Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Dueling at the drop of a hat was as European as truffles, and as American as mom's apple pie

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Who could resist?

Duel-wise, America hit the ground running. The ink of his signature on the Declaration of Independence was barely dry before the brilliant Button Gwinnett was killed at 12 paces by Gen. Lachlan McIntosh, of the battling McIntosh clan, in a matter concerning a Colonial appointment.

By this time pairs of dueling pistols had come into their own as specialized weapons, elegant and, for their day, accurate. The earliest were made in England, and Americans ordered them from there until makers like Constable of Philadelphia and Cooper of New York were producing their own. Usually about .50 caliber, exquisitely engraved and housed in velvet-lined mahogany boxes with their own cleaning rods and accessories, they became a distinguished element in any gentleman’s haberdashery.

Until the 1830s, many were fitted with hair triggers, requiring only the most tentative touch. A man who, through nerves or inexperience, touched too soon would shoot a tree or the ground, depending on whether his arm was falling or rising. But for less ham-handed duelists, the hair trigger allowed not only a faster shot but a more accurate one, too.

Edgar Allan Poe challenged one of the paper’s editors but showed up too drunk to shoot.

Hair triggers fell into disrepute, but speed and accuracy continued to improve, particularly for shooting at greater distances. (In 1834 Alexander McClung, inveterate Southern duelist, set a new record by fatally shooting his man in the mouth with a percussion pistol at over a hundred feet.)

Like so much of our Old World baggage, the duel underwent a sea change in crossing the Atlantic. Here, fair maidens and a gentleman’s honor soon became less of a problem than politics. The new country took its politics to heart; almost from the beginning of the Republic all political factions considered all other political factions a threat to the country and a personal insult. They called each other not just traditional things like “liar,” “coward,” “puppy” and “poltroon,” but “fornicator,” “madman” and “bastard”; they accused each other of incest, treason and consorting with the Devil. Political debate often led straight to whatever secluded local spot had been set aside to soak up the blood of satisfaction.

It was political suicide to suffer an affront without challenging, or to decline a challenge. Such things had a way of getting around, by way of dinner parties, pseudonymous newspaper articles or the purely American custom, popular clear into the 1890s, of “posting” in taverns and on street corners notices that called the coward a coward. (Posting was also a common way of issuing a challenge in the first place.) Obeying the code of honor showcased a man’s courage, integrity and conviction, and marked him as leadership material. It was a wise career move. One James Jackson, at the tender age of 23, killed the lieutenant governor of Georgia for his “overbearing” manners and went on to become governor himself, as well as congressman and senator. Hamilton, explaining his acceptance of the Burr duel, wrote, “The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good . . . would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.” A pompous way of saying nobody would vote for or listen to a poltroon.

Judges, governors, senators, congressmen and rival candidates for office blazed or slashed away at each other. From 1795 until 1800, Federalists dueled with Republicans. After Jefferson’s election, Clintonian (so named for New York’s first governor, George Clinton) Republicans battled Burrite Republicans, and then went back to shooting Federalists. Decades later, when Andrew Jackson was polarizing the American political scene, an anti-Jacksonian, Col. Robert Crittenden, shot Jacksonian general Henry Conway through the heart.

The following year on Bloody Island, a favorite dueling site near St. Louis, Congressman Spencer Pettis, who was running for reelection from Missouri, and Army Postmaster Maj. Thomas Biddle, who had called Pettis “a bowl of skimmed milk,” killed each other at the brutal distance of five feet. Among many encounters in the corridors of power, Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine and Congressman William Graves of Kentucky had a falling out over a newspaper article and chose rifles at 80 paces; Cilley died.


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