U.S. political leader and border-state candidate for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860. He was born on Feb. 18, 1796, on his parents' farm at Mill Creek, near Nashville, Tenn. He entered Cumberland College, Nashville, at the age of 14. By the time he was 20 he had graduated from that institution, studied law,He died in Stewart County, Tenn., on Sept. 11, 1869. and been admitted to the bar at Franklin.
At 21 he was elected to the state senate, but he did not seek reelection. Returning to the practice of law, he moved in 1822 to Nashville, which remained his place of residence until late in life and where he became one of the city's ablest lawyers.
In 1827 Bell successfully made his first race for a seat in Congress. Thus began a period of 14 years of service by Bell in the lower federal house. He was long a member of the Jackson party, but increasingly a conservative Democrat allied to the business community.
During Jackson's war upon the Second Bank of the United States, Bell upheld that institution upon the honestly stated ground of its value as a barrier to excessive issue of notes by the other banks. He thus broke with the Jackson Administration. Eventually he became the leader of the Whigs in Tennessee. In 1834 he defeated James K. Polk, a fellow Tennessean and lifelong Jacksonian, for the speakership of the House. In 1841 he entered the cabinet of William Henry Harrison, the first Whig president, becoming secretary of war. He resigned from this post after John Tyler, who became president upon Harrison's death, displayed his ultra-states'-rights views.
After an interlude out of office, Bell began in 1847 a 12-year period as U.S. senator. In this difficult era of growing sectional hatreds he generally held to a moderate course. He opposed President James K. Polk's war with Mexico (1846-1848). He also opposed the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred slavery in all the territory acquired in that war (see also Wilmot Proviso), because it would have disturbed the balance between the sections.
When the Compromise of 1850 was put forward, he supported most of it, believing it necessary for the safeguarding of the Union. In keeping with this was his refusal to back the Kansas-Nebraska bill of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D., Ill.), which tore former compromises to pieces. Subsequently, he defied the instructions of his state legislature to vote for the proslavery constitution being considered for Kansas. Had his Whig Party followed a course of moderation similar to his own it might well have survived.
The sequel saw Bell cooperate with the Know-Nothing or American Party, an anti-immigrant body, for a while. Later, he tried to unite with other conservative Whigs of all areas to form a mediating element in the country. It was in this capacity that Bell was put up for the presidency on the ticket of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. His running mate was Edward Everett of Massachusetts. The aim was conciliation and a marking of time until sectional passions might cool. This proved vain. The party carried only three border states--Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
Following the secession of the Deep South, Bell's influence helped to keep Tennessee in the Union until the start of hostilities. When Fort Sumter was fired upon, however, and Lincoln called for volunteers, Bell sanctioned resistance to the Union as justified in the face of federal efforts to coerce those states which had already left. A few days later he was fully in the secessionist camp. He was to spend the Civil War years largely in "exile" in the lower South, much of the time unwell. He returned to Tennessee at war's end.
A conservative of the stamp of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Bell was considered one of the ablest senators of his day.
Member Ohio Ho; member United States Ho.