There was a time in American history when insults and a lack of civil decorum in politics or otherwise came with far greater consequences, especially for men of distinction.
Duels were a common way for American men of rank to prove their courage and defend their honor in our country’s early history, despite growing unease with its moral implications. These contests had a specific set of rules, a code duello, and were considered an activity to be undertaken only by “gentlemen.”
The point of a duel was not to demonstrate who had the fastest shot or the surest aim; it was a test of courage and manliness–a test of who would stand in front of the loaded gun of a mortal enemy. However, the “affair of honor” was a dangerous game for more reasons than imminent death. Failing to show up once a challenge was issued could permanently ruin a man’s reputation, but killing an opponent in a duel was also taboo and could lead to social ostracism.
So to capture the essence of a more “dignified” era in politics, here are five of America’s most legendary duels:
1.) Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr
The most famous duel in American history took place between two of the most talented men of the founding generation. Alexander Hamilton, the first and greatest treasury secretary in the history of the United States, faced off against Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr.
Burr and Hamilton had been longtime enemies in New York politics–Hamilton being the leading Federalist and Burr a Jeffersonian Republican–but their personal quarrels came to a head after Hamilton helped defeat Burr in a landslide gubernatorial race.
Hamilton, who had served under George Washington in the Continental Army, had a long list of impressive achievements and was one of the leading lights of the revolution. He had miraculously restored American credit through his controversial financial policies and debt funding scheme.
Burr too had served in the Continental Army and was noted as a masterful but cagey politician.
Often considered a “fallen founder,” Burr has rarely drawn the admiration of future generations. His recent biographer David O. Stewart said that it is easy to see the swarthy New Yorker as “America’s Satan: not the Biblical Satan but the tragic, too-human hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.”
The two met in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804 due to dueling being outlawed in New York. There is some speculation that Hamilton brought trick pistols to the duel to gain an edge over Burr, but he never got a clean shot off. Burr, who had allegedly been practicing for weeks, gunned down Hamilton almost immediately.
Burr’s bullet struck just above Hamilton’s hip, hitting his liver. The mortified Hamilton said, “This is a mortal wound, Doctor.” He died several days later.
Though Burr was victorious, his reputation was forever sullied by the incident. He left New York and headed south where he became involved in a scheme to sever the southern and western states from the union to create a separate empire. Though he escaped treason charges, Burr was almost universally deemed a scoundrel and a rascal. Hamilton’s legacy endures as one of the greatest and able statesmen in American history.
This duel remains a popular historical topic for discussion and still captures the imagination. A stylized and contemporary version of the early nineteenth century Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton duel from Dana O’Keefe called Aaron Burr: Part 2 was a selection for the 2011 New York Short Film festival and won the Jury Prize for Best Short Film.
2.) John Randolph-Henry Clay
One of the most dramatic duels in American history was fought by two men who have unfortunately disappeared from the American national consciousness.
John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia was an eccentric but brilliant statesman of the antebellum era, whose acerbic speeches rose to the highest level of wit and creativity of any in American history. Conservative intellectual Russell Kirk called Randolph an American “Burke” after the great, conservative British statesman, and said of the aristocratic Virginian, “Never equivocating, he spoke with a corrosive power unequaled in the history of American politics.”
Most early congressmen were afraid to lock horns with Randolph lest they be shredded by his vicious verbal barbs. However, the precocious Kentuckian Henry Clay, who had immense political acumen and nearly as sharp a wit, challenged the aristocratic Southerner in the political arena and on the dueling ground.
In the contested 1824 presidential election, which had to be decided by the House of Representatives (no candidate had received a majority of Electoral College votes), Speaker of the House Clay was accused by political opponents of throwing the election to John Quincy Adam in order to become secretary of state. Calls of a “corrupt bargain” were shouted from political opponents.
In a particularly cutting speech on the Senate floor, Randolph compared Clay and Adams to two corrupt characters from the popular novel Tom Jones.
Randolph said he had been “defeated, horse, foot, and dragoons–cut up–and clean broke down, by the coalition of Blifil and Black George–by the combination, unheard of until now of the Puritan and the blackleg.”
Clay was incensed and wrote a letter to Randolph on March 31, 1826 demanding “personal satisfaction.”
Randolph, not wanting to kill Clay and orphan his nine children, took a huge risk in his contest with the incensed Clay. He would throw away his shot and hoped that Clay would not kill him. When the duel commenced, both fired in each other’s direction and missed. Clay refused to let the duel stop and insisted it continue.
The great Jacksonian-era historian Robert Remini described the scene:
“I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay,” [Randolph] called, and immediately advanced with outstretched hand. “Sir,” he said, “I give you my hand.” Clay met him halfway and shook hands with his adversary.
“You owe me a coat Mr. Clay,” Randolph laughed. One of the bullets had passed through his coat, very near the hip.
“I am glad the debt is no greater,” replied the secretary of state.
And so ended this ludicrous duel.
Though Clay and Randolph remained political enemies for the rest of their lives, there was a mutual respect between them. Randolph said that he wanted to be buried facing west so that he could “keep his eye on Henry Clay.”
3.) Andrew Jackson-Charles Dickenson
Is there any doubt that Andrew Jackson would be on a list of famous American duels? Old Hickory, born in the Waxhaw region of South Carolina but more commonly associated with Tennessee, was one of the toughest men ever to become president of the United States. He was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and achieved almost mythical status in the early nineteenth century for his numerous, almost super-human exploits of sheer will.
One of these incredible feats of will occurred in his duel with Charles Dickenson, a man described by Jackson biographer Marquis James as a twenty-seven year old “man of fashion and success.”
The original dustup between Jackson and Dickenson started with a squabble over a horse race and escalated when Dickenson called Jackson a “worthless scoundrel, a poltroon, and a coward.” Worse, Dickenson repeatedly insulted Jackson’s wife, Rachel. That was the last straw.
On the eve of the duel Jackson calmly told his wife, “Good-by, darling. I shall be sure to be home tomorrow evening.” But Jackson had reason to worry; Dickenson was known as one of the best shots in Tennessee, and his own aim was only fair. As usual, the Old Hero of New Orleans fearlessly rode off to challenge his enemy.
He decided to take an unusual and incredibly risky strategy. Instead of trying to quickly get his shot off, Jackson decided he would let Dickenson fire first and then slowly take aim for a killing shot.
When the duel began, Dickson quickly fired at Jackson who did not move. Dickenson was stunned. Had he missed Jackson?
Dickenson’s bullet actually struck Jackson in the chest, near his heart. But Jackson calmly put his hand over the wound to stop the bleeding and raised his pistol to take aim. Jackson fired a shot and hit Dickenson in the groin. Though blood had been pooling in his boot, Jackson calmly walked off the dueling ground to show the dying man that he had been unharmed in the fight. Dickenson died shortly thereafter without even the satisfaction of knowing that his aim had been true.
4.) Thomas Hart Benton-Charles Lucas
Thomas Hart Benton, a powerful senator from Missouri, was one of the most legendary duelists of his era. He once fought a brutal frontier brawl with Andrew Jackson as a young man but became one of Old Hickory’s chief advocates in the Senate later in life.
Old Bullion, as Benton was sometimes called, was a defender of dueling on the grounds that it was a sensible system to resolve conflicts for two men on equal terms.
Dueling would take the place of outright murder and vengeance, especially in places where the law could do little to cope with violation of honor on the frontier.
Though Benton dueled on more than one occasion, his duel with Charles Lucas, a prominent Missouri layer, is his most infamous. Benton originally challenged Lucas to a duel after accusing Lucas of insulting him in court. Lucas refused to fight after this first challenge, but Benton again demanded a duel after Lucas questioned Benton’s right to vote. Benton allegedly called Lucas an “insolent puppy,” and the duel was on.
The two combatants met on “Bloody Island” on August 12, 1817. The two-round Benton-Lucas bloodletting gave the dueling site its reputation.
In the first round, Benton hit Lucas in the neck and the fighting had to be stopped. When Benton was asked if he had received “satisfaction” he said, “no.” So, incredibly, Lucas was given over a month to recover from his wound in order to duke it out again. Efforts to reconcile the two men failed when a rumor was spread that Benton was afraid to duel at close distance.
Round two also took place on Bloody Island and with the combatants at a very close 10 yards. This time Benton hit Lucas in the chest with a mortal wound. Though many were horrified by the violence and brutality of these contests, the killing of Lucas did not prevent Benton from having a long and dignified senate career.
5.) Stephen Decatur-James Barron
Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. was one of the greatest American naval heroes of any century. His exploits in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 were legendary. In fact, his raid and daring destruction of the USS Philadelphia, which had fallen into the hands of Tripolitan pirates, was called “the most bold and daring act of the age” by Lord Horatio Nelson.
Decatur, a courageous and sometimes quick-tempered man, never turned from a fight; he would tolerate no personal insult toward himself or the United States.
Unfortunately, Decatur’s courage and honor lead him to a deadly duel with fellow Navy Commodore James Barron. Decatur once called Barron a “coward,” because he mistakenly believed that Barron had avoided fighting in the War of 1812.
So on March 22, 1820, Decatur and Barron met on the dueling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland. It was clear that this duel would be deadly because the two men stood closer than normal and were allowed to aim before given the command to fire. Predictably, both duelists hit their mark and wounded each other grievously. Barron survived, but the 41-year old Decatur died less than a day later.
Though dueling had been particularly common among Navy officers, the death of Decatur sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The funeral procession held for the fallen hero in Washington, D.C. was the largest in the nation’s history at that time.