Thomas Hart Benton in Defense of Dueling

Thomas Hart Benton in Defense of Dueling

Excerpted and introduced by G.E. Rule, from “The Brown-Reynolds Duel”, edited by Walter B. Stevens, 1911.

In examining the years-long preliminaries leading up to the crisis of 1860-61 in Missouri, there are two areas that cannot be ignored.  One is the ugly fight over Kansas, and the other is the battle to retire Thomas Hart Benton from his commanding position in Missouri politics.  In the former, the anti-slavery forces finally prevailed; in the latter, the pro-slavery forces.  Both victories caused a deep bitterness in the losers, and helped set the stage for Civil War.

BENTON, Thomas Hart,a Senator and a Representative from Missouri; born at Harts Mill, near Hillsboro, N.C., March 14, 1782; attended Chapel Hill College (now the University of North Carolina) and the law department of William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Va.; was admitted to the bar at Nashville, Tenn., in 1806 and commenced practice in Franklin, Williamson County, Tenn.; member of the State senate 1809-1811; served as aide-de-camp to General Jackson; colonel of a regiment of Tennessee volunteers from December 1812 to April 1813; lieutenant colonel of the Thirty-ninth United States Infantry 1813-1815; moved to St. Louis, Mo., where he edited the Missouri Inquirer and continued the practice of law; upon the admission of Missouri as a State into the Union was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate; reelected in 1827, 1833, 1839, and 1845 and served from August 10, 1821, to March 3, 1851, the first Senator to serve thirty consecutive years; author of the resolution to expunge from the Senate Journal the resolution of censure on Andrew Jackson; unsuccessful candidate for reelection to the Senate in 1850; elected as a Missouri Compromise Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1853-March 3, 1855); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1854 to the Thirty-fourth Congress and for Governor of Missouri in 1856; engaged in literary pursuits in Washington, D.C., until his death there on April 10, 1858; interment in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Mo.

Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1949

Benton had been a titan in Missouri politics for over 30 years; gifted, arrogant, imperious in mien. But he was not “right” on slavery, or so the pro-slavery forces believed. Benton did everything he could to stop “agitation on the slavery question”, knowing that it held the seeds of potential dis-union.  He was by no means an abolitionist, and would have been enraged to be called one.  He was, however, against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and against the expansion of slavery in the territories.

From 1850-56, the fight to retire Benton was a central feature of Missouri politics, with his enemies finally prevailing.  Claiborne Fox Jackson, who would become the secessionist governor of Missouri in early 1861, played an important role in Benton’s downfall. Benton’s abolitionist son-in-law –John Charles Fremont; who was to become the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856—probably didn’t help him much in the eyes of the great middle section of Missouri politics that usually decide (as it does in most places and times) elections.

“In Defense of Dueling” is Benton’s ode to “affairs of honor.” Benton was an acknowledged master of the “code”, and was either principal or second in many “affairs.” While Benton may not have been “right” on slavery, he was still a Southern man, with a Southern man’s view of honor.

It is this view that is often overlooked in the popular understanding of the events leading to secession.  Yes, the ruling class in the South had a large financial interest in slavery.  But that isn’t the whole story, and doesn’t begin to explain the attitudes of the great mass of Southerners who had no such interest.  The prevalent cultural attitude towards “honor” does help explain it, and the Southern attitude towards the “affair of honor,” i.e. a duel, is an important expression of it.

To put it simply, it was intolerable to a large section of Southern opinion that the North treated their “peculiar institution,” slavery, as a nasty, icky thing that desperately needed to be quarantined to the limited area where it already existed.  If the awful disease could not be eradicated (that pesky Constitution regrettably settled that question in the wrong manner), then at least it must be contained.  By 1860 it was very clear to the South that this was the Northern attitude; growing stronger all the time and finally resulting in the election of a President dedicated to halting forever the expansion of slavery –and to a culture steeped in “honor,” it was unacceptable to continue to share a house (the Union) with those who so despised them and their institutions. Southern culture considered itself superior; for the North to view it as not only not superior, but woefully morally corrupt was an insult not to be borne.  In other words, the Civil War could be seen as the largest duel in history. . .

Lastly, note Benton’s description of what happens after the duel is over. The culture with this view would also deeply resent Reconstruction as an affront to its honor.  Having fought for honor, the Southern man expects the whole thing to have been settled by the duel itself, with no repercussions to follow; no retribution; no aspersions upon the character or motivation of either victor or vanquished.  Remember, it is not necessary to win the duel for honor to be vindicated under the code; it is only necessary to fight the duel to vindicate that honor. This also helps account for the magnificent (or damn foolish—take your pick) indifference to the odds against their success that so many Southerners evinced in 1861.

The second section is Benton’s account of the Clay-Randolph duel of 1826.  Henry Clay of Kentucky was Secretary of State to John Quincy Adams, and John Randolph was a Senator from Virginia. Benton was present as “amicus” (i.e. friend) under the code.  Editor Stevens (a long-time St. Louis newspaperman) said of this account that, “In the history of the code there is perhaps no other narrative which will compare with the description Benton wrote of that duel.”

Thomas Hart Benton writes:

Certainly it is deplorable to see a young man, the hope of his father and mother–a ripe man, the head of a family–an eminent man necessary to his country–struck down in a duel; and should be prevented if possible.  Still this deplorable practice is not so bad as the bowie knife and the revolver, and their pretext of self-defense–thirsting for blood. In the duel, there is at least consent on both sides, with a preliminary opportunity for settlement, with a chance for the law Thomas Hart Bentonto arrest them, and room for the interposition of friends as the affair goes on. There is usually equality of terms; and it would not be called an affair of honor if honor was not to prevail all round; and if the satisfying a point of honor, and not vengeance, was not the end to be attained. Finally, in the regular duel, the principals are in the hands of  the seconds (for no man can be made a second without his consent); and as both these are required by the dueling code (for the sake of fairness and humanity), to be free from ill will or grudge towards the adversary principal, they are expected to terminate the affair as soon as the point of honor is satisfied, and the less the injury, so much the better.

The only exceptions to these rules are where the principals are in such relations to each other as to admit of no accommodation, and the injury [to their honor] such as to admit of no compromise. In the knife and revolver business all this is different. There is no preliminary interval for settlement–no chance for officers of justice to intervene­–no room for friends to interpose. Instead of equality of terms, every advantage is sought. Instead of consent, the victim is set upon at the most unguarded moment. Instead of satisfying a point of honor, it is vengeance to be glutted.  Nor does the difference stop with death. In the duel the unhurt principal scorns to continue the combat upon his disabled adversary; in the knife and revolver case, the hero of these weapons continues firing and stabbing while the prostrate body of the dying man gives a sign of life. In the duel the survivor never assails the character of the fallen; in the knife and revolver case, the first movement of the victor is to attack the character of his victim­–to accuse him of an attempt to murder; and to make out a case of self-defense, by making out a case of premeditated attack against the other. And in such false accusation, the French proverb is usually verified–the dead and the absent are always in the wrong.

The Clay-Randolph Duel of 1826

Henry Clay

It was Saturday, the first day of April, toward noon, the Senate not being that day in session, that Mr. Randolph came to my room at Brown’s hotel, and without explain­ing the reason of the question, asked me if I was a blood relation of Mrs. Clay. I answered that I was, and he immediately replied that that put an end to a request which he had wished to make of me, and then went on to tell me that he had just received a challenge from Mr. Clay, had accepted it, was ready to go out, and would apply to Colonel Tatnall to be his second. Before leaving he told me he would make my bosom the depository of a secret which he should commit to no other person. It was that he did not intend to fire at Mr. Clay. He told it to me because he wanted a witness of his intention, and did not mean to tell it to his second or anybody else; and enjoined inviolable secrecy until the duel was over. This was the first notice I had of the affair.

I had heard nothing from him on the point of not returning the fire since the first communication to that effect eight days before. I had no reason to doubt the steadiness of his determination, but felt a desire to have fresh assurance of it after so many days’ delay and so near approach of the trying moment. I knew it would not do to ask him the question–any question which would imply a doubt of his word. His sensitive feelings would be hurt and annoyed at it. So I fell upon a scheme to get at the inquiry without seeming to make it. I told him of my visit to Mr. Clay the night before, of the late sitting, the child asleep, the unconscious tranquility of Mrs. Clay, and added I could not help reflecting how different all that might be the next night. He understood me perfectly, and immediately said, with a quietude of look and expression which seemed to rebuke an unworthy doubt, “I shall do nothing to disturb the sleep of the child or the repose of the mother,” and went on with his employment (his seconds being engaged in their preparations in a different room), which was making codicils to his will, all in the way of remembrances to friends; the bequests slight in value but invaluable in tender­ness of feeling and beauty of expression, and always appropriate to the receiver.

I have already said that the count was to be quick after giving the word “fire,” and for a reason which could not be told to the principals. To Mr. Randolph, who did not mean to fire, and who, though agreeing to be shot at, had no desire to be hit, this rapidity of counting out the time and quick arrival at the command “stop,” presented no objection. With Mr. Clay it was different. With him it was all a real transaction, and gave rise to some proposal for more deliberation in counting off the time, which, being communicated to Colonel Tatnall, and by him to Mr. Randolph, had an ill effect upon his feelings, and, aided by an untoward accident on the ground, unsettled for a moment the noble determination which he had formed not to fire at Mr. Clay. I now give the words of Gen. Jesup:

John Randolph“When I repeated to Mr. Clay the ‘word’ in the manner in which it would be given, he expressed some apprehension that, as he was not accustomed to the use of the pistol, he might not be able to fire within the time, and for that reason alone desired that it might be prolonged. I mentioned to Col. Tatnall the desire of Mr. Clay. He replied, ‘If you insist upon it, the time must be prolonged, but I should very much regret it.’ I informed him I did not insist upon prolonging the time, and I was sure Mr. Clay would acquiesce. The original agreement was carried out.”

I knew nothing of this until it was too late to speak with the seconds or principals. I had crossed the Little Falls bridge just after them, and come to the place where the servants and carriages had stopped. I saw none of the gentlemen and supposed they had all gone to the spot where the ground was being marked off, but on speaking to Johnny, Mr. Randolph, who was still in the carriage and heard my voice, looked out from the window and said to me: “Colonel, since I saw you and since I have been in this carriage, I have heard something which may make me change my determination. Colonel Hamilton will give you a note which will explain it.” Colonel Hamilton was then in the carriage and gave me the note in the course of the evening, of which Mr. Randolph spoke. I readily comprehended that this possible change of determination related to his firing, but the emphasis with which he pronounced the word “may” clearly showed that his mind was undecided, and left it doubtful whether he would fire or not. No further conversation took place between us; the preparations for the duel were finished; the parties went to their places, and I went forward to a piece of rising ground from which I could see what passed and hear what was said. The faithful Johnny followed me close, speaking not a word, but evincing the deepest anxiety for his beloved master. The place was a thick forest, and the immediate spot a little depression or basin, in which the parties stood. The        principals saluted each other courteously as they took their stands. Colonel Tatnall had won the choice of positions, which gave to General Jesup the delivery of the word. They stood on a line east and west–a small stump just behind Mr. Clay; a low gravelly bank rose just behind Mr. Randolph. The latter asked Gen. Jesup to repeat the word as he would give it; and while in the act of doing so, and Mr. Randolph  adjusting the butt of his pistol to his hand, the muzzle pointing downward, and almost to the ground, it  fired. Instantly Mr. Randolph turned to Colonel Tatnall and said, “I protested against that hair trigger.”

Thomas Hart Benton statue in St. LouisColonel Tatnall took the blame to himself for having sprung the hair. Mr. Clay had not then received his pistol. Senator Johnson, of Louisiana, one of his seconds, was carrying it to him, and still several steps from him. This untimely fire, though clearly an accident, necessarily gave rise to some remarks, and a species of inquiry which was conducted with the utmost delicacy, but which, in itself, was of a nature to be inexpressibly painful to a gentleman’s feelings. Mr. Clay stopped it with the generous remark that the fire was clearly an accident; and it was so unanimously declared. Another pistol was immediately furnished; an exchange of shots took place, and, happily, without effect upon persons. Mr. Randolph’s bullet struck the stump behind Mr. Clay, and Mr. Clay’s knocked up the earth and gravel behind Mr. Randolph, and in a line with the level of his hips, both bullets having gone so true and close that it was a marvel how they missed. The moment had come for me to interpose. I went in among the parties and offered my mediation, but nothing could be done. Mr. Clay said, with that wave of the hand with which he was accustomed to put away a trifle, “This is child’s play!” and required another fire. Mr. Randolph also demanded another fire. The seconds were directed to reload. While this was doing I prevailed on Mr. Randolph to walk away from his post, and renewed to him more pressingly than ever my importunities to yield to some accommodation; but I found him more determined than I had ever seen him, and for the first time impatient and seemingly annoyed at what I was doing. He was indeed annoyed and dissatisfied. The accidental fire of his pistol preyed upon his feelings. He was doubly chagrined at it, both as a circumstance susceptible in itself of an unfair interpretation, and as having been the immediate and controlling cause of his firing at Mr. Clay. He regretted this fire the instant it was over. He felt that it had subjected him to imputations from which he knew himself to be free–a desire to kill Mr. Clay and a contempt for the laws of his beloved State; and the annoyances which he felt at these vexatious circumstances revived his original determination, and decided him irrevocably to carry it out.

BENTON, Thomas Hart,statesman, was born near Hillsborough, N. C., March 14, 1782; son of Jesse and Anne (Gooch) Benton. His father was a lawyer and private secretary of Governor Tryon. Thomas obtained a good education, and when he was sixteen years of age his mother, a widow, moved to Tennessee and took possession of forty thousand acres of land near Nashville, which was part of her husband’s estate. With his three brothers he engaged in cotton planting, but their first crop was ruined by a heavy frost, and Thomas abandoned planting to take up the study of law and was admitted to the Tennessee bar. He sat for one term in the state legislature, where he secured the passage of a law for the reform of the judicial system of the state and another by which the right of trial by jury was given to slaves. During the war of 1812 he served as an aide-de-camp to Andrew Jackson, then major-general of the Tennessee militia, and marched with the Tennessee troops to the defence of the Lower Mississippi. While serving under General Jackson the friendly relations which had so long existed between them suffered a severe strain, which lasted for a number of years. William Carroll and Jesse Benton, a brother of Thomas, became involved in a dispute, and a duel was fought in which Jackson was Carroll’s second. Jesse sent an offensive account of the affair to Thomas, and on Sept. 4, 1813, Jackson, with some friends, chanced to meet the Bentons in the streets of Nashville. Jackson struck Thomas Benton with a horsewhip; knives and pistols were then freely used, and Jackson received a ball in his left shoulder, while Jesse Benton was cut severely with a dirk and a sword cane.

Johnson, Rossiter

Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, 1904.

It was in this interval that he told me what he had heard since we parted, and to which he alluded when he spoke to me from the window of the carriage. It was to this effect: That he had been informed by Colonel Tatnall that it was proposed to give out the words with more deliberateness so as to prolong the time for taking aim. This information grated harshly upon his feelings. It unsettled his purpose, and brought his mind to the inquiry (as he now told me, and as I found it expressed in the note which he had immediately written in pencil to apprise me of his possible change), whether under these circumstances he might not “disable” his adversary. This note is so characteristic, and such an essential part of this affair, that I here give its very words, so far as relates to this point. It ran thus:

“Information received from Colonel Tatnall since I got into the carriage may induce me to change my mind of not returning Mr. Clay’s fire. I seek not his death. I would not have his blood on my hands–it will not be upon my soul if shed in self-defense–for the world. He has determined, by the use of a long, preparatory caution by words, to get time to kill me. May I not, then, disable him? Yes, if I please.”

It has been seen by the statement of Gen. Jesup that his “information” was a mis­apprehension; that Mr. Clay had not applied for a prolongation of time for the purpose of getting sure aim, but only to enable his unused hand, long unfamiliar with the pistol, to fire within the limited time; that there was no prolongation, in fact, either granted or insisted upon; but he was in doubt, and Gen. Jesup having won the word, he was having him repeat it in the way he was to give it out, when his finger touched the hair trigger. How unfortunate that I did not know of this in time to speak to Gen. Jesup, when one word from him would have set all right, and saved the imminent risks in­curred! This inquiry, “May I not disable him?” was still on Mr. Randolph’s mind, and dependent for its solution on the rising incidents of the moment, when the accidental fire of his pistol gave the turn to his feelings which solved the doubt. But he declared to me that he had not aimed at the life of Mr. Clay; that he did not level as high as the knees –not higher than the knee-band; “for it was no mercy to shoot a man in the knee;” that his only object was to disable him and spoil his aim. And then added, with a beauty of expression and depth of feeling which no studied oratory can ever attain and which I shall never forget, these impressive words: “I would not have seen him fall mortally, even doubtfully, wounded for all the land that is watered by the King of Floods and all his tributary streams.” He left me to resume his post, utterly refusing to explain out of the Senate anything he had said in it, and with the positive declaration that he would not return the next fire. I withdrew a little way into the woods and kept my eyes fixed on Mr. Randolph, whom then I knew to be the only one in danger. I saw him receive the fire of Mr. Clay, saw the gravel knocked up in the same place, saw Mr. Randolph raise his pistol–discharge it in the air; heard him say, “I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay,” and immediately advancing and offering his hand. He was met in the same spirit. They met half way, shook hands, Mr. Randolph saying jocosely, “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay” –the bullet had passed through the skirt of the coat, very near the hip– to which Mr. Clay promptly and happily replied, “I am glad the debt is no greater.” I had come up and was prompt to proclaim what I had been obliged to keep secret for eight days.

The joy of all was extreme at this happy termination of a most critical affair, and we immediately left with lighter hearts than we brought. I stopped to sup with Mr. Randolph and his friends–none of us wanted dinner that day–and had a characteristic time of it.

He asked for the sealed paper he had given me, opened it, took out a check for $1,000, drawn in my favor, and with which I was requested to have him carried, if killed, to Virginia, and buried under his patrimonial oaks–not let him be buried at Washington, with a hundred hacks after him. He took the gold from his left breeches pocket and said to us (Hamilton, Tatnall and I), “Gentlemen, Clay’s bad shooting sha’n’t rob you of your seals. I am going to London and will have them made for you,” which he did, and most characteristically, so far as mine were concerned. He went to the herald’s office in London and inquired for the Benton family, of which I had often told him there was none, as we only dated on that side from my grandfather in North Carolina. But the name was found and with it a coat of arms-among the quarterings a lion rampant. “That is the family,” said he; and had the arms engraved on the seal, the same which I have since habitually worn; and added the motto, “Factis non verbis;” of which he was afterwards accustomed to say the non should be changed to et. But enough. I run into these details, not merely to relate an event, but to show character; and if I have not done it, it is not for want of material but of ability to use.