Ready, Aim, Fire: Scenes From Early American Dueling

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Callin' out around the world: are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right for duelin' in the streets.

The tradition of dueling first appeared among the Germanic tribes and was, in its early form, a mostly judicial matter. Conflict between to parties was settled and right and wrong were established under the belief that a higher power would protect the party in the right by allowing them to win and survive. These duels of justice would evolve into duels of chivalry in the Middle Ages and then duels of honor "“ private affairs being settled in an "honorable" manner "“ around the mid 16th century.

During the middle of the 18th century, just as dueling was falling out of favor in Europe and being outlawed in many places*, it also made its way to colonial North America. After the Revolutionary War, dueling would find a strong enough foothold in the United States that it would stay alive and well, mostly in the southeastern states, well into the 19th century and count numerous congressmen, senators, two presidents and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (the forgettable Button Gwinnett) among its practitioners.

Two hundred and four years ago yesterday, the seventh president of the United States shot and killed a horse breeder over an insult. In remembrance of this duel and the heady days of early America when you could kill a man in a heavily codified shootout if he called you a chicken, here's the highlight reel (subjective selections, not an exhaustive list) of some of the more notable duels (and near-duels) in American history.

Jackson vs. Dickinson

Before he became president, Jackson was a horse breeder in Tennessee. When Charles Dickinson, a rival breeder, called Jackson a "coward" and an "equivocator" and referred to Jackson's wife Rachel as a "bigamist" (her earlier divorce wasn't complete when she married Jackson), Jackson challenged him to a duel.

Dickinson chose pistols, and so, two hundred and four years ago, the two men met at Harrison's Mills in Logan County, Kentucky, at seven in the morning (dueling was illegal both in Kentucky and Tennessee, but they decided to meet across state lines since they were both well known in their home state).

Dickinson got off the first shot and hit Jackson just inches above the heart. Old Hickory remained standing and pulled the trigger. The pistol misfired, so he tried again and hit Dickinson in the gut. Dickinson would spend the rest of the day bleeding to death and expire that night. Jackson would spend the rest of his life dealing with a ball of lead lodged in his chest and the fallout of his "dishonorable" action of not stopping the duel when he misfired.

Hamilton vs. Burr

The most famous duel in American history was perhaps the logical conclusion to a personal and political battle that Vice President Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton had been waging for years. Their conflict began in 1791 when Burr beat Hamilton's father-in-law, who would have supported Hamilton's Federalist policies as Secretary of the Treasury, for a Senate seat. When Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied for the presidency with 73 electoral votes each in the election of 1800 and the choosing of a president fell to the House of Representatives, Hamilton's maneuvering in the House led to Jefferson's victory and Burr taking the position of VP. Four years later, Burr ran for governor of New York when he realized he would be dropped from Jefferson's ticket and Hamilton campaigned against him and endorsed Morgan Lewis, who beat Burr. The tension between the two men continued to simmer until, upon hearing rumors that Hamilton had been saying "despicable" things about him, Burr issued a formal challenge to duel and Hamilton accepted.

Hamilton and Burr arrived by rowboat the morning July 11, 1804, at the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey, a popular dueling ground where Hamilton's son had been killed just two years earlier (the same guns were used in both duels as well). The duel was held in New Jersey because the practice hadn't been outlawed there yet, but a number of safety measures were still implemented to keep anyone from being prosecuted. The dueling pistols were transported in a suitcase so the rowers could say under oath that they had not seen any pistols and the seconds (the representative of each dueling party, who were responsible for determining a location for the duel, checking that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair) stood with their backs to Hamilton and Burr so that they could honestly say they saw no shots fired.

First-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired, but conflict over who fired first. It was probably Hamilton and he apparently fired high and missed Burr completely, though it's not clear if this was intentional. Burr's return fire hit Hamilton in the abdomen just above the right hip and caused extensive damage to his liver and diaphragm. Hamilton collapsed and died the following morning.

Burr may have survived, but like Jackson, he paid for it politically. He was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but never brought to trial, and was so harshly criticized for his involvement in the duel that he ended his political career early and went into exile.

Clay vs. Randolph

John Randolph was an angry man. He fought his first duel at 18 over a fellow student's mispronunciation of a word. As a Congressman, he regularly labeled his colleagues "vile,"  "slanderers," "traitors" and "contemptible and degraded beings." His anger caught up with him when he accused Secretary of State Henry Clay of "crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards" on the House floor. Clay challenged him to a duel.

Assaulting his character was one thing, but Randolph did not want to assault Clay's body and rob his family of a father and husband. Days before the duel, Randolph confided in a friend that he would instead purposefully aim high and miss at the duel, in order to preserve his honor while sparing Clay's life. The men met on the field of honor on April 8, 1826, and as preparations were being made, Randolph accidentally fired his gun at the ground. Clay accepted that the misfire was an accident and allowed the duel to proceed, so both men marched the agreed upon number of steps, turned and fired. Randolph, humiliated by his misfire, made no effort to aim high and away, but still missed Clay, barely striking his coat. Clay also missed and, unsatisfied, demanded another attempt. Clay missed again and Randolph followed through on his intent to spare Clay and fired into the air. Clay was moved by this and met Randolph at midfield to end the duel and shake his hand, where Randolph noted that he owed the Secretary a new coat.

Lincoln vs. Shields

During his time as a Whig representative in the Illinois legislature, Abraham Lincoln (who opposed dueling) wrote a series of satirical letters, under the pseudonym Rebecca, poking fun at State Auditor James Shields. When some of the letters wound up published in a local newspaper, Shields wrote a letter demanding that Lincoln retract them. Lincoln took offense at both Shields' tone and his assumption that Lincoln had written all of the letters that appeared in the paper (some of the letters were believed to have been written by Mary Todd, Lincoln's future wife, and a friend). When Shields asked for at least a retraction of the letters he knew were Lincoln's, Lincoln refused unless Shields withdrew his letter, demanding an apology for the demanding of an apology, in other words. Shields grew tired of the stalemate and challenged Lincoln to a duel.

As the challenged party, Lincoln had the choice of weapons and other certain conditions. Instead of the usual pistols, he chose cavalry broadswords and decided that the duel would be fought in a pit 10 feet wide and 12 feet deep with a large wooden plank in the middle that neither man was allowed to step over. These conditions, the long armed, 6' 4" Lincoln hoped, would give him enough of an advantage that Shields would withdraw the challenge. If the duel were to go on, Lincoln though he would at least have an opportunity to disarm Shields without either man getting hurt.

Lincoln wasn't the only one trying to make the duel a bloodless one. Both men's seconds took matters into their own hands and arranged a truce, agreeing that a note in which Lincoln admitted authorship of his letters and asserted "no intention of injuring [Shields'] personal or private character or standing as a man or gentleman" would satisfy all parties. Afterwards, Lincoln and Shields forged a friendship and political alliance that would last for the rest of their careers.

Twain vs. Laird

For a time, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was living in Virginia City, Nevada, and writing editorials for The Territorial Enterprise. When Twain erroneously accused his rival paper, The Virginia City Union, of reneging on a pledge to charity, the Union's publisher, James Laird, raised such a fuss that Twain challenged him to a duel.

When Twain went to practice shooting with his second, it became apparent that his pen was mightier than his sword and that his pistol was downright awful. There was no way he'd survive the duel. As Laird and his second approached the field of honor, Twain's second grabbed a bird and shot its head off. When Laird arrived, Twain and his second were admiring the corpse and the second explained to Laird that Twain had shot the bird from thirty yards.

That night, Laird called off the duel, but the fact that a one had been challenged and accepted still brought Twain in conflict with Nevada Territorial laws. Since the local authorities weren't fans of Twain's writing anyway, Twain took the opportunity to leave Nevada and headed to California where he worked for another newspaper and wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Button Gwinnett vs Lachlan McIntosh

As a representative of Georgia at the Continental Congress, Button Gwinnett was the second of the signatories on the United States Declaration of Independence. He was also the bitter rival of Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh. Their conflict started when McIntosh was appointed as commander of Georgia's Continental Battalion over Gwinnett. Gwinnett took the appointment as a slight and took out his wrath on McIntosh and his family. He had McIntosh's brother George arrested and charged with treason against the revolution. As governor, he took an active role in military matters, causing dissension in the ranks and undermining McIntosh's leadership. When Gwinnet ordered one of McIntosh's subordinates to lead a poorly planned expedition into British Florida, the disastrous operation led to Gwinnett and McIntosh blaming each other for the failure. The public sparring grew vicious when McIntosh denounced Gwinnett as a "scoundrel and lying rascal." The governor challenged him to a duel to restore his honor.

The two met to duel with pistols on May 16, 1777, in a field a few miles east of Savannah. After marching twelve paces, they turned and fired almost simultaneously. Gwinnett took a shot to the hip and McIntosh took one to the leg. Gwinnett died three days later and George Washington feared that Gwinnett's allies would take revenge on the surviving McIntosh, so he ordered him to report to Continental Army headquarters. McIntosh spent the winter of 1777-1778 with the Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and later commanded several regiments of North Carolina troops in the Revolutionary War.

Gwinnett maintains a small amount of fame today for having the most valuable historical autographs in America. Since he was not well known before signing the Declaration of Independence and died shortly after, people attempting to collect the autographs of all 56 signers of the Declaration have autograph paid as much as $150,000 for Gwinnet's signature.

* As late as 1829, however, England's prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, challenged the Earl of Winchelsea to a fight to the death over an insult about the duke's supposed softness toward Catholics.

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May 31, 2010 - 6:35am
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