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American Politics at Ten Paces
Strict codes of conduct marked the relationships of early American Politicians, often leading to duels, brawls, and other—sometimes fatal—violence
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
Nothing in his childhood in Gloucestershire’s quiet parish of Down Hatherley had prepared 43-year-old Button Gwinnett of Georgia for the fierce politics that he encountered after signing the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. One rivalry would turn so bitter that it would cut short his promising career. Violence, sometimes lethal, was an integral part of the fabric of the early American political discourse.
Gwinnett’s problems began when the Continental Congress awarded a military commission he craved to his chief political rival, Lachlan McIntosh, “the handsomest man in Georgia.” The two men represented opposite sides in an intense power struggle. McIntosh belonged to the conservatives, who lived mostly in and around Savannah and had run things for a long time. Newcomers Gwinnett and his friends came from the back country and outlying coastal counties. Evidence of the Gwinnett group’s increasing political clout emerged when Georgia’s assembly tapped him to serve out Archibald Bulloch’s term after the governor died suddenly in 1777.
In pursuit of glory on the battlefield, Gwinnett organized an expedition against British-held St. Augustine and eastern Florida in a bid to secure Georgia’s southern border. General McIntosh forbade Continental Army troops from joining the venture, which ended in mortifying failure. McIntosh publicly blamed the fiasco on Gwinnett, which helped defeat his rival’s bid to win a full term as governor.
Gwinnett mustered enough friends in the legislature to win exoneration in an official inquiry. An angry McIntosh rose in the assembly and called his foe “a scoundrel and a lying rascal.” That characterization forced Gwinnett either to challenge McIntosh to a duel or to retire from public life as coward, no longer worthy to be considered a gentleman.
The antagonists met early on the morning of May 16, 1777, at a field a few miles outside Savannah. The principals and their seconds “saluted each other” with exceeding politeness, then examined the pistols to ensure they contained “only single balls.” They agreed to fire at 12 paces and lined up. On a signal from one of the seconds, both parties fired: an instant later, Gwinnett lay writhing with a shattered leg, his own bullet having left McIntosh with only a flesh wound. A few days later, Gwinnett died in agony from gangrene, leaving his widow and three children virtually penniless.
Gwinnett’s death was only the latest in a century of private violence over public causes. The political duel had originated in Europe, where it became common in the 17th century. No less an authority than the great English lexicographer and moral philosopher Samuel Johnson thought the tradition deplorable but necessary. If a man saw his reputation being murdered, Johnson said, surely he had a right to defend it by asking the killer to risk his life or apologize. Thus a duel was “essentially self-defense.”
Deeply embedded in this reasoning was the code of the gentleman, which held a man’s “honor” more sacred to him than life itself. Many saw politics as the pursuit of public honor, so a duel—whether occasioned by wounding words or by an insulting blow from a fist or stick—seemed a logical, even desirable, outcome, infinitely swifter and more decisive than a war of words in newspapers or resort to the law.
Dueling and politics became intermingled for another, less well-known reason: a surprisingly large number of combatants walked away unscathed. Only one in five duelists was killed (one study has estimated the death rate at only one in 14). The pistols of the day were not “rifled,” so they proved quite inaccurate even at close range. In addition, many seconds managed to negotiate a settlement before the duel took place.
During the Revolutionary War, most face-offs in America occurred between military men, who were hypersensitive about their honor and eager to display their courage. But once national politics began in earnest after the Constitutional Convention, the duel swiftly became the province of politicians. President George Washington turned up the heat of political partisanship because he had grown disgusted at the way the Continental Congress had left the nation a bankrupt, disunited mess after 15 years in power—and he was determined to make the new government serious and responsible.