Settling scores: The duels of our forefathers
Back in the early days of the United States, some of its most prominent leaders settled scores on the dueling grounds, and not in the courtroom. Here’s a look at duels involving historic figures like Andrew Jackson, DeWitt Clinton, Button Gwinnett, and even Abraham Lincoln.
On this day in 1806, future President Andrew Jackson nearly died in a duel when he killed his opponent, a fellow plantation owner.
While the deadly duel two years earlier between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton is the most famous in American history, Jackson was a frequent dueler among the prominent politicians of the dueling age, which lasted up until the Civil War era.
Dueling was technically illegal in the United States, but prominent government leaders engaged in the practice.
Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration of Independence, died in a 1777 duel with Lachlan McIntosh. After the killing, McIntosh was then sent to serve under George Washington as a leader in the Continental Army.
DeWitt Clinton, the powerful New York politician, nearly killed a Burr supporter in an 1802 duel over patronage.
Burr was serving as vice president when he met his rival, Hamilton, face-to-face in Weehawken, New Jersey. On July 11, 1804, the men met to end a decades-long feud. Both men fired, but only Hamilton was hit. He later died from his injuries.
Hamilton may have been part of as many as 10 duels, but almost all were settled before shots were fired. Hamilton’s son, in fact, was killed in a duel, on the very same grounds were his father was later shot by Burr.
One of most famous duels involving Jackson was with Charles Dickinson. In 1806, the two men met in combat after Dickinson insulted Jackson’s wife. Dickinson was regarded as one of the best shots in America. Jackson was a fearless soldier. The future president survived Dickinson’s first shot, but Jackson’s pistol jammed. In a breach of the code duello, Jackson re-cocked his pistol and killed Dickinson.
In 1802, Jackson was involved in a duel with Tennessee’s governor, John Sevier, that ended in a standoff involving their seconds.
Another frequent dueler was Thomas Hart Benton, who fought with Jackson, and had two duels with a rival attorney, Charles Lucas. Benton killed Lucas in their second duel in 1817. As a senator, Benton became Jackson’s right-hand man in Congress.
In 1820, a top Navy commander, Stephen Decatur, died in a duel with a former naval commander, James Barron. Barron apologized to Decatur as he fell wounded. Decatur accepted, saying it was an honorable duel.
Two members of the House of Representatives fought in a fatal 1838 duel, when Kentucky Representative William Jordan Graves killed Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley. Graves was sent to deliver a dueling invitation from New York newspaper editor James Webb, but he wound up fighting Cilley. The Supreme Court boycotted the funeral in protest.
Then, in 1842, an Illinois state legislator got in hot water after he allegedly published a letter insulting state auditor James Shields. Shields challenged the author of the letter to a duel. The alleged author: Abraham Lincoln.
By the time the two men met for the duel, however, the duelers’ seconds were able to convince them to settle on the grounds that Lincoln was not responsible for the letters.
Perhaps the oddest duel was between Secretary of State Henry Clay and Senator John Randolph in 1826. A known hothead, Randolph accused Clay of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards” in a speech on the Senate floor.
Randolph was a much better dueler and didn’t want to kill the secretary of state, so he worked with another chronic dueler, Thomas Hart Benton, to purposely miss the first shot, so Clay would end the duel.
But Randolph’s pistol misfired just before the duel, and after Clay demanded that the duel continue, Randolph shot at Clay and just missed. Clay then shot and missed twice. Randolph went back to his original plan and shot above Clay. Cooler heads prevailed, and the two politicians shook hands and ended the duel.
Recent Presidential Facts Stories
10 fascinating facts about President John F. Kennedy
10 interesting facts on President Ronald Reagan’s birthday
10 fascinating facts about President Ulysses Grant
10 facts about Thomas Jefferson for his 270th birthday