We Still Like Ike
Volume III, Issue II - Fall 2012
  • "There are but two alternatives for a gentleman: extreme politeness or the sword."

    And so it is: mentioning on the floor of the Senate something a newspaper editor might have said about another representative is no longer an accepted excuse to draw pistols in a forest in Maryland at dawn.

    The American duel, borrowed from its European forefathers and pioneeringly warped by the frontier to include arm-tied knife fights and general bushwacking, can only be metaphorically found these days between banjos or pianos at tourist traps.

    But in the fetal stages of our democracy, the twin Damocles blades of an unpredictable, yet demanding public and a sensational press led many into gentlemanly battle.

    During these heady, hectic days, the notion of personal honor hovered somewhere outside the soul of a man, in some liminal space between his intinsic values and his political identity—meaning public officials were willing to die over disagreements about the powers of the executive branch.

  • Or, they died, as someone once explained in Savannah: because “the Republicans were not to be trifled with in this part of the world.”

    In his 1838 The Code of Honor, John Lyde Wilson, former governor of South Carolina, linked the duel to an innate need to seek redress: if an oppressed nation could do it, why couldn’t the individual? After all, he explained, nothing can dissuade us from recognizing that the duel is knitted into the fabric of nature: as evidence, he pointed to the perpetual warfare of plants.

    Lyde went on to detail the code duello and its formal etiquette, which included trying not to start a duel in the first place, depending on your second to handle the dirty details, and not using statements made under the cover of drunkenness as an excuse to send a challenge, but not necessarily letting them go either.

    Had 19th century police logs existed, they would indicate that while bloodshed was always possible, formal duels, due to either faulty weapons or faulty aim, didn’t always end in death:

  • DATE: 1826
    LOCATION: On the Potomac near Washington, D.C.
    SUSPECT(S): (1)The Honorable Senator from Virginia, John Randolph ; (2) Your Excellency, The Secretary of State Henry Clay
    NARRATIVE: Suspect-1, who named his plantation “Bizarre,” was described by his peers as “a boy with a mischievous syringe full of dirty water,” and was previously expelled from William & Mary for dueling over the mispronunciation of a word, called Suspect-2: “A Kentucky cuckoo’s egg” who was guilty of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards” in a speech on the Senate floor. A challenge was sent and accepted. Upon officers’ arrival on the grounds, Suspect-1 was wearing a bathrobe and shaking hands with Suspect-2. Suspect-1 had apparently arrived with an uncharacteristic wish to do no harm, and Suspect-2 missed Suspect-1when given the opportunity; both declined to press charges.
    CHARGE(S): None filed, though Suspect-1 declared that Suspect-2: “Owed him a new coat,” and Suspect-2 replied: “I am glad the debt is of no greater.”

  • Though a lie was considered “the resource of cowards,” there were few opportunities for politicians who were victims of slander or libel to seek justice. Juries rarely, if ever, convicted the accused; President Andrew Jackson’s mother famously told him he should not look to others to settle fights he could settle himself.

    And so ideological rivals goaded each other into duels: a Jacksonian Democrat calling a Whig a “bowl of skimmed milk” and the Whig, in retaliation, disparaging the size of the Jacksonian Democrat’s dingle, the two eventually firing pistols at only five paces apart, their weapons overlapping, and then shaking hands as they bled to death on the pitch.

    Everything these gentlemen and many others threatened to do and did was published in the papers. The unfavorable impressions of refusing to duel would never be righted in the minds of the public; those who denied a demand would often be “posted,” meaning their “cowardice” would be detailed and printed and hung in public places and distributed as pamphlets.

    Still, it’s not as if 19th century politicians sought out violence wherever they could find it. Insulting a man unwilling to fight,  ............

  • an insult with no expectation of retaliation, was considered a cowardly act. This was certainly not the case when President John Quincy Adams and his henchmen, including the aforementioned Henry Clay, called Andrew Jackson’s beloved wife, Rachel, “a dirty black wench.” If Jackson knew exactly who was behind the attacks, there is no doubt that the man who fought anywhere from 13 to 100 duels would’ve extended a challenge. When Rachel died two weeks into his presidency, Jackson blamed the attacks on her character, and it was said that he himself “died sorry because he never got a chance to kill Henry Clay.” He also died with predawn bullets buried in his bones, the president of our 20-dollar bills, for whom pistols were said to be as familiar as canes. He was so known for his pre-dawn peccadilloes that Jonathan Elliot’s 1830 book: An Authentic Account of the Fatal Duel: fought on Sunday the 21st March 1830, near Chester, Penna: between Mr. Charles G. Hunter and Mr. William Miller, was dedicated “To his Excellency General Jackson, President of the United States.”

    The man continues to be a polarizing figure even now; to some, he’s “the great conservative populist of American history,” to others, he was a bullying, maniacal jackass who said before his  ............

  • famous duel with Charles Dickinson in 1804, “I shall hit him even if he shoots me through the brain.” Dickinson only “pinked” him, and Jackson, after downing a pint of buttermilk, was elated to learn that his rival had died. The “strictly” disciplined general who executed his own soldiers, caned men in public places, and once when he was a lawyer, cold-cocked a defendant with a two-by-four while in court, often brought his friends into his political messes. Sam Houston, the legendary Texan who defeated Santa Ana for the state’s independence, once said, “My firm and undeviating attachment to Genl Jackson has caused me all the enemies I have, and I glory in the firmness of my attachment…” He then went on to fight a duel on Jackson’s behalf, although Houston was relieved when the man he shot through the groin didn’t die.

    The thirst for pistols at dawn, as America approached the mid 19th century, became more geographical in nature; what was seen as a “pro form exercise in etiquette” by some was called in other circles: “an exciting chapter in the social history of the pre-Civil War Southerner.” By 1859, 18 states had legally disowned the duel, even though it supposedly prevented war and chaos with its formalities and casualties of, at most, two. That same  ............

  • year, California Senator David Broderick, an anti-slavery Democrat, was the first sitting senator to die in a duel when he was killed by his former friend, California Chief Justice David Terry, for following the “wrong Douglas,” meaning Frederick, not Stephen, Abraham Lincoln’s pro-slavery presidential competitor. The bloodshed in the years before the Civil War only illuminated the intractable positions of foes for whom dueling would never settle the ultimate score: the right to claim people as property.

    The thing about the duel is: it was only fought between equals. Skirmishes between different classes were settled by canings, nosetweakings, or fisticuffs. What men of the world denominated honor in the early 19th century looks nothing like it does today: with bloodless slurs only sometimes pre-empted by an “I approved this message” and the American aristocracy expecting others to fight their fights for them.

    We are complicated, we the people; we don’t have to romance the duel’s ugly vigor to lament that the repercussions of a doctrine of noble untruths, of the false start of war, the ultimate 19th century wrong of “giving the lie,” were paid by none who made the initial claim; the festering, physical anger at the construction  ............

  • of their presidential libraries, their legacies and lecture circuits, need not be antithetical to civil discourse.

    Yet I still wonder about the duel. I wonder about consequences. I wonder if it’s true that Alexander Hamilton may have been spreading rumors that Aaron Burr had an incestuous relationship with his daughter, whom Burr dearly loved. I wonder about the Weather Underground, who demanded satisfaction over Vietnam and inequality at home from the literal architecture of the government. I wonder if Rachel Jackson and I would’ve been friends, if that means I would’ve behaved amicably to her husband, who joined the Revolution at 13 and was subsequently taken as a prison of war. I wonder who I am, when I wonder about the duel. I wonder about rage and the usefulness of rage delayed. I wonder how to partake in a non-violent duel. I wonder if it exists. I wonder about the urge to defend honor, and where it still lurks. I wonder how to partake in a non-violent duel against those who might be willing to partake in violence against me. I wonder about the duel between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone, a result of an apparent slight, when one woman shot the other’s hat off, and afterwards, a letter of apology cleared everything up. I wonder what I’m  ............

  • capable of. I wonder about language as a loaded gun. I wonder about loose rules of war and strict rules of duels. I wonder what satisfaction and the demand for it would mean today. I wonder if I would delope. I wonder if you know how many times I laughed while reading about a duel over a representative being called “a plate of herring” and then gasped when I learned that both men had perished. I wonder about honor. I wonder about how much I goddamn thirst for a time when there were consequences for liars. I wonder if you would think it odd, that I wanted this to be a funny essay. I wonder if you understand why I couldn’t do it. I wonder what honor even is. I wonder why when I search the cyber-neighborhoods where I would expect to find its phrasing, the gray ladies and print publications we trust, I rarely can find it even mentioned. I wonder if we’ve replaced one species of barbarism with “with all due respect.” I wonder about this simile: “In Mississippi in the 1840s, the duels were as plenty as blackberries.” I wonder if I’ve already deloped. I wonder if you know that in October 2002, the Iraqi vice-president suggested that President Bush duel Saddam Hussein, and that he would do the same with Dick Cheney. I wonder if you know that he said that he thought it might be a way to save the lives of so many people.

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