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Pistols at Dawn

By Peter Carlson
10/4/2017 • American History Magazine

Think modern campaign attack ads are bad? Return with us to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Andrew Jackson and a host of other political mudslingers settled their squabbles by repairing to a field of honor and shooting each other.

Andrew Jackson stood in a field in Kentucky with a pistol in his hand, waiting for the command to fire. A 39-year-old lawyer, militia general and former congressman and senator, Jackson was ready to fight a duel with Charles Dickinson, a marksman reputed to be able to put four shots into a circle the size of a silver dollar at 24 feet.

Their quarrel began with a bet on a horse race, and escalated for six months in a series of carefully crafted epistolary insults. In one letter, Jackson called Dickinson a “base poltroon and cowardly tale-bearer.” Dickinson wrote back, saying, “As to the word coward, I think it is as applicable to yourself as anyone I know.” As rumors of their rancor spread, Jackson detailed his version of the dispute to a Nashville newspaper, which published a rejoinder from Dickinson denouncing Jackson as “a worthless scoundrel, a poltroon and a coward.” Those were terms commonly used to provoke a duel—and Jackson immediately challenged Dickinson: “I will obtain speedily that satisfaction due me for the insults offered.”

So at 7 a.m. on May 30, 1806, the two men stood in a field, pistols in hand, staring at each other at a distance of eight paces—24 feet. Their seconds drew straws and Jackson’s second won the honor of giving the command. He asked the duelists if they were ready. They nodded.

“Fire!”

Dickinson raised his pistol, aimed for Jackson’s heart and fired. His bullet hit Jackson in the chest, smashing a rib a couple inches from his heart. Jackson flinched but did not fall. As Dickinson watched in horror, Jackson coolly aimed and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He re-cocked the pistol, aimed again and fired. Dickinson fell to the ground with a bullet in his gut. He would be dead before nightfall.

Jackson walked off the field with blood trickling into his boots. He carried Dickinson’s bullet in his breast for the rest of his life, but he never expressed regret about the duel, or surprise that he’d been able to calmly fire moments after being shot in the chest.

Jackson told a friend, “I should have hit him, sir, if he had shot me through the brain.”

What was he thinking? It seems preposterous to modern Americans that a powerful politician—indeed a future president—would risk his life in a ridiculous shooting match over a trivial quarrel about a meaningless bet. But Jackson rose to power during America’s golden age of dueling and he learned its code from his mother, who taught him that the only proper response to an insult was to challenge the man with a loose tongue to engage in mortal combat. “The law,” she said, “affords no remedy for such an outrage that can satisfy a gentleman. Fight.”

Jackson is the only American president to have killed a man in a duel but hardly the only prominent American to embrace the ethos of dueling. The era between the Revolution and the Civil War was a time when many respectable, educated men eagerly avenged even the slightest of insults by repairing to the local “field of honor” and blasting holes in each other. Sam Houston, leader of the Texas revolution, wounded a man in a duel. So did Dewitt Clinton, a governor of New York. Stephen Decatur, naval hero of the War of 1812, was killed in a duel. Henry Clay, Congress’ “Great Compromiser,” fought two duels, one of them with Sen. John Randolph. At least four senators and five congressmen died dueling. And in the most famous duel in American history, fought in 1804, Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, killed Alexander Hamilton, a former secretary of the treasury, in a fight provoked when Hamilton made some scathing remarks at a dinner party about Burr’s fitness as a politician.

Today, we can’t imagine Vice President Joe Biden shooting former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson over a political jibe. But in the rough-and-tumble days of the early republic, it seemed perfectly reasonable for a politician to respond to an insult by demanding a chance to shoot the man who’d mocked him. In 1831, Congressman Spencer Pettis of Missouri challenged a postmaster to a duel because the man called him “a bowl of skimmed milk.” In the ensuing fray, both men were mortally wounded.

“Dueling was the means by which gentlemen protected their reputations or their honor among other gentlemen,” wrote Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Gordon S. Wood. “Indeed, for some, dueling was the ultimate recognition of the distinctiveness of being a gentleman.”

Duelists were fighting for status in a society where hierarchy was in flux. Back in England, class divisions were clearly demarked by a long-established aristocracy: Some men were “gentlemen” and others were “commoners.” But in the New World, where pioneers carved a country out of a wilderness, class lines were blurred. The result was a social insecurity that resulted in a desire to “prove” that one was a gentleman. One way to prove it was to fight a duel with anyone who seemed to challenge your status.

That’s what Andrew Jackson did time and again, engaging in at least three duels, maybe more. Raised by an immigrant mother on a subsistence farm on the Carolina frontier—his father died before Andrew was born—Jackson was a commoner who managed to become a lawyer, soldier and politician. Did that make him a gentleman? He certainly thought so, and he was willing to duel with anyone who threatened his hard-earned status by insulting him.

Insults were common in politics and consequently, so were duels. But politicians weren’t the only prominent duelists. Newspaper editors frequently found themselves dueling with irate readers who felt that writing an angry letter to the editor was insufficient and instead demanded a chance to actually shoot the editor. O. Jennings Wise, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, fought eight duels in less than two years. In 1845, James Hueston, editor of the Baton Rouge Gazette, was shot dead in a duel with Congressman Alcee Labranche, who was displeased with the paper’s coverage of himself.

Americans’ fondness for dueling amazed foreign visitors. “In New Orleans there were fought, in 1834, more duels than there are days in the year, fifteen on one Sunday morning,” wrote British sociologist Harriet Martineau, after touring the United States that year.

“The many and decisive duels testify to an unruliness in the American character,” wrote Swedish Baron Axel Klinkowstrom after a trip to America in 1818. The baron advised his readers that Americans were easily insulted and suggested that “a visitor should be careful of what he says.”

In Europe, knights and aristocrats had defended their honor in ritualized swordfights for centuries. But Americans preferred dueling with pistols, which were just as lethal and required less athletic ability.

Duels were fought all over America, but they were particularly popular in the South, where the plantation-owning elite fancied themselves as aristocrats and eagerly adopted what they considered the chivalry and romance of dueling. In 1777, a year after he signed the Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnett, the acting governor of Georgia, was killed in a duel with a general whose abilities Gwinnett had disparaged. Three years later, another acting governor of Georgia, George Wells, died in a duel with a colonel, who took a bullet in the knee but lived to be elected to Congress.

Everywhere, dueling was considered the prerogative of upper class gentlemen, who decreed that the unwashed rabble had no honor to defend and thus were ineligible to spill blood on the sacred field of honor. To distinguish their duels from plebeian brawls and shoot-outs, these would-be aristocrats adopted elaborate dueling rules that were as ritualized as a royal wedding or a Masonic initiation.

At first, American duelists followed the rules codified in the Irish Code Duello of 1777. But in 1838, John Lyde Wilson, a former governor of South Carolina, published The Code of Honor, which soon became America’s dueling bible.

Wilson began by announcing that he opposed dueling over “trivial disputes and misunderstandings” but supported it as the only proper response to “the slanderous tongue of the calumniator.” Dueling would endure, he predicted, as long as gentlemen possess “manly independence and a lofty personal pride.” Wilson then proceeded to outline the proper etiquette for avenging insults through gunfire.

A gentleman who’d been insulted should “speak to no one about the matter” and instead write a letter to the insulter, explaining his grievance “in the language of a gentleman.” The gentleman’s second would carry this letter to the insulter, who would write a reply, then hand it to his second to deliver to the aggrieved man’s second.

If the insulter apologized sufficiently, the matter was settled. If not, the aggrieved party wrote a formal challenge, which was delivered by his second to the insulter’s second. The seconds then arranged the details of time, place and choice of dueling weapons.

On the field of honor, it was considered unsporting for the duelists to start talking trash: “The principals are to be respectful in meeting,” Wilson insisted, “and neither by look or expression irritate each other.”

Duelists should stand with their pistols pointed down until they heard the command to fire. If either shooter was hit, the duel was over. If neither was hit, it was the challenger’s prerogative to decide if the fight should continue.

“When the duel is ended by a party being hit,” Wilson wrote, “it is the duty of the second to the party so hit, to announce the fact to the second of the party hitting, who will forthwith tender any assistance he can command to the disabled principal.”

Those were the basic rules, but there were endless permutations. For instance:

A gentleman dueled only with other gentlemen. If insulted by an underling, a gentleman responded by thrashing the upstart with a cane or horsewhip.

If a gentleman was challenged and refused to fight, the challenger could “post” him—informing the community of his cowardice in a sign or a letter to the local newspaper. Frequently, the shame of being posted caused the reluctant challengee to fight.

Finally, there was the tricky question of insults uttered while drunk. “Intoxication is not a full excuse for insult, but it will greatly palliate,” Wilson decreed. “Insults at the wine table, when the company are over-excited, must be answered for; and if the party insulting have no recollection of the insult, it is his duty to say so in writing and negative the insult.”

It’s easy to follow the rules of etiquette at weddings and debutante balls but when it comes to lethal combat, sometimes things get out of hand. That’s what happened in the famous duels fought in 1817 by rival St. Louis lawyers— Charles Lucas and Thomas Hart Benton.

The two men detested each other. They clashed in court, and Lucas won the case, which irked Benton. Then Lucas challenged Benton’s right to vote, claiming that he wasn’t a property owner. Irate, Benton told the poll watchers, “I do not propose to answer charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path.”

In those days, “puppy” was considered an insult worthy of combat, and Lucas promptly challenged Benton: “Sir—I am informed you applied to me on the day of the election the epithet ‘puppy.’ If so, I shall expect that satisfaction which is due from one gentleman to another for such an indignity.”

Benton accepted the challenge, and the two men and their seconds rowed to Bloody Island, the Mississippi River atoll that served as the local field of honor. There, Lucas shot Benton in the knee while Benton blasted a hole in Lucas’ neck.

According to the code, that should have ended the matter. But Benton demanded another duel, and Lucas agreed. Six weeks later, they returned to Bloody Island and, while crowds watched from the riverbank, Benton shot Lucas dead.

Killing a man in a dispute over the epithet “puppy” did nothing to hurt Benton’s political career: He was later elected to the Senate five times.

Another duel that failed to follow the code was the farce Andrew Jackson fought—well, almost fought—with a rival Tennessee politician: John Sevier.

In 1803, Sevier was a former governor running to reclaim his old office and Jackson was a judge who supported Sevier’s opponent. In a letter to a newspaper, Jackson accused Sevier of profiting from land fraud. After Sevier won the election, the two men met outside a Knoxville courthouse and began trading insults as a crowd gathered to gawk. During the argument, Jackson touted his services to the nation.

Services?” Sevier replied. “I know of no great service you rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife.”

As the shocked onlookers understood, Sevier was referring to the fact that Jackson had traveled with—then married— his wife before she was legally divorced.

“Great God!” Jackson responded. “Do you mention her sacred name?”

Jackson might have killed Sevier on the spot but he didn’t have his pistol. Instead, he wrote an angry letter challenging the governor to a duel. Sevier accepted, agreeing to fight anywhere outside Tennessee, where dueling was illegal.

Jackson demanded to fight immediately but Sevier claimed he was too busy to duel for the next five days. Outraged, Jackson “posted” Sevier in a newspaper: “Know ye that I, Andrew Jackson, do pronounce, publish, and declare to the world that his Excellency John Sevier, Esq., Governor, Captain General and commander in chief of the land and naval forces of the State of Tennessee, is a base coward and poltroon.”

Sevier responded by calling Judge Jackson “a pitiful poltroon and coward.”

The two men agreed to duel in Southwest Point, Va. Jackson traveled to the site and waited for Sevier, who failed to appear. Disgusted, Jackson and his second rode back toward Knoxville. Along the way, they encountered Sevier and his second. Then, as Jackson’s second later put it, “Scurrility ensued.”

Cursing each other, both men dismounted. Jackson took out a cane and announced that he would thrash Sevier with it. Sevier drew his sword. Jackson pulled out a pistol. Sevier, who wasn’t carrying his pistol, ran behind a tree. Jackson followed and Sevier circled the tree, keeping it between him and Jackson while grumbling that Jackson was trying to shoot an unarmed man. Then Sevier’s second defended his man by pointing a pistol at Jackson. Which caused Jackson’s second to aim his pistol at Sevier’s second.

By this point, the duel had degenerated into farce, and finally the two alleged poltroons tired of the foolishness, climbed on their horses and rode off, still cursing each other.

Accounts of the encounter amused Tennesseans but failed to hurt either man’s political career. Sevier won reelection as governor and, later, election to Congress. And Jackson was twice elected president of the United States.

For the rest of his life, Jackson remained an ardent proponent of the duel. While president, he explained his opposition to laws designed to ban dueling: “Unless some mode is adopted to frown down by society the slanderer, who is worse than a murderer, all attempts to put down dueling will be in vain.”

In 1838, Rep. William Graves, a Whig from Kentucky, approached Rep. Jonathan Cilley, a Maine Democrat, and tried to hand him a letter from a Whig newspaper editor who had traded insults with Cilley. Cilley refused to accept the letter, saying its author was “a person of disputed respectability.”

That was a mistake. A Northerner with scant knowledge of the code of dueling, Cilley didn’t realize that his refusal to accept a letter from a man’s second was an insult that required the second to challenge him to a duel. Graves promptly wrote a challenge, which was delivered to Cilley by Rep. Henry Wise of Virginia. So, Cilley found himself on Maryland’s infamous Bladensburg dueling grounds, just outside Washington, D.C., with a rifle in his hand, facing Graves at 80 paces, while six congressmen looked on.

Both men fired. Both missed. Graves could have ended the duel, but he demanded another shot. Again the two men fired. Again they missed. Again Graves demanded another round. His third shot killed Cilley.

Newspaper accounts of the fight inspired angry citizens, most of them Northerners, to bombard Congress with antidueling petitions. Sen. Samuel Prentiss of Maine sponsored a bill to outlaw the act of issuing or accepting a challenge to duel in the District of Columbia.

Northern senators supported the bill but many Southerners scoffed. Arkansas Sen. Ambrose Sevier defended duels, saying, “Nine out of every ten were fought for causes that could not be got over any other way.” Other Southerners argued that dueling was already outlawed almost everywhere but thrived because the public supported it. Sen. Henry Clay, a veteran of two duels, agreed that laws were powerless against public opinion. In the North, where dueling was disdained, few duels were fought, Clay pointed out. But in the South, where duels were popular, men fought rather than risk “having the finger of scorn pointed at them.” Clay said he’d vote for the bill because it might help to change public opinion.

The law passed but, as predicted, it had little effect. It even failed to prevent congressmen from dueling. In 1851, Rep. Edward Stanly challenged Rep. Samuel Inge to a duel—the last ever precipitated by a congressional debate. During deliberations on an internal improvements bill, Inge accused his fellow Southerner of ignoring regional interests and called him a blackguard. The two men traipsed out to Bladensburg and shot holes in each other. Both recovered. Neither was prosecuted.

As the Southerners predicted, dueling was not ended by laws, but by a change of attitude. That change came in the wake of the Civil War. The horrific carnage of the war helped demolish the romance of defending honor with a pistol. It also diminished the power—and the much-ballyhooed “honor”— of the Southern planter class that had embraced dueling. Of course, duels were fought after Appomattox but the tradition had lost its allure and gradually faded away.

By the dawn of the 20th century, dueling had become as passé as the powdered wig. Once taken seriously, it became a joke and Mark Twain drew laughs with a comic account of how he’d once nearly fought a duel with a rival newspaperman. “If a man should challenge me now,” Twain concluded, “I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot and kill him.”

Of course, Americans remain a violent people who still shoot each other in large numbers, frequently over insults. But these days, shooters don’t bother with the elaborate folderol of rules and challenges and seconds. It’s so much easier to simply pull out your piece and ice the dude who dissed you.

On September 9, 2009, while President Barack Obama delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, yelled out, “You lie!” Two centuries earlier, such an insult might well have caused the president to challenge Wilson to a duel. (Jackson certainly would have.) Politicians no longer answer every affront with a demand for armed combat. Instead, they slander their rivals in obnoxious TV attack ads that pollute the airwaves before Election Day. It’s not an edifying spectacle but it’s certainly an improvement over shooting each other.

Sometimes, though, a beleaguered voter can’t help but long for those bygone days when thin-skinned pols took their silly squabbles to the field of honor and blasted away. It did tend to thin the herd.

 

Peter Carlson writes our Encounter column. His latest book is K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude.

Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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