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John B. Henderson (1824-1913)



John B. Henderson represented Missouri as a US senator during the Civil War
The Civil War was a military conflict that began on April 12, 1861, when Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Several Southern states had seceded from the United States (also known as the Union) and formed the Confederate States of America (also referred to as the Confederacy) out of fear that the United States' newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, would not allow the expansion of slavery into new western states. Battles and skirmishes were fought throughout the country by Union and Confederate forces. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. As other Confederate forces heard the news of Lee's surrender, they surrendered as well and the war was soon over. Over half a million men were killed or wounded in the war. Thousands of former slaves gained their freedom. After the war, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed prohibiting slavery, providing equal protection for all citizens, and barring federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote due to their race, color, or status as a former slave.
. Henderson worked hard to keep Missouri in the Union
Union is the term used to identify the United States and its government during the Civil War.
by offering his moderate view in the debate over the emancipation
Emancipation was the process for freeing the nearly four million enslaved people in the United States. Ideas about how to emancipate slaves varied. The most radical version called for immediately freeing all enslaved people. Most people who argued for emancipation, however, wanted it to be a gradual process where only the children of slaves would be free. Some advocates of emancipation believed that slave owners should receive money for the slaves they lost. This was called compensated emancipation.
of slaves. In the opening weeks of 1864, Henderson proposed a resolution to ban slavery in the United States. His resolution became the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Early Years and Education

Pike County Pike County, Missouri

John Brooks Henderson was born on November 16, 1824, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Danville. His parents were James and Jane Dawson Henderson. The Henderson family had trouble making a living as farmers, in part because they owned no slaves. Hoping to find greater success in the West, James moved his family to Lincoln County, Missouri, in 1832.

Unfortunately, both James and Jane died four years after their arrival. Their deaths left twelve-year-old John as the eldest of his surviving siblings. Records do not show who cared for the orphaned children, but the impoverished couple left a small estate to help with their support.

Despite his early setbacks, Henderson managed to obtain a modest education. In 1843, at the age of nineteen, he moved to Prairieville in Pike County, Missouri, to attend school. After a year of formal studying, his instructor, Samuel F. Murray, encouraged Henderson to take up teaching. Teaching school in Prairieville left John with enough free time to study law. After three years of reading legal texts, he passed the bar exam and began work as a lawyer in Clarksville, Missouri.

Robert Sallee James (1818 – 1850), father of Jesse James.

[SHS 94-0007]
A descriptive narrative about the birthplace of Jesse James. A descriptive narrative about the birthplace of Jesse James. The farm is now operated by the Clay County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Sites.

[Missouri Historical Review, v. 52, no. 1 (October 1957), back cover]
James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri.

[SHS 024388]
James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri.

[SHS 005230-2]

Entrance into Politics

Frank James Keep it Before the People! Keep it Before the People!

Critics of the Whig party wrote to the paper in support of Henderson despite his youth and lack of wealth.

[Bowling Green Democratic Banner, July 24, 1848, Page 1, Column 1]
Henderson entered Missouri politics almost immediately after he relocated to Clarksville. The twenty-three-year-old announced his candidacy for the position of Pike County clerk in 1847. Henderson dropped out of the race after a few months “in pure deference” to the “worthy men” of “advanced age and numerous wrinkles” who remained in the field. His humorous letter gave the young lawyer one last attack on his opponents. The experience positioned him to receive the nomination as the Democratic candidate for state representative from Pike County. The Whig Party
The Whigs were an American political party that existed from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s. Because it was formed as a protest against the amount of power claimed by President Andrew Jackson, the Whig Party borrowed its name from a British political party protesting the amount of power claimed by the king of Britain. The Whigs were made up of several different groups in the North, South, and West, and were mostly united by their dislike of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. As such, they were often divided on many issues. Although they disagreed about the morality of slavery, most Whigs agreed that slavery should be limited, and several opposed allowing slavery in new territories or letting slave regions like Texas join the United States. Many Whigs were in favor of a stronger national government (though not a stronger presidency) and wanted to raise taxes on foreign goods being sold in America so that the money could be used to build national improvements like roads, canals, and railroad lines. The Whig Party fell apart in the 1850s over disagreements on several issues, such as opposition to immigration, and about whether or not slavery should be abolished. Many former Whigs went on to support the Republican Party.
in the county supported a candidate named William Penix. The Whigs argued that Henderson was too young and too poor to represent their county in the state capital. Henderson’s supporters replied that their candidate could not control his age, and that the suggestion that Henderson did not have enough property or wealth showed the Whigs wanted to exclude average people from political office. Henderson won the close election by thirty-seven votes and became the youngest legislator in Missouri’s General Assembly.
Once in office, Henderson offered a resolution that demonstrated his position on the expansion of slavery into new territories. He argued that the US Congress had no constitutional right to regulate slavery in US territories such as those just taken from Mexico in the Mexican War
The Mexican War lasted from 1846 to 1848 and was fought by the United States and Mexico. When the United States annexed Texas, which had been a part of Mexico but had won its independence, in 1846, Mexico felt its territory had been invaded and declared war against the United States. U.S. President James K. Polk, who had wanted to buy large amounts of land from Mexico but was refused, also called for war. The United States then proceeded to take all of the land that Mexico did not want to sell, making the boundary between the two countries the Rio Grande River. The land taken included what is today California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war and the United States paid Mexico $15 million for the land.
. Henderson insisted that under the terms established in the Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820 to balance the number of slave states and free states admitted to the United States. Slavery was prohibited in the northern part of the former Louisiana Purchase except within the proposed state of Missouri. It was called the Missouri Compromise because Missouri was involved in the first balancing act. Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state.
of 1820, only the residents of the territories could make that decision. Meanwhile, the discussion in the General Assembly about the expansion of slavery became more agitated. More radical pro-slavery members of the legislature wanted to disregard the geographic restriction agreed to in the Missouri Compromise and widen the territory in which slavery could be instituted.


Becoming Established

Louisiana, Missouri, c. 1890 Louisiana, Missouri, c. 1890 Louisiana, Missouri, c. 1890.

While working as a lawyer in Pike County, Henderson rented a room in Louisiana, Missouri.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (P1142)]

Henderson lost his seat in the General Assembly in the 1850 election as Whig candidates won many contests across the state. He took the time off as an opportunity to refocus on his legal career. During the next several years he practiced law in northeastern Missouri. Working as a lawyer helped him to make more political connections. He also became involved in numerous real-estate transactions. Henderson’s work during this time placed him in a better position financially than he had been when he began his political career.

James Buchanan James Buchanan James Buchanan.

James Buchanan was elected President of United States in 1856, running on the Democratic ticket.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress]
In 1856 Henderson won a second term in the General Assembly. Because of his political experience, he believed that he was ready to move to the level of national politics. Attendees of the Democratic congressional convention of Missouri’s Second District agreed and made Henderson the party’s candidate for the district. In the 1860 congressional race, Henderson ran against abolition
The goal of the American abolition movement was to end the system of slavery that existed in the United States from its early colonization until the Civil War era. From the late 1770s to the early 1800s, several northern states abolished slavery by passing antislavery laws that called for slaves in those states to be gradually emancipated (freed) over a period of time. From the 1830s onward, the abolition movement grew quickly and began to call for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in America. In the 1850s, tension between people with proslavery views and those favoring abolition dominated American politics. The fight over abolition was one of the main issues leading to the Civil War. Abolition was formally adopted in Missouri in January of 1865. Later that year, slavery was ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
and the expansion of slavery in the territories. Henderson lost the election because the Democratic Party was divided on the issue of slavery.

Shifting Views on Emancipation

 Loyalty Oath Loyalty Oath Loyalty Oath.

During the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1861, a provision was enacted that required all state officials to take a loyalty oath to the constitutions of the state of Missouri and the United States. Robert L. Todd, a University of Missouri curator, took the loyalty oath in Boone County on December 12, 1861. Todd was required to take the oath or vacate his position.

[Clarence W. and Idress Head Alvord Collection, 1759-1962 (C0970), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
As the nation descended into division and civil war, politicians in Missouri had to decide which side of the conflict they would support. After a contentious convention to settle the question, leaders in Missouri opted to remain in the Union in 1861. Any state official who refused to take an oath of loyalty to the United States was removed from his position. US Senator Trusten Polk vacated his seat based on his sympathy for the secessionists of the South. Lieutenant Governor Willard Preble Hall appointed Henderson to serve the remainder of Polk’s term as senator in 1862. Since Henderson was both a strong Unionist and a slaveholder, he spent his first months in the Senate voicing his support for President Lincoln’s recommendation that emancipation of the slaves be gradual and slave owners be compensated for their losses. After Congress passed a resolution in favor of compensated emancipation on April 10, 1862, Henderson traveled to Jefferson City to discuss the possibility of enacting the resolution in Missouri at the fourth session of the Missouri State Convention that summer. The senator urged the attendees to consider that the continuation of the war might force President Lincoln to “strike the final blow” to the Confederate
Confederacy is a term used to identify the states that seceded from the United States and formed their own separate government during the Civil War. "Confederacy" is also used interchangeably with the terms "the South" and "the Confederate States of America."

Confederate is the term used to identify an individual who was loyal to the Confederacy.
and free the slaves. Members of the convention, however, did not want to agitate the proceedings by discussing slavery.

Though his effort to have the state convention consider the idea of gradual emancipation initially failed, Henderson set out on a speaking tour to change public opinion in Missouri. Just a few months after his convention appeal, he told President Lincoln that “a great change is going on in the public mind in regard to this question.” Henderson’s analysis turned out to be correct. Missouri politicians in favor of emancipation won a majority of positions in the state elections of 1862.

Following the election, Henderson sponsored a new effort in the US Senate for compensated emancipation on December 9, 1862. His bill would pay slave owners in Missouri a total of $20 million to free their slaves. But a Missouri congressman, John W. Noell, offered a competing bill. Noell wanted to provide only half of the amount that Henderson’s proposal offered. Henderson argued that Noell’s version would not be enough money to fully pay Missouri slave owners for their lost property. Neither bill earned enough support to pass during the session, ending the idea of compensated emancipation.

The Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment The Thirteenth Amendment The Thirteenth Amendment.

This scene from Harper's Weekly shows the passage of the proposition amending the Constitution to end slavery, January 31, 1865.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress]
Henderson was selected for a full term as senator in November 1863. After he returned to Washington, he announced that he planned to propose a constitutional amendment that would emancipate all slaves. On January 11, 1864, Henderson presented Senate Joint Resolution 16 to abolish slavery in the United States. Senators Charles Sumner and Lyman Trumbull offered slightly different proposals to achieve the same purpose. All three agreed that slavery had to be immediately ended. The Senate passed an emancipation resolution after considerable debate on April 9, 1864. Just a few months later the House of Representatives cast their votes. Though a majority supported it, the vote fell short of the two-thirds margin required to pass an amendment. Six months later, on January 31, 1865, the votes were in hand, and the House passed The Thirteenth Amendment
Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.
. After President Lincoln signed the bill, the amendment went to the states for ratification. Secretary of State William Seward announced on December 18, 1865, that the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery was now prohibited by the US Constitution.

Life after the Civil War

Henderson Home Henderson Home Henderson Home.

While in St. Louis, the Hendersons lived at 3010 Pine Street. The home no longer exists.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (P0806)]
Henderson finished his term as a senator in 1869. He failed to win reelection and returned to Missouri. In 1876 Henderson served as the special prosecutor in the corruption trial known as the Whiskey Ring
The Whiskey Ring was formed when a group of whiskey distillers, located mostly in the midwestern cities of St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee, made a secret deal with officials of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to avoid paying federal taxes on the production of their product. The distillers paid bribes to IRS officials and cooperating political figures associated with the Republican Party and the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. The ring was broken up in 1875 after an investigation by the U.S. secretary of the Treasury, Benjamin Bristow. Overall, 238 people, including Grant's personal secretary, Orville E. Babcock, were charged with crimes associated with their supposed involvement in the ring. Although Babcock and several others were acquitted, 110 people, including William McKee, owner of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper, were convicted and sentenced to jail time.
. The trial was held in St. Louis. His aggressive handling of the case threatened President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Henderson found connections between Grant’s personal secretary and the corruption in St. Louis.
Boundary Castle Boundary Castle Boundary Castle.

Later known as Henderson's Castle, the Hendersons built this Romanesque Revival style home in 1888 on 16th Street NW and north of Boundary Road.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

Henderson moved back to Washington during the late 1880s and lived in a large mansion at the corner of Florida and Sixteenth Streets that was called Henderson’s Castle. He remained active in Republican politics until his death on April 12, 1913.



John B. Henderson John B. Henderson John B. Henderson.

Henderson poses later in life.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (P1084)]
At the outset of the Civil War, John B. Henderson helped prevent Missouri from seceding from the Union. During his time as a senator, he tried to represent the views of conservative Unionists in his state. Over the course of the war, Henderson modified his position on emancipation to better reflect his constituents’ views. By 1864 the slave-owning politician had written the original draft of the amendment that ended the institution of slavery in the United States. His moderate representation in a time of national crisis helped Missouri navigate the war.

Text and research by Zachary Dowdle


References and Resources

For more information about John Brooks Henderson’s life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

Selected Bibliography

A selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about John Brooks Henderson in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.

  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • "Henderson Burial Set for Tuesday.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. April 14, 1913. p. 4.
    • “Keep it Before the People!” Bowling Green Democratic Banner. July 24, 1848. p. 2.
    • “Letter from Mr. Henderson.” Bowling Green Democratic Banner. July 30, 1849. p. 2, c. 2-5.
    • “Missourian Gone.” Clarksville Banner-Sentinel. April 16, 1913. p. 2.
  • Books and Articles
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 393-394. [REF F508 D561]
  • Manuscript Collection

Outside Resources

These links will take you outside the Society’s website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:

Historic Missourians: James B. Henderson
Jesse James John B. Henderson.

Hon. John B. Henderson, c. 1855-1865.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Brady-Handy Collection]

John Brooks Henderson

Born: November 16, 1824
Died: April 12, 1913 (age 88)
Categories: Politicians, Leaders & Activists
Region of Missouri: Northeast Missouri
Missouri County: Pike

Henderson Signature