The Least Known, and Most Important Duel in American Political History

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Everybody in America, it seems, has seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical, which ends with the famous duel in which Hamilton was killed by his political rival Aaron Burr. It was a tragic end for somebody who did so much for the young Republic, but it was not an uncommon end to an early American political career.

Two other Founding Fathers met their ends in much the same way that Hamilton did. Only a year after signing the Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel with fellow Georgia politician Lachlan McIntosh. Constitutional Convention delegate and North Carolina governor Richard Dobbs Spaight died in a duel with John Stanly, his opponent in a fiercely contested Congressional race.

Dueling was part of American political culture well into the nineteenth century. President Andrew Jackson and U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton both killed other men in duels. And while he was Secretary of State, Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” from Kentucky, tried his best to kill Virginia Senator John Randolph in a duel after Randolph accused him, on the Senate floor, of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards”

In all, dozens of American politicians between the American Revolution and the Civil War died, or killed, in duels that sprang out of heated political discourse. It is tempting to look at dueling as a main driver of political violence in American history. But this is not quite right. The purpose of dueling was to contain violence, not exacerbate it. Historically, one of the greatest threats to human societies has been what cultural historian Rene Girard called “mimetic violence,” which occurs when a personal dispute between individuals grows to involve friends, family members, and eventually entire communities in a cycle of escalating retaliations. Think Romeo and Juliet, Or the Hatfields and the McCoys, two of our most famous examples of how mimetic violence can destroy entire societies. A duel creates a single point at which the two disputants can inflict violence on each other, with retaliation by friends and family members strictly prohibited by the same cultural codes that authorize the duel.

Duels, ultimately, should minimize conflict rather than escalating it. This is why the most important duel in American political history is the one that was never fought between a young Abraham Lincoln and Illinois state auditor James Shields, who Lincoln mortally offended in a satirical letter published anonymously in 1842. When Sheild’s discovered that Lincoln wrote the letter, he challenged him to a duel.

Lincoln accepted the challenge. However, as the one challenged, he got to choose the weapon. Normally, of course, people dueled with pistols, which is what Shields, a crack-shot, expected. Lincoln, however, chose the broadsword. His friend and fellow Illinois lawyer described the rationale for this choice:

When the famous challenge was sent by General Shields to Mr. Lincoln, it was at once accepted, and by the advice of his especial friend and second, Dr. Merriman, he chose broadswords as the weapons with which to fight. Dr. Merriman being a splendid swordsman trained him in the use of that instrument, which made it almost certain that Shields would be killed or discomfited, for he was a small, short-armed man, while Lincoln was a tall, sinewy, long- armed man, and as stout as Hercules.
. . . . .
After this affair between Lincoln and Shields, I met Lincoln at the Danville court, and in a walk we took together, seeing him make passes with a stick, such as are made in the broadsword exercise, I was induced to ask him why he had selected that weapon with which to fight Shields. He promptly answered in that sharp, ear-splitting voice of his: “To tell you the truth, Linder, I did not want to kill Shields, and felt sure I could disarm him, having had about a month to learn the broadsword exercise; and furthermore, I didn’t want the darned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”

The duel never happened. When Shields — who was a foot shorter than Lincoln — showed up at the dueling ground, Lincoln was using his broadsword to trim branches from a nearby tree. Shields knew that he was never going to get close enough to Lincoln to even fight. The duel was a bust, and they went their separate ways.

This was the most important duel in American history precisely because it never happened. Lincoln was in basically the same position that Alexander Hamilton faced in 1804: he had been publically called out in a way that could have ruined his political career. Even though dueling was illegal, someone who was challenged but did not respond — either by dueling or by reconciling to the satisfaction of the challenger — would be labeled a coward and a man without honor. Even in 1842, this could ruin a man in business or politics.

Had Lincon refused to duel, or been killed by a bullet, he would never have become president, and the Civil War would have played out very differently. Lincoln essentially defeated the entire dueling culture by accepting its terms but not taking them seriously. Politicians continued to kill each other for another fifteen years or so, with the last political duel concluding in 1859 when David S. Terry, a former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, killed US Senator David C. Broderick just outside of San Francisco.

But Lincoln figured out how to game the system. He chose a weapon that highlighted the ridiculousness of the whole affair, and he accepted the challenge in a way that forced the dilemma back on Shields, who had to decide whether to back down or be made a fool of. Shields backed down and released Lincoln from the obligation that the challenge created.

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