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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dueling

I haven't thought of posting about dueling, but tonight I discovered that my birth state of Kentucky has a constitution that forbids dueling among legislators and lawyers. Justifying this provision, the Kentucky Secretary of State's web site has this great story:

[Henry] Clay fought another famous duel with the eccentric John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833). Randolph insulted Clay over the latter’s support of John Q[uincy] Adams for president. Randolph called Clay a “blackleg” and implicated the Kentuckian in a “corrupt bargain” with Adams. Clay challenged Randolph to a duel. Randolph, a crack shot, could have easily killed Clay on the field of honor. Most of official Washington felt that Clay would not survive the duel and tried to dissuade Randolph from exterminating such a valuable public servant.

The two men met on Virginia soil (Randolph had insisted on the Virginia site since his native state was the only place worthy to receive his blood). On Saturday, April 8, 1825, Clay and Randolph crossed the Potomac River at Little Falls Bridge. What followed was one of the most ludicrous exchanges in the annals of dueling.

Randolph’s pistol went off due to a hare-trigger before the duel even started. Clay demanded that the duel continue. After pacing off thirty steps, the two men turned and fired at each other. Clay’s bullet hit the ground near Randolph, and Randolph’s bullet hit a stump behind Clay. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri tried to stop the proceedings but to no avail. Clay asked for another shot remarking, “This is child’s play.” The two men prepared to fire again. One of Clay’s bullets had pierced Randolph’s coat. Clay, by the rules of the Code Duello, now had to stand and receive his opponent’s fire.

For what seemed like an eternity, Clay and the horrified onlookers waited for Randolph to shoot. Known for his eccentricities and unpredictable nature, Randolph raised his pistol above his head and fired. The Virginia had spared Kentucky’s gallant “Harry of the West.”

Clay, totally relieved that he had not been killed, moved toward Randolph and asked, “Mr. Randolph are you hurt?” No, Mr. Clay.” replied Randolph, “But you owe me a new coat.” “I am thankful the debt is no greater.” exclaimed Clay. Thomas Hart Benton later said the Clay-Randolph duel was the “last high-toned affair” he ever witnessed.
It's probably a good thing that dueling is gone. From our distant viewing place, it seems incredible that it was ever thought to be a reasonable way to solve things.