Benjamin Gratz Brown

Benjamin Gratz Brown
Image courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Benjamin Gratz Brown was born in Lexington, Kentucky, May 28, 1826. Brown graduated from Yale College in 1847 with a degree in law. He was admitted to the bar in 1849 and commenced practice in St. Louis, Missouri. Brown soon got into politics and was elected as a member in the State house of representatives from 1852-1858. During his time in office he helped found the newspaper, the Missouri Democrat and was the chief editor in 1854.1

His strong opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act almost cost him reelection in 1854. Brown spoke to the Missouri General Assembly in 1857 and forcefully demanded the end of slavery in Missouri. Brown’s strong political made him many enemies, especially the lieutenant governor, Thomas C. Reynolds.2 Their feud escalated to the point of violence when Brown challenged Reynolds to a duel after Reynolds made slanderous comments about Brown in a rival newspaper. Brown was shot in the knee and would permanently walk with a limp for the remainder of his life.

Brown, although strong-willed and often controversial, was an intelligent politician. He did not base his support on emancipation of slaves in Missouri on humane grounds, but of aspirations for free white men and called slavery a barrier to economic progress. His speeches in the state legislature actually designed to work on several levels: the call for slavery’s end was designed to appeal to German immigrants, most of whom were hostile to the institution; the call for economic progress was designed to appeal to moderate Whigs whose party had self-destructed over the slavery issue; and the emphasis on free labor was designed to appeal to the aspirations of ordinary farmers who had made up the backbone of Benton’s followers.3

In 1860, he attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate for Edward Bates. Brown believed Bates was too conservative, and when the convention nominated Abraham Lincoln Brown cast aside his loyalty to Bates and supported Lincoln.4 With the outbreak of the Civil War in Missouri, Brown organized his own regiment, the 4th Regiment of the Missouri Volunteers and served as colonel of the company. The regiment patrolled St. Louis streets for three months and reinforced the troops of General Franz Siegel after the Battle of Carthage in southeastern Missouri. Brown did not reenlist when his term of service expired.5 The regiment did not face any significant conflict and Brown realized that he was a better leader in the legislature than the battlefield.

In 1863, Brown was elected to the U.S. Senate when Southern sympathizer Waldo P. Johnson was expelled. Brown focused his term on the state’s economic conditions. He helped obtain federal reimbursements for military expenditures, secured federal land grants for the development of railroad lines, and worked to improve navigation on the Mississippi River. Brown also advocated the nationalization of telegram lines, the reduction in working hours for federal employees.6 On January 11, 1865, the Missouri state convention, meeting in St. Louis, passed an emancipation ordinance immediately freeing all slaves in Missouri. However, Brown did think that measure was enough to help Missouri move into the future. Brown wrote to Mr. J.R. Winchell in April 1865 about his doubts that Unionists and southern sympathizers could live together post-Civil War. “I need scarcely say that I am one of those who have from the beginning believed that the loyal and disloyal can never live in Missouri together and the latter must be forced to depart and I believe that registration is the only mode that will accomplish it.”7

Brown though would change his beliefs on punishing southern sympathizers when leadership of the Radicals passed to Charles Daniel Drake. The Missouri 1865 Draconian Constitution, so named because of Drakes influence, severely restricted the civil rights and liberties of southern sympathizers. Believing that such measures were justified only in times of war, Brown recanted earlier demands for eternal punishment for former Rebels, and called for universal suffrage and amnesty.8

Senator Brown, citing poor health, returned to Missouri in 1867. He was nominated as the Liberal Republican Party nominee for the 1870 gubernatorial election and, with support from the Democratic Party, was elected in 1871 as the 20th governor of Missouri. Brown’s tenure, although limited by law to a two-year term, was productive. Taxation laws were changed, and he quelled the Ku Klux Klan within Missouri’s borders. He also established the law and medicine departments at the University of Missouri and supported a new admissions policy allowing the enrollment of women.9

In 1872, Brown was nominated as a vice presidential candidate under Horace Greeley for the Liberal Republican ticket. Greeley’s eccentricities, along with Brown’s reputation as a hard drinker, doomed the ticket. After the election of 1872, Brown returned to his law firm in St. Louis and continued to practice until his death on December 13, 1885 in Kirkwood, MO.10

Contributed by the Greene County Archives and Records Center

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  1. Norma L. Peterson, American National Biography; Dictionary of American Biography; Freedom and Franchise: The Political Career of B. Gratz Brown. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968.
  2. Benjamin Gratz Brown, 1871-1873; Office of Governor, Record Group 3.20; Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.
  3. “Benjamin Gratz Brown”, Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial,
  4. Robert Sobel and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 2 (Westport, Conn.; Meckler Books, 1978
  5. Missouri State Archives Finding Aids 3.20, “Benjamin Gratz Brown”, pg 2,
  6. Missouri State Archives Finding Aids 3.20, “Benjamin Gratz Brown”, pg 2,
  7. Benjamin Gratz Brown Letter to J.R. Winchell. Apr. 20, 1865. B. Gratz Brown Papers, 1863-1865, CW99, Greene County Archives and Records Center, Springfield, Missouri. 2, pg 1.
  8. Brown, Benjamin Gratz, in All Biographies (on-line) from Men of Our Day; Or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, L.P. Brockett (St. Louis, MO: Ziegler and McCurdy, 1872).
  9. Benjamin Gratz Brown, 1871-1873; Office of Governor, Record Group 3.20; Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.
  10. Robert Sobel and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 2 (Westport, Conn.; Meckler Books, 1978)