Dueling in America was a means of settling manners of honor among men who were said to possess “honor”. In 1777, a document was published called the Code Duello, which outlined 26 rules for dueling, and these rules were followed by the participants; the price for not doing so was a loss of honor. In 1838, South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson wrote and published an updated version. Usually upon an offense the offended party would send a challenge to duel through a second, and if the offender apologized that was usually the end of the matter. However, if the offender accepted the challenge, the challenged party would pick the weapons, time, and place of the duel. Each party had a “second”, and this second was usually a friend who would serve as an intermediary and try to stop the duel. Up until combat started an apology could be delivered and accepted with the matter settled. Additionally, the duel could end at any time if honor was found to be “satisfied”. Usually but not always flintlock pistols were the weapons used and people rarely actually died in duels using these weapons given accuracy issues and that these pistols often misfired. Under these circumstances, participants had three seconds to aim before the matter became dishonorable. Despite various authorities, religious and political, trying to end the practice of dueling including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, this practice continued for the antebellum period of American history.
Some famous duels:
Swartwout vs. Clinton (1802)
Offense: John Swartwout charged New York Senator DeWitt Clinton with trying to ruin his friend Aaron Burr’s reputation with his rhetoric. Clinton refused to apologize.
Outcome: Clinton wins. Swartwout is wounded but still wants to fight, Clinton walks off after having shot him twice, unwilling to shoot at a wounded man.
Burr vs. Hamilton (1804)
Offense: This is perhaps the most famous duel of them all. Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr were bitter rivals and Hamilton’s defamation of Burr’s character in the 1804 gubernatorial race in New York (which he lost) was the final straw. Burr demanded satisfaction.
Outcome: Burr wins as Hamilton is mortally wounded and dies the next day. He is indicted for murder and although he is acquitted, his reputation is ruined and his political career is over.
Jackson vs. Dickinson (1806)
Offense: Tensions build up between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson over a horse race involving him and Dickinson’s father-in-law. Jackson demands satisfaction after Dickinson called him a “poltroon and a coward” in a newspaper article (Parton, 292).
Outcome: Despite Dickinson shooting him in the chest, Jackson summons the strength to take aim and shoot Dickinson, killing him.
Clay vs. Marshall (1809)
Offense: Kentucky House Speaker and future senator and presidential candidate Henry Clay calls for members of the Kentucky Assembly to only wear American-made suits while wearing a suit that is less fancy than he normally wears. Fellow legislator Humphrey Marshall, who likes wearing imported suits, doesn’t respect this gesture and wears a British imported suit to the assembly. The two men get into a furious argument with insults exchanged. Clay challenges Marshall to a duel.
Outcome: Both Clay and Marshall are slightly wounded.
Jackson vs. Benton (1813)
Offense: Andrew Jackson was said to have not handled his duties as a second in another duel well, and Thomas Hart Benton wrote so to him. Jackson and Benton wrote a series of escalating angry letters until Jackson challenged Benton.
Outcome: A duel that’s supposed to be orderly becomes a brawl, but Benton wins as Jackson is badly wounded and soaks two mattresses with blood. He miraculously does not die, and Benton becomes one of Jackson’s foremost political supporters and best friends. On his deathbed in 1845, Jackson dictated a farewell message to him.
Decatur vs. Barron (1820)
Offense: Admiral Stephen Decatur condemns James Barron’s conduct in the Chesapeake-Leopold Affair of 1807 while opposing his reinstatement in the navy.
Outcome: Decatur is killed.
Clay vs. Randolph (1826)
Offense: Senator John Randolph of Virginia insulted Secretary of State Henry Clay by charging him with a “corrupt bargain” in the 1824 election in giving the election to Adams and then Adams appointing him Secretary of State. Clay issued the challenge.
Outcome: Neither man is injured, with Randolph not even trying to hit Clay. The only casualty is Randolph’s coat, which gets a hole in it.
Brooks vs. Wigfall (1839)
Offense: Future Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall quarreled with future South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks.
Outcome: Wigfall and Brooks wounded, the latter must use a cane for the rest of his life and uses said cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner in 1856.
Belmont vs. Hayward (1841)
Offense: August Belmont, a major Democratic fundraiser and the Rothschild family’s representative in Washington D.C., quarreled with William Hayward of South Carolina over a woman.
Outcome: Both Belmont and Hayward are wounded, Belmont walks with a limp for the rest of his life.
Terry vs. Broderick (1859)
Offense: Former friends David S. Terry (ex-Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court) and California Senator David C. Broderick turn sour on each other over political losses given their stances on slavery (Terry is for, Broderick is against).
Result: Terry wins as he kills Broderick, and the former is thought of as an Aaron Burr as he supposedly fired before the count had finished. Terry would eventually himself be killed while attacking Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field.
The practice of dueling ultimately came to an end after the War of the Rebellion, as the United States had tired of such bloodshed. As troublesome as slander and libel suits can be, they are far better than having duels.
List of Politicians Who Participated in Duelling. The Political Graveyard.
On This Day: April 8, 1826. U.S. Senate.
Parton, J. (1859). Life of Andrew Jackson. New York, NY: Mason Brothers.
Smith, E.B. (1958, February). “Now Defend Yourself, You Damned Rascal!” American Heritage, 9(2).
The History of Dueling in America. PBS.