact that his father was a yeoman farmer. He attended country school at Williamsboro and entered the United States Navy as a midshipman on 2 March 1815. He served various tours of duty aboard the ...

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Smyth, Alexander (14 September 1767–17 April 1830), lawyer, soldier, and congressman, was born on Rathlin Island, County Antrim, twelve miles off the northern coast of Ireland, the son of the Reverend Adam Smyth. His mother’s name is unknown. In 1775 his father relocated the family to Botetourt County, Virginia, where he served as rector of the Episcopal parish. Smyth read law and in 1787 was appointed deputy clerk of Botetourt County. He passed the bar in 1789, moved to Wythe County, and married Nancy Binkley in 1791. The couple had four children. A vigorous orator, Smyth entered politics and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1792, 1796, 1801–1802, and 1804–1808. Success and a mercurial disposition garnered him powerful enemies, however. Foremost among these was John Preston of Wythe County, with whom Smyth dueled in 1795. The confrontation proved bloodless, but the two men and their respective families remained staunch political adversaries....

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Stanly, Edward (10 January 1810–12 July 1872), U.S. congressman and military governor, was born in New Bern, North Carolina, the son of John Stanly, a prominent Federalist politician, and Elizabeth Franks. He attended the University of North Carolina in 1826 but left after his father suffered a debilitating stroke. In 1827 he enrolled in ...

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Van Rensselaer, Solomon (06 August 1774–23 April 1852), soldier, congressman, and public official, was born in Rensselaer County, New York, the son of Henry Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a revolutionary war general, and Alida Bradt. The Van Rensselaers were one of the powerful Dutch patroon families of New York. Respect for the military profession ran high in the culture and in the family, so Solomon’s father secured for him in 1792 a commission as cornet in the newly formed U.S. light dragoon squadron. The dragoons became part of ...

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Henry Alexander Wise. Engraving by Adam B. Walter. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-89802).

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Wise, Henry Alexander (03 December 1806–12 September 1876), congressman, governor, and Confederate general, was born on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in Drummondtown (now Accomac), the son of John Wise, a Federalist lawyer and legislator, and Sarah Corbin Cropper. Orphaned in 1812–1813, he was raised by relatives and had few resources other than a small inheritance. He received only a meager education until his admission in 1822 to Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson College) in Pennsylvania, where he graduated with first honors in 1825. He attended Chancellor ...

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William Lowndes Yancey. Salted paper print, c. 1858. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Yancey, William Lowndes (10 August 1814–27 July 1863), U.S. congressman, secessionist, and Confederate senator, was born at the shoals of the Ogeechee River, on the boundary between Warren and Hancock counties, Georgia, the son of Benjamin Cudworth Yancey, an attorney and South Carolina state legislator, and Caroline Bird. Benjamin Yancey died in 1817, and in 1821 Caroline married ...