Nowadays, challenging someone to a duel sounds like a line from the latest Three Musketeers remake, but dueling used to play a part in American society - and Congress. According to a New York Times article from 1859, “all of the Congressional challenges that have been sent … do not exceed twenty-five in number, and not half so many as have been fought by members of the British Parliament.” The article continues in response to British criticism of “the state of civilization” in America and gives a rational-sounding recount of dueling politicians until that point in time.
The first recorded duel involving a member of Congress was in 1777, all of a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Army Officer Jackland McIntosh and Congressman Button Gwinnett (who actually signed the Declaration of Independence) squared off, and Gwinnett lost more than his honor. “The dispute was of a personal nature,” so the New York Times was hesitant to call it “a Congressional encounter, as it did not grow out of any act of either party connected with politics.”
At the time, such an “affair of honor” was increasingly commonplace in America, after the practice was brought over by European nobles. Unlike their Atlantic counterparts, though, lower-class Americans elected to engage in gentlemen warfare. According to the PBS website, two servants of the same master, “Edward Doty and Edward Lester, of the Massachusetts colony, fought the first recorded American duel in 1621, just a year after the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth.”
Dueling was a practice enjoyed all the way to the top of the society. Before becoming the seventh president and winding up on the 20 dollar bill, Andrew Jackson earned quite the name for himself as a skilled duelist, until an unfortunate encounter with Charles Dickinson (the Tennessee horse breeder, not the British novelist). At the time of the duel, Jackson had already served as a Tennessee senator and was practicing law, according to the History Channel website. What began as a bet on a horse race ended in Jackson and Dickinson crossing the border into Kentucky in 1806 and exchanging fire.
As the duel began, Jackson took a bullet in the chest next to his heart, but put pressure on the wound long enough to shoot back. His pistol misfired, and in a breach of etiquette, Jackson cocked his pistol a second time and shot Dickinson dead. Jackson’s fighting faux pas was a slight to his honor, but not enough to prevent him from later becoming president.
Not all politicians were so lucky. In 1804, a political duel shook the nation. Over a series of campaigns, Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton engaged in a series of personal attacks. To settle the matter once and for all, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. They set the location outside of Washington, where dueling was illegal, and met in the early morning hours near Weehawken, New Jersey. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, according to the History Channel website. Some say Hamilton declared the duel immoral and merely fired into the air. Others say he took a shot at Burr and missed. What then ensued is irrefutable: Burr fired back, the bullet going through Hamilton’s stomach and lodging itself next to his spine. Within a day, Hamilton was dead.
The country was outraged to lose a man as notable as Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers. Even though Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, his immunity as vice president prevented a conviction. By the time he finished his term, he had lost so much political standing that he devised a scheme to annex the Louisiana Territory and establish an independent government. When he marched a militia toward New Orleans in 1806, though, he was charged with treason. He was later acquitted, but the public labeled him a traitor, and he left for Europe, never to return to American politics. In Burr’s case, political grievances caused the country a great hardship. If current Congressmen don’t take heed of history, they might find themselves making a similar mistake.
By mail.com Editor Will Cade