American Politics at Ten Paces

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Thirty years later, a witty Southerner used this growing sense of the ridiculous to help put the quietus on the bloody pursuit of honor. During the Civil War, Mark Twain spent several years in Virginia City, Nevada, more or less hiding out in public to avoid service in the Confederate Army. In one of the many amusing editorials he wrote, he accused James Laird, publisher of a rival paper, of welshing on his promise to give money to a local charity. Laird responded so violently on paper that Twain felt forced to challenge him.

Escorting him to the dueling ground an hour early so he could practice his marksmanship, Twain’s second swiftly saw that his principal was a hopelessly awful shot. The second seized the gun and shot the head off a mud hen sitting on a nearby branch, leaving a starkly visible corpse for Laird and his second to ponder.

“Who did that?” asked Laird’s second with some alarm.

His opposite number pointed to Twain: “Take my advice. Don’t let Mr. Laird commit suicide.” After a hasty conference, Laird accepted Twain’s offer to shake hands. Later Twain joked about his immense relief when the duel was called off, intoning in his best deadpan voice that he was now “inflexibly opposed to the dreadful custom” of dueling. “If a man were to challenge me now—now that I fully appreciate the iniquity of the practice—I would . . . take him by the hand, and lead him to a quiet retired room—and kill him.”

One writer has compared Twain’s ridicule to Cervantes’s satire of airhead knights such as Don Quixote, smothered in the rituals of a chivalric tradition long past its prime. It was a characteristically wry way of putting the political duel out of business once and for all.

Looking back on these decades of political mayhem, one can only conclude that many early American politicians were afflicted with a kind of public myopia. Until the 1840s the press hesitated to report violent political language and its often fatal outcome, unless the incidents involved national figures such as Hamilton and Burr. After the invention of the telegraph in 1844, violence in Congress began getting national attention. But it was the ultimate violence of the Civil War, with its 620,000 deaths, that shocked Americans into realizing that violent public words could become deadly on a terrifying scale. It is a lesson Americans should never forget.

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