Living right next to the Samuel McIntire-designed Hamilton Hall, a virtual memorial to Alexander Hamilton, I am always semi-conscious of the man, his life, and his death: 208 years ago today in a famous duel with Aaron Burr. I wrote about the duel and its cultural impact in a post from last year, so for this particular anniversary I thought I would look at some of the more famous duels in Anglo-American history.
A romanticized view of the Burr-Hamilton duel, July 11, 1804, from an 1890 American history textbook.
I’m going to start with some early modern English duels and then work my way forward towards the nineteenth century and America. Duels are interesting little events in European history because they represent the remnants of early medieval judicial combat, as well as a tradition that early modern kings were intent on ending in order to establish themselves as the ultimate defenders of the peace. I’ve seen images from as early as the fourteenth century of kings “overseeing” duels between their noble subjects, thus projecting the message that the ritual had royal sanction. By the early modern era, one which witnessed a great expansion of royal authority, duels were made illegal and participants were subject to prosecution, especially if a death occurred. A case in point was the duel fought between the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson and his actor colleague Gabriel Spencer on 22 September 1598 in the sprawling Hoxton Fields northwest of London. Spencer was killed and Jonson was sentenced to hang for murder, but managed to escape this fate by pleading the ancient privilege of “benefit of clergy”. Spencer’s death left no mark on Jonson, who went on to fame, fortune and celebrity as the recipient of lots of royal patronage.
Several decades later one of the most interesting men of his age, Sir Kenelm Digby (natural philosopher, cookbook author, courtier, swordfighting cavalier) killed a French nobleman who had insulted King Charles I in a 1641 Parisian duel from which he emerged unscathed. Back home, the fact that he had defended the honor of the King of England did not mollify his fellow Englishmen, who remained affronted by his Catholicism on the eve of the English Civil War.
The romanticized image of the duel envisions a fight over a lady, but it seems to me that most duels were either about politics or petty insults. One exception was the duel fought in 1668 between George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and Francis Talbot, the 11th Earl of Shrewsbury, over Anna Maria Talbot, the Countess of Shrewsbury. The Duke and the Countess were brazen lovers, and Talbot seems to have challenged Villiers to avenge his own honor more than that of his wife. To no avail: he died from injuries sustained in the duel and his widow was promptly installed in Buckingham’s new country estate, Cliveden House. The Duke’s career was not tarnished by this particular episode, but Samuel Pepys, the diarist of the age, did note that “this will make the world think that the king hath good councillors about him, when the Duke of Buckingham, the greatest man about him, is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore.“
Anna Maria (Brudenell) Talbot, the Countess of Shrewsbury, 1670 by Sir Peter Lely, National Portrait Gallery, London.
The later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a golden age of duels, fought for more petty reasons than previously. It is almost as if the professionalization of war led to the trivialization of duels. Before I jump the pond, let’s briefly examine the “royal duel” fought between the Richard Lennox, the (future) Duke of Richmond and Governor General of British North America and Frederick, Duke of York, second son of King George III. When royals get involved, dueling becomes “fashionable”, but compared to the seventeenth-century duels, this one does indeed seem a bit trivial: the Duke of York was said to have made a passing remark about Lennox’s cowardly disposition, to which the latter took offense, and they met at Wimbledon Common with pistols on May 26, 1789. Lennox’s shot merely grazed the Duke’s hair, and the Duke refused to fire, and so the matter was settled.
I could go on and on with British duels in this period: duels involving future and serving Prime Ministers, Cabinet members and Members of Parliament, peers, military officers, journalists, and even ladies! But I’m going to leave duel-happy Britain and cross the Atlantic to put the Burr-Hamilton duel in a bit more historical perspective. Just two years after Hamilton’s death, another scandalous duel had a very decisive end: the future seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, fatally wounded Charles Dickinson in Kentucky on May 30, 1806. Not being an American historian with the ability to recognize reliable primary sources from those prone to exaggeration, I must say that there are a variety of confusing accounts about this duel. Here is what I understand, but I may be wrong: Dickinson slandered his Nashville neighbor Jackson, then a country lawyer, over a bet on a horse race and threw in a slur on his previously married wife. Jackson (who was apparently involved in anywhere from 13 to over 100 duels over his lifetime, depending on the source) took offense and challenged Dickinson, who accepted the challenge. When they met on the field of a Kentucky border town (because dueling was illegal in Tennessee), Jackson let Dickinson fire first, and received a bullet that would shatter two ribs next to his heart and remain with him for the rest of his life. The wounded Jackson then fired straight at Dickinson, and his pistol either misfired or stopped half-cocked (depending on the source), so he fired again, and effectively killed him. Besides the bullet, nothing about this event hindered Jackson in any way: he went on to become the “hero of New Orleans” and the President of the United States.
An illustration from the fictional author Major Jack Downing’s Life of Andrew Jackson (Boston, 1834); General Andrew Jackson, The Hero, the Sage and the Patriot, N. Currier lithograph, 1835 (Library of Congress).
My last duel has a Salem connection via Nathaniel Hawthorne. As part of the notable Bowdoin College class of 1825, Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley formed friendships with classmates Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Hawthorne, and the latter would memorialize him after his death from immediate injuries sustained in a duel with Kentucky Congressman William Jordan Graves in 1838. The cause of the duel was, again, politics, and the contentious Democrat (Cilley)-Whig (Graves) rivalry at the time; Graves, who is always described as an experienced “marksman” in the historical record, was standing in for the Whig New York publisher James Webb, whom Cilley had labelled biased and corrupt. Months after the duel, Hawthorne published an earnest memorial/obituary in which the honor of New England is put forward as the greater cause of Cilley’s death, anticipating the larger conflict in years to come.
An 1838 broadside ballad, courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library.