CLOSE

Ready, Aim, Fire: Scenes From Early American Dueling

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
arrow
Lists
12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Art
A Secret Room Full of Michelangelo's Sketches Will Soon Open in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Parents all over the world have chastised their children for drawing on the walls. But when you're Michelangelo, you've got some leeway. According to The Local, the Medici Chapels, part of the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy, has announced that it plans to open a largely unseen room full of the artist's sketches to the public by 2020.

Roughly 40 years ago, curators of the chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo had a very Dan Brown moment when they discovered a trap door in a wardrobe leading to an underground room that appeared to have works from Michelangelo covering its walls. The tiny retreat is thought to be a place where the artist hid out in 1530 after upsetting the Medicis—his patrons—by joining a revolt against their control of Florence. While in self-imposed exile for several months, he apparently spent his time drawing on whatever surfaces were available.

A drawing by Michelangelo under the Medici Chapels in Florence
Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Museum officials previously believed the room and the charcoal drawings were too fragile to risk visitors, but have since had a change of heart, leading to their plan to renovate the building and create new attractions. While not all of the work is thought to be attributable to the famed artist, there's enough of it in the subterranean chamber—including drawings of Jesus and even recreations of portions of the Sistine Chapel—to make a trip worthwhile.

[h/t The Local]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios