DiBACCO: When the duel settled political differences

Insult leading to gunfire robbed a young nation of promising leaders

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It was 210 years ago Friday when Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel in Weehawken, N.J. The men represented two conflicting sides of American politics, with Burr serving under President Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton, an opponent of Jefferson from the time of the Constitution’s implementation in 1789.

In spite of the shocking nature of this incident to the American public in 1804, it was neither the first (the Massachusetts Bay colony recorded the first in 1621), nor last of duels or near-duels between politicians. Like most duels, the Burr-Hamilton encounter dealt with supposed insults and the lack of apology for such statements. Like most, criminal proceedings were not pursued. No amount of criticism of dueling from reputable Americans could curb what Benjamin Franklin called a “murderous practice.”

Before his White House tenure, Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel. In 1819, Armistead T. Mason, a U.S. senator from Virginia, dueled with his Old Dominion colleague, Sen. John M. McCarty, and lost his life. Rep. Henry Clay, as a member of the Kentucky legislature in 1808, was wounded in a duel with another member, and in 1826 as secretary of state, challenged Sen. John Randolph of Virginia for critical statements made on the Senate floor. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. In 1842, none other than Illinois legislator Abraham Lincoln and state auditor James Shields almost dueled, with their “seconds” or back-up men smoothing the insulted feathers.

The list goes on, involving both chambers of Congress, even after passing legislation in 1839 outlawing dueling in the District of Columbia, spurred the year before by Rep. William Graves of Kentucky killing Jonathan Cilley of Maine in nearby Bladensburg. Although a House of Representatives investigation recommended censure of Graves, nothing was done. Twenty years later, there was still dueling bloodshed, with Sen. David C. Broderick of California killed outside San Francisco.

The tragedy of the American cycle of dueling is that it expanded beyond political figures to average folk, becoming entrenched in the South and the new territories of the West — there made easier by the invention of the Colt revolver in 1836. Of the 33 states in the Union by 1859, only 18 outlawed dueling. Not until the early 20th century did the practice fade, and few states passed laws — Kentucky did so in 1849 — prohibiting individuals who had dueled from holding public office.

Worse, dueling cut short the lives of some of the nation’s most talented men. Button Gwinnett of Georgia, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was only 42 when he died in 1777 in a duel. Stephen Decatur Jr., a naval hero in the wars against the Barbary pirates and rising political star, was 41 when he perished in 1820. It was Hamilton, though, whose loss was most sorely felt when Burr ended his life at age 49.

Hamilton was the last leader of the Federalist Party of George Washington and John Adams. His economic views did much to build the solid foundation of the first critical years under the Constitution, making the new nation a formidable one. Without his leadership, the United States for most of the next 60 years was ruled by one party — the Democrats led by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — that not only eliminated much of the Hamiltonian foundation, such as the Bank of the United States, but threatened stability by an incautious foreign policy, resulting in the War of 1812.

Most inappropriately, the tenure of this one-party rule at the time was dubbed “the era of good feelings.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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