Dueling Politicos

How did senators resolve their differences before the filibuster? With live ammo.

The early American republic emerged in an age of enlightened statesmen and sophisticated political discourse. And routine gunplay.

President Andrew Jackson once shot and killed a newspaper reporter on the White House lawn. Aaron Burr, while serving as vice president, mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But such events weren’t limited to the executive branch. Members of Congress played by the same rules.

Consider the events of April 1826. Sen. John Randolph of Virginia, an eccentric, sickly, hard-drinking opium-eater, had a penchant for public insult. He referred to Daniel Webster as “a vile slanderer,” accused President John Quincy Adams of being a “traitor,” and called then-Congressman Edward Livingston of Louisiana “the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs.”

He was the mean-spirited Don Rickles of the Jacksonian Era. When not casting aspersions on colleagues, Randolph was “requesting satisfaction” (not what you’re thinking, but rather a Colonial-era euphemism for picking fights). In fact, it’s said that his first duel was precipitated by a mispronunciation. There were, apparently, some grammatical crimes he could not stomach.

Henry Clay, über-orator and five-time presidential also-ran, was another dueling enthusiast. And he and Randolph were frenemies. During one nasty bit of mudslinging in the Senate, Randolph called Secretary of State Clay the B-word—blackleg—an epithet meaning “card-cheat” that was never to be used in polite company. Today, Clay would have unfriended Randolph on Facebook, but in 1826 the only respectable option was a duel.

The evening before the face-off, Randolph confided in Sen. Thomas Hart Benton that he did not want to hurt his adversary, and therefore planned to fire over Clay’s shoulder. In classic tough-guy mode, Randolph then spent the night reading poetry and, according to a report in The New York Times, assuring Benton, “in tones as sweet as woman’s own” that he would “ ‘do nothing on the morrow to disturb the sleep of the child or the repose of the mother.’ ”

The next morning, Randolph and Clay met in Arlington where Pimmit Run spills into the Potomac. While pistols were being prepared, Randolph complained that his “thick buck-skin glove” would “destroy the delicacy” of his aim. Indeed, his hair-trigger rifle discharged prematurely. Clay allowed him to reload.

The two men then lined up, marched 30 paces, turned and fired. According to some accounts, Randolph—perhaps emasculated by the misfire—decided he would try to shoot Clay, but his shot missed. Clay, however, scored a direct hit to the edge of Randolph’s overcoat.

Our heroes braced themselves for Round 2. They both missed, again.

Afterward the two men shook hands, the duel over. Randolph purportedly said, “Mr. Clay, you owe me a new coat.”

Clay’s response: “I am glad the debt is no greater.”

Andrew Madigan’s first novel, Khawla’s Wall, will be published by Second Wind in 2014.

Categories: Local History