In 1804 the vice president of the United States shot and killed one of the founding fathers and the former secretary of the treasury in a duel. Gun violence, something that would continue to plague our society some 200+ years later, was already taking its toll on this young nation.
The conflict between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been going on for years. In 1804, Burr, with his VP term expiring and with the knowledge that Jefferson would drop him from the ticket, ran for governor of New York State. A third party quoted Hamilton in some scathing criticism of Burr that demeaned his character. Burr demanded an apology. He didn’t get one. So he delivered the challenge. Hamilton, though a self-styled opponent of dueling, accepted nonetheless because he feared the consequences to his future and reputation were he to refuse.
So they headed out to the dueling grounds in Weehawken, N.J., with their seconds, their pistols and their adherence to the Code Duello, the rules of dueling. Each fired a shot. It has been widely speculated that Hamilton intentionally fired over Burr’s head. We’ll never know for sure whether he intentionally “wasted” his shot because Burr didn‘t waste his.
Many in America had grown weary of this means of dispute resolution and Hamilton’s death came as a shock. A jury in Bergen County, N.J., indicted Burr for murder but the charges were thrown out by the N.J. Supreme Court. Many urged lawmakers to ban the practice, but in fact dueling was already illegal in both New York and New Jersey. The reason they chose to square off in Weehawken is because New Jersey was perceived to be lax in enforcement. The duel ended Burr’s political career although he did serve out his term as vice president. It also represented something of a turning point in that the practice began to decline in the northeast. Not so the south. That region of the country, which to this day supports unlimited private ownership of guns, continued to be the setting for numerous duels up until at least the Civil War.
Burr and Hamilton were not the only prominent American leaders to kill or be killed in a duel. There were senators, congressmen, military leaders, and then there was Andrew Jackson. Jackson boasted that he had been in 14 duels. Some historians have pegged that number at 2. Ah, but we live at a time when presidential braggadocio seems the norm. His most famous duel occurred in 1806 against Charles Dickinson.
Dickinson was a lawyer, horse breeder and like Jackson, a plantation owner. Despite his young age, 26, he had already participated in numerous duels. The fact that he was still alive suggested he was good at it. What motivated these two men to risk their lives? It all started with a dispute over a bet on a horse race. Their animosity bubbled over from there. Dickinson called Jackson’s wife a bigamist. (Her first marriage had not been dissolved yet when she married Jackson.) Then he published a statement in the Nashville Review calling Jackson a “worthless scoundrel, a poltroon and a coward.” (I’m good with the scoundrel bit.) Jackson made the challenge, Dickinson accepted and off they went.
Dueling was also outlawed in Tennessee, so this one was moved to Kentucky. As per the rules Dickinson took the first shot and lodged a bullet in Jackson’s chest, damaging a rib or two but missing his heart. Jackson then cocked his gun and misfired. If you were to play by the rules the duel should have ended there. But Jackson re-cocked his gun and shot Dickinson fatally. Jackson’s behavior was widely disparaged and seen as cheating. Twenty years later he was elected to the first of two terms as president.
Button Gwinnett is primarily noted in American history as one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. The British born Gwinnett was something of a failure as a merchant and as a planter. Yet he turned out to be a successful local politician. He rose to a position in the Georgia Provincial Congress where his chief rival was Lachlan McIntosh, Scottish American Revolutionary War veteran who was a landowner and slaveholder. By 1877 Gwinnett had become president of Georgia filling the vacant position after his predecessor had passed away. McIntosh meanwhile had become a brigadier general in the continental army, a position Gwinnett had also sought. As head of the Georgia Provisional Congress Gwinnett ordered McIntosh to lead an invasion of East Florida, which at the time was controlled by England. It failed. They blamed each other and when McIntosh publicly pronounced Gwinnett a “scoundrel and lying rascal” the challenge was on.
The duel took place at a Georgia plantation. Each took a shot. Each was hit. Gwinnett died. McIntosh lived.
One of the more ridiculous episodes occurred in 1826 involving secretary of state and presidential hopeful Henry Clay, who described himself as an opponent of duels, and Virginia Senator John Randolph. It all started with a speech on the Senate floor in which Randolph referred to President Adams and Clay as “a puritan with the blackleg.” I have no clue what that means but it is apparently highly insulting because after some debate about whether Senate rules prohibited challenging Senators for comments made on the Senate floor, Clay did indeed issue the challenge and Randolph accepted. Virginia was another state where dueling was illegal, but our lawmakers and cabinet members paid that no mind and squared off there anyway. Randolph rationalized that he wouldn’t be breaking any law since he had no intention of hitting Clay. Each fired one shot and the only victim was Randolph’s jacket. They set up for another round. Randolph hired in the air. Clay put his gun away. Game, set, match. They lived happily ever after.
One 19th century American president who you might not expect to have been found on the dueling grounds is Abraham Lincoln. Yet a young Lincoln, who was simply a country lawyer in 1842, ended up in a dispute with the Illinois state auditor James Shields related to the bankruptcy of the Illinois State Bank. Lincoln wrote a letter under a pseudonym that was published in the Sangamo Journal attacking both Shields’ actions relating to the bankruptcy and his character. Shields squeezed the publisher for the identity of the author and when he found out demanded a retraction from Lincoln. Upon being refused he issued the challenge and Lincoln accepted.
Illinois was yet another state where dueling was illegal so they headed off to Missouri. Both of these men had seconds who were determined to keep their charges alive. While both showed up at Bloody Island, Mo., at the appointed date and time, a negotiated settlement kept an actual duel from taking place, one that might well have altered the course of American history.
If you think Lincoln an unlikely duel participant, consider Mark Twain. The story of Mark Twain’s duel has been told by Twain himself. His real name was Samuel Clemens and early in his career Clemens worked as a journalist for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nev. (Nevada, by the way, also outlawed dueling.) The Enterprise’s main competitor was the Virginia City Union owned by James Laird. Clemens wrote a story which he claimed that he never intended to publish that, among other things, accused the Union of reneging on a pledge to support a Civil War charity. When Baird called Clemens a liar, Clemens issued the challenge and Laird accepted.
So Clemens and Laird show up at the dueling grounds and Clemens admits to his second Steve Gillis that he didn’t know how to fire a gun accurately. By way of demonstration, Gillis takes the gun, fires a shot at a bird and beheads it. Laird drops by, sees the dead bird and asks who fired that shot. Gillis assures it was Clemens and elaborates on his client’s marksmanship. Laird gets the idea. He apologizes and the duel is over before it began. At least that’s how Mark Twain told the story.