Dueling seems crazy to us today. Two men take ten paces, turn to face each other, and stand still while they shoot to kill, all the while following strict rules. But while it’s easy to think of duels as simply evidence of a more violent age, dueling and other similar forms of violence offer an important window into the political, racial, and cultural history of the late 18th and early 19th century. Duels weren’t just about shooting at a guy you disliked – they were about masculinity, slavery, race, politics, honor, class status, and the sectional crisis. We’re talking about all this in this episode about dueling and political violence in America in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Transcript for Honor, Manhood, Slavery: Political Violence from Alexander Hamilton to John Brown
Researched and written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD
Sarah: Everyone knows the story. In the wee hours of July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton (lawyer, Constitutional framer, Federalist Papers author, former Secretary of the Treasury and etc.) and Aaron Burr (sitting Vice President of the United States) rowed separate boats across the Hudson River from Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey. When they arrived, their companions cleared a spot in the brush, then stood back-to-back and marched out ten paces. The men marked these positions, and after some other formalities, gave these spots over to Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton faced out over the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades where they stood, facing Manhattan and the rising sun. The light was bright, and he asked for his glasses, then tested his eyesight by taking a practice aim with the dueling pistol in his hand. One of their companions, Hamilton’s colleague Nathaniel Pendleton, asked if the men were ready. They indicated that they were. After a moment, Pendleton shouted “Present!” Within seconds, both men raised their pistols and fired, each gun flashing as it discharged, the explosions separated only by a second or two. Hamilton’s shot flew harmlessly into a tree far above Burr’s head – but Burr’s shot crashed through Hamilton’s body, breaking two of his ribs and causing massive internal injuries. Hamilton collapsed and declared, “I am a dead man.” Thirty-one hours later, Alexander Hamilton died of his wounds.
Averill: Undoubtedly, the Hamilton-Burr duel is the most famous duel in American history – especially after Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton became a cultural phenomenon. But in some ways, the Hamilton-Burr duel is an anomaly in the history of dueling and political violence in the first half of the 19th century. Both Hamilton and Burr were Northerners – both New Yorkers – and in short order, dueling (as well as hot-headed violence in general) would become acts associated with Southerners, not Northerners. Dueling was illegal in New York City – thus why Hamilton and Burr sought the wilder shore of New Jersey as a dueling spot – but that didn’t mean honor violence was unheard of in the North. After all, that very spot in the Palisades was the site of at least 18 other duels. But over the course of the first half of the century, Northern men, especially politicians, increasingly distanced themselves from violence as a way to protect one’s honor or advance one’s political ends. Southerners, on the other hand, prided themselves on their manly embrace of bloody defense of honor.
Other Episodes of Interest:
- Tuberculean Chic: How the White Plague Shaped Beauty Standards in the 18th and 19th Centuries
- Coverture: Married Women and Identity
- Victoria Woodhull: Free Love, Feminism & Finance
Sarah: Duels seem crazy to us today. Two men turn and face each other, standing stock still while another man is allowed to shoot at them in act with strict rules and regulations – I mean, there was an entire rule book that dictated when, how, and under what circumstances duels should take place. But while it’s easy to think of duels as simply evidence of a more violent age, dueling and other similar forms of violence offers an important window into the political, racial, and cultural history of the early 19th century. Duels weren’t just about shooting at a guy you disliked – they were about masculinity, slavery, race, politics, honor, class status, and the sectional crisis. Today, we’re talking about all this, and about dueling and political violence in the first half of the nineteenth century.
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
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Sarah: While Hamilton the musical has certainly made the story of the Hamilton-Burr duel more widely known, it has in some ways changed its meaning, too. The musical presents the duel as the culmination of a friendship-turned-rivalry that has gone sour over a long period of time, a conflict between men with strikingly oppositional characters and temperaments. In some ways, that’s true. Burr was the only son of very religious parents and the grandson of the famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards, of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame. More or less Burr’s entire family – both his parents and his grandparents – died in 1757 and 1758. Burr was an orphan, raised first by Dr. William Shippen of Philadelphia (one of the first obgyns in the US, btw) and later his mother’s brother, Timothy Edwards. It was a religious upbringing, deeply informed by his grandfather’s fire-and-brimstone faith. It was also a fairly privileged upbringing. When Burr was old enough, he was the beneficiary of a sizable inheritance from his father’s estate designated to for his education. Burr attended the College of New Jersey – now known as Princeton – where his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, had served as president. On the other hand, Hamilton famously was a ‘bastard.’ His mother, Rachel, had fled her abusive Danish husband, and his father, James, was the son of a Scottish laird seeking his fortune in St. Kitts. (Side note: biographer Ron Chernow argues that two popularly held beliefs about Hamilton’s childhood – that his mother was biracial or black, and that his mother was a sex worker – are not supported by any evidence.) He abandoned his family sometime in 1765. Hamilton’s mother died not that long after, likely while Hamilton was by her side, suffering from the same mystery disease. He and his brother were raised by a cousin, and each worked from a young age. Hamilton, as we all know, was a hustler – a self-educated and self-made man. The scion of famous New England bluebloods versus the upstart bastard immigrant from the Caribbean – they certainly make for what seems like a natural rivalry.
Averill: Their life stories really are remarkable, and it’s really not surprising that they lend themselves so well to a musical. But it’s also easy to lose track of the fact that the duel was a political conflict. Burr and Hamilton had indeed known each other for a long time – their paths had crossed first before the Revolution, then again when they both served as officers during the war, then again during their early legal and political careers in New York. Then they both went on to hold national offices – Hamilton was George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, and later Burr served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. But by 1804, not only were both men beginning to age, they were both without political power. Hamilton’s chances at political office had been seriously damaged by his decision to publish the so-called Reynolds Pamphlet, his explanation of his affair with the married Mariah Reynolds. And Burr had run for president in 1800, but came in second – which in 1800, still meant that you became vice president – but was so hated by President Thomas Jefferson that he was essentially a powerless figurehead. These were two men, in 1804, who were used to wielding political power, and trying to find roles for themselves in their new, less powerful, lives.
Sarah: Burr was a Democratic-Republican, which meant he was a member of Thomas Jefferson’s party. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a Federalist. If anyone was Hamilton’s sworn enemy, it wasn’t Burr – it was Jefferson. Diametrically opposed in nearly every possible political way. Hamilton and Jefferson had nearly clawed each other’s eyes out during their time serving in Washington’s cabinet. But the election of 1800 changed the calculation a bit. Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams – a member of Hamilton’s own Federalist party. But Hamilton hated John Adams too! He wrote a lengthy pamphlet full of bitter criticisms of John Adams (which ended with a sort of pathetic “eh, but I’ll vote for him anyway”) and mailed it to his fellow Federalists. Unsurprisingly, this pamphlet was published, and further destroyed Hamilton’s political career. The Democratic-Republicans won the election –Burr and Jefferson ended up with an electoral tie. This put the decision over the presidency in the hands of the House of Representatives, which meant Federalists as well as Democratic-Republicans would have to vote for one of the two Dem-Rep candidates. To Hamilton, a Jefferson presidency would be bad, but a Burr presidency would be a disaster. Burr was “bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement … if he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure himself permanent power and wealth. He is truly the Catiline of America.”
Averill: Hamilton’s reference to Cataline – a immoral, treacherous, and conspiratorial Roman Senator who tried to overthrow the Roman Republic – was pretty telling. Hamilton wrote to fellow Federalists trying to turn them against Burr and toward Jefferson, which was actually quite a feat considering how much shit he’d said about Jefferson over the years. In the end, the vote went (very narrowly) to Jefferson, making Burr vice-president. It’s not clear that Hamilton’s letter writing campaign was the reason Burr lost, but it certainly played a role. But Burr didn’t disappear after his electoral loss. He was Vice President, sure, but Jefferson distrusted him and elbowed him out of any real power, and it was obvious he wouldn’t join Jefferson on the ticket for reelection. At the same time, the governor of New York, George Clinton, seemed to be on his way out, so Burr turned his sights on New York as the site of his political comeback. Political newspapers began to dig back into Hamilton’s old diatribes against Burr, with one even publishing his comparison to Cataline. Probably in an effort to sell papers, James Cheetham, editor of the American Citizen newspaper, even wrote editorials trying to get Hamilton and Burr to address each other on their beef publicly. To Hamilton, Cheetham wrote, “Yes, sir, I dare assert that you attributed to Aaron Burr one of the most atrocious and unprincipled crimes. He has not called upon you … Either he is guilty or he is the most mean and despicable bastard in the universe.” He goaded Burr about why he didn’t fight back against Hamilton’s allegations, asking if he really was “so degraded as to permit even General Hamilton to slander him with impunity?” Later, the American Citizen declared that Hamilton opposed Burr because “HE HAD NO PRINCIPLE, either in morals or in politics.”
Sarah: Burr’s reputation was on the line – and while Cheetham was the one calling him out, it was with Hamilton’s insults. And Hamilton’s acerbic criticisms were – maybe – what cost him the presidency. Now they might be costing Burr the governorship and a political comeback. Burr sued the Citizen for libel, but they didn’t let up on their criticisms, even accusing him of sexual impropriety. Without real evidence, Burr believed that these scandalous claims came from Hamilton, designed to tank his political career. And, unsurprisingly, Burr lost the election in April 1804. Let me quote historian Ron Chernow here: Burr developed a “murderous rage against Hamilton. In his eyes, Hamilton had blocked his path to the presidency by supporting Jefferson in 1801. Now Hamilton had blocked his path to the New York governorship. Alexander Hamilton was a curse, a hypocrite, the author of all his misery. And that’s how Aaron Burr saw things in the spring of 1804.” So when, in late April 1804, after the vote, the Albany Register published a letter by someone who had had dinner with Hamilton in March, testifying that Hamilton had vented his spleen about Burr and his desire to see his campaign fail. After this initial publication, when the letter’s veracity was questioned, the author of the letter confirmed that it was entirely true. And indeed, it was true. Burr didn’t receive a copy of the newspaper until mid-June, but when he did, the account confirmed everything he already, in his post-defeat bitterness and paranoia, believed about Hamilton.
Averill: On the very same day that he received the newspaper, Burr conferred with his friend, William Van Ness, who would later serve as his second at Weehawken, about his next steps. They drafted a letter, which Van Ness hand-delivered to Hamilton’s office. The letter is pretty brief, but Hamilton correctly interpreted it as a call to the carpet – Burr was asking him to answer for his words in an ‘affair of honor.’ Hamilton wrote back, in typical Hamiltonian style, an exasperated letter and poked at Burr, asking that “if Mr. Burr would refer to any particular expressions, he would recognize or disavow them.” In other words – ok, sure, I don’t like you, but what specifically are you saying I said?? He and Burr exchanged several more letters, each escalating the situation slightly (and yes, each ending with “I have the honor to be your obedient servant,” which seems to be early American speak for “go fuck yourself dickwad”). Hamilton would not apologize or deny his statements, and Burr wouldn’t let it go. On June 27, Van Ness delivered a formal duel request to Hamilton’s friend (and second) Nathaniel Pendleton. Hamilton asked for two weeks to get his affairs in order, but agreed to the duel. We know where things went from there.
Sarah: So what we see in this duel very early in the 19th century is the story of slow simmering, but gradually escalating, political anger. Hamilton and Burr were opposed in a great number of ways, but if we’re looking just at their personal lives and histories, they also had a lot in common. It was their political careers, ambitions, and beliefs that ultimately brought them to that clearing on the New Jersey Palisades. And, according to historian (and fellow podcaster) Joanne Freeman, this was typical of duels in this era of American politics: rather than the explosive result of rash decision making or an angry exchange, duels tended to be the result of political maneuvering. Politicians, according to Freeman, “timed them strategically, sometimes provoked them deliberately” to achieve political ends. Indeed, she argues, politicians “were men of public duty and private ambition who identified so closely with their public roles that they often could not distinguish between their identity as gentlemen and their status as political leaders.” The Hamilton-Burr affair also shows that during the early 19th century, Northerners also sometimes resorted to duels to deal with political disputes. Hamilton, Freeman found, was involved in ten ‘affairs of honor,’ although they were all settled before they came to pistols at dawn, and in New York City, sixteen ‘affairs of honor’ occurred between 1795 and 1807, including a duel in which Hamilton’s own son, Philip, died, though most did not escalate to deadly violence. Northerners sometimes felt torn about participating in duels, worrying that they might be “disgraced and debased” by the violent act – but at the same time, feeling they often had no better alternative when the insult was particularly bad.
Averill: Nearly all men – at least, all men who moved in political circles and the upper echelons of society, men who had public reputations – spoke the language of honor. We saw in the Hamilton-Burr duel that the affair escalated through an exchange of words, beginning with the initial insults (Cheetham’s reports of Hamilton’s subterfuge against Burr in the election of 1800) through Cooper letter, then Hamilton and Burr’s words to each other in their letters. Each man used particular phrases that they knew that the other would recognize as part of the language of honor. Take, for instance, another exchange between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe. When Hamilton was accused by shit-stirring newspaper editor James Callender of stealing money from the Treasury while Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was certain that it was Monroe who had been feeding rumors to Callender. Hamilton marched over to see Monroe, and when Monroe professed his innocence in the affair, Hamilton seethed: “This as your representation is totally false.” Monroe retorted “You say I represented falsely, you are a Scoundrel.” Hamilton responded, “I will meet you like a gentleman.” Monroe told Hamilton to get his pistols – and then the men’s friends intervened, pulled the men apart, and the affair endd there. Even though it didn’t end in shots fired, it still followed the set, shared language of honor. Hamilton extended an accusation that Monroe was a liar – that Monroe had represented falsely. Monroe had responded to the accusation by one-upping Hamilton’s insult, calling him a scoundrel. Hamilton then told Monroe that he would ‘meet him like a gentleman,’ meaning that he was prepared to follow up his words with actions. Monroe accepted the offer by telling Hamilton to get his dueling pistols, telling Hamilton he was also perfectly prepared to follow up words with actions.
Sarah: Duels followed very specific rules, starting with the wordplay that Hamilton and Monroe engaged in. Each understood their own role in the script, and understood the implications of their opponent’s lines. Sometimes – like in the Hamilton-Burr affair – this part took place in letters and involved friends and ‘seconds,’ but in others, like Hamilton’s argument with Monroe, it happened fast and in-person. In many cases, that exchange was enough to satisfy the aggrieved party. For instance, Hamilton was pulled away by his friend and did not shoot James Monroe (or else we may not have had our fifth president). There were even rules regarding weaponry – which party got to choose the weapons, what kinds of weapons, and how they were used. The type of insult and the social standing of each party factored into the weapons and the nature of the exchange. Pistols at dawn was fine between social equals, but one did not meet a man with a lesser reputation or social standing on a field of honor. Those men usually got a beating, usually with a heavy stick or cane. But in reality, most men did not enter into an ‘affair of honor’ with the intention to resort to any violence. The key was that you had to make it very clear, by word and deed, that you were ready and willing to resort to violence – otherwise you had no business initiating an affair of honor. One of the most famous ‘affairs’ of the early Republic was between Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Lyon had insulted the Connecticut delegation in a private conversation on the House floor, which Griswold (from CT) overheard. Pissed, Griswold flung an insult at Lyon referring to some old accusations of cowardice from the Revolutionary War. Lyon didn’t take the bait – so Griswold walked up, grabbed the man’s arm, and said the insult to his face. This time Lyon did react – by spitting in Griswold’s face. But then Griswold let the Speaker of the House intervene, allowing the House to vote on whether or not to expel Lyon. James Madison, reflecting on the whole sordid event, concluded that Griswold dishonored himself, even though he had called Lyon out and confronted him on the House floor. He had started the whole thing by issuing the first insult, but then backed off, letting the Speaker and the rest of the House to decide what to do with Lyon. A “man of the sword,” Madison wrote, would have taken care of business himself. “No man ought to reproach another with cowardice,” Madison wrote, “who is not ready to give proof of his own courage.”
(Side note: It’s not as if Griswold didn’t use violence to deal with Lyon – indeed, when the House didn’t kick Lyon out, Griswold grabbed his hickory walking stick and beat the snot out of Lyon – who then found some fireplace tongs and fought back.)
Averill: While honor continued to be vital part of both Northern and Southern manhood, the two increasingly began to diverge. We talked about this a lot in Sarah’s episode a while back about manhood during the Civil War era. After the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, Northern men came to consider restraint and self-control a source of honor. On the other hand, Southern men doubled down on honor-honor – in other words, the maintenance and protection of reputation became critical at all costs. Northern men, who were already a little torn when it came to ‘affairs of honor,’ distanced themselves even more from dueling. It seemed so uncontrolled, rash, and impetuous – all things Northern men should not be. But antebellum politics nevertheless acted on men in ways they found difficult, even impossible to resist. Take, for instance, the Cilley-Graves affair of 1838. In earlier duels, we saw that they involved clear and personal stakes for the men involved. This wasn’t the case in the altercation between Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley and William J. Graves of Kentucky. Both Cilley and Graves had reputations as pleasant men – Joanne Freeman calls them “pleasantly conventional.” They were both handsome and gentlemanly, and while Cilley was known to be shrewed and ‘fierce’, they both were pretty average congressman and neither were inclined to hot-headedness or violence. And they didn’t really have anything against each other personally. But in 1838, when the Whig newspaper the New York Courier and Enquirer published an allegation that an unnamed Democratic congressman was corrupt, the political winds blew them into each others’ path. Democratic congressman Henry Wise was livid, and read the allegations out loud on the floor of the House and insisted that Congress investigate. Cilley objected and dismissed the veracity of the account – Cilley and Wise sneered back and forth at each other in the language of the affair of honor.
Sarah: Then, James Watson Webb, the editor of the Whig newspaper, arrived on the scene in Washington. Webb wanted Cilley to answer for accusing the newspaper of printing false allegations – plus apparently he had some other axes to grind. Either way, he approached his friend William Graves and asked him to deliver a letter to Cilley inviting him to a duel. But then when Graves tried to give the letter to Cilley, Cilley (correctly) surmised what the letter was and refused to take it. The two men stared at each other because neither knew exactly what they should do next – they even apologized for each other and Cilley reassured Graves he meant no disrespect. But something had to happen, and neither was well-versed enough in the rules of the duel to know exactly what it was. So each man went out and consulted with friends and colleagues about what the next step in the conflict should be in order for each of them to follow the correct steps. After much consultation, each realized that a duel was necessary, not between Cilley an Webb, but between Cilley and Graves. By the rules of honor, Cilley had insulted Graves by refusing to take the letter – and having already refused Webb, he couldn’t refused Graves without looking like a coward. Graves couldn’t let Cilley’s insult stand. A vague allegation in a NYC newspaper about an unnamed Democratic senator had created a situation where congressmen from Maine and Kentucky had little choice but to fight a duel – and so they did. On February 24, 1838, the two met in Bladensburg, Maryland and shot at each other three times with rifles. Graves hit Cilley in the thigh on the third shot, severing his femoral artery, and the Maine Congressman bled out in just a few minutes.
Averill: If you know anything about antebellum American history, you know that politics and, well, everything else, became progressively tenser and more fraught in the 1850s. Anger and violence always seemed to be simmering just under the surface in federal politics. But the nature of this violence changed a little bit. According to historian Joanne Freeman, Northern politicians, whose manhood was derived more from restraint than intemperate action, grew sick of being bullied by hot-headed Southerners. Southerners always seemed to dominate the ‘room,’ so to speak, when it came to the central issue of antebellum politics – slavery – and Northern politicians were sick of it. For instance, several times during the 1830s and 1840s, Southern politicians successfully established ‘gag’ rules in Congress that attempted to stop any petitions related to slavery from being discussed on the House. American abolitionism was growing (for instance, the American Anti-Slavery Society, led by radical William Lloyd Garrison, was founded in 1833) and anti-slavery politicians were trying to introduce anti-slavery petitions for discussion to bring the issue to the fore – sometimes introducing hundreds of petitions in a single day. In response, Southern Congressmen passed a series of gag rules that made it impossible to bring such petitions. But anti-slavery Northerners were determined to circumvent the rules – and no one was more committed to creating gag rule chaos than John Quincy Adams, who, it seems, had zero fucks left to give. Adams was elected to Congress after losing his election for a second term of his presidency to Andrew Jackson, and so was not in a generous mood.
Sarah: To anti-slavery Northerners like Adams, the gag rule was the purest, most evil manifestation of something they called ‘the slave power conspiracy,’ or the idea that Southern slaveholders wielded massive political power in the United States and were thus able to bend the machinations of the American government to protect slavery, no matter what Northerners did. And while that sounds very conspiratorial, they weren’t wrong – Southerners did have tremendous power, especially in Congress, and if they wanted to pass rules saying that no one could discuss slavery, they could! But this drove men like Adams nuts – and he was not about to let the slave power push Northerners around without a fight. As a Northern man, Adams also wasn’t about to resort to violence, but he was ready to fight with words and deeds … and did Adams know just what buttons to push. He used his exquisite knowledge of the rules of order to interrupt his pro-slavery colleagues to death with calls for order and ate up their time with boring, filibustery speeches. When a fellow Northerner, Joshua Giddings, delivered an anti-slavery speech that sent Southern congressman into literal fits, Adams knew how to twist the knife – by sitting back and laughing uproariously at the conniptions.
Averill: Adams’ use of laughter is really interesting. Southerners understood any attempt to get around or circumvent the gag rule (in other words, any discussion of slavery) as an attack. So when it happened, they reacted the way an insulted man would in an affair of honor – with deep, self-righteous offense. Adams, rather than indulge them by acknowledging the legitimacy of any offense, essentially laughed in their faces – adding another layer of offense without lifting a finger. Laughter also enraged the fussy Congressmen because it mocked their histrionics as ridiculous – poking a hole in the carefully constructed mask of honor in which Southern men cocooned themselves. While the concept of honor certainly continued to be important for both Northern and Southern men, the Southern version almost intensified during the antebellum for the same reason Adams and his Southern colleagues clashed over the gag rule: slavery.
Sarah: Slavery affected every single facet of Southern life and culture. Every action and interaction was informed by the existence and maintenance of black chattel slavery. And, as we all know, the American institution of enslavement was founded on physical and psychological terror. Because of all this, white southerners, particularly men but white women also, were extremely adept at justifying slavery, mostly to themselves. One way they worked to do this was by creating was by creating these fictional worlds in which slavery had different meanings. Historian Stephanie McCurry has argued, for instance, that white Southern men created a reality in which they were ‘masters of small worlds.’ White men (wealthy slaveowners and poor whites alike) believed themselves to be kind and charitable fathers in an enlarged family unit, where everyone in the family unit relied on them – and deferred to them – as head of household. This was all about perceptions. Everyone more or less understood that it was fictional. But no one could admit that it was fictional, lest the whole edifice of slavery-as-positive-good disintegrate around their ears. What does this have to do with honor culture and dueling and political violence? Well, in order for that mastery to work it has to be upheld by everyone, inside and out of the family. If you ‘revealed,’ or to use a phrase from the day, ‘unmask’ the reality, it was admitting that things were not as they seemed. In this way, truth was actually irrelevant – the perception mattered more than the reality. This is why John Quincy Adam’s laughter was so powerful and so infuriating to the Southern congressmen – it pointed out the absurdity underlying their displays of ‘honor.’
Averill: We’ll give you two quick examples. We may have even used one of these examples before – it’s super famous. Wealthy Southern lady Mary Boykin Chestnut, who wrote extensive diaries about the antebellum South and Civil War era, once remarked in her diary that “like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & concubines, & the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children – & every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends to think so.” Why couldn’t these women tell their husbands off and make it known that these children were the products of their husbands having sex with – likely raping – their enslaved women? Well, because to do so would be to “give the lie,” or to admit that everything was not as it seemed. To preserve the image, they needed to swallow hard and pretend everything was as lovely as it seemed, at least in their own households.
Sarah: Here’s the second example. Back in our episode about Civil War era manhood, we talked a lot about brawling, or the culture of hardscrabble, no rules wrestling that existed largely in the backwoods areas of the American South. I think I mentioned then that dueling had a lot in common with brawling. They might seem very different. After all, dueling followed extremely careful rules and strictures, and brawling seemed to have no rules at all. But they shared one very important central truth: they each revolved around the fact that the men involved had bodily autonomy. If they wanted to put their body at risk, whether from a sharp thumbnail grown out and honed so it could effectively scoop out an eyeball or from a bullet, that was entirely their choice. They owned their bodies. They owned their reputations. You know who did not have bodily autonomy? Enslaved men and women. This is one reason that historians have theorized that nose-tweaking was so deeply offensive and could lead to a duel: it violated a man’s personal space and bodily autonomy and, effectively called him like a slave.
Averill: So as the slave society that was the American south grew, and the culture dedicated to justifying and protecting slavery intensified over the antebellum era, Southern men clung ever more tightly that system of honor because slights to one’s honor were a threat to whole damn façade. This is where we come back to political violence. In 1856, antislavery Senator Charles Sumner delivered a speech that, in stunningly powerful language, poked through the veil Southern slaveholders had pulled around the peculiar institution. Sumner was railing against the Kansas Nebraska Act, which had been signed into law two years earlier in 1854. Another compromise in a long line of ill-fated compromises crafted in the hopes of controlling the explosive fight over the spread of slavery into the Western territories, the KNA had determined that the Kansas territory could enter the Union as a state, and that it could use a system of popular sovereignty (or a vote) to decide whether it would be a free state or slave state. In the intervening years, Kansas had descended into violent chaos as both pro and anti slavery folks had packed the state in the hopes of influencing the eventual vote. The two groups were literally at each other’s throats. To Northern politicians, this looked transparently like another move orchestrated by the Slave Power, and Charles Sumner was roiling with anger about it. In May 1856, Sumner rose in the Senate and delivered a speech called The Crime Against Kansas, venting his spleen against the crimes Southern slaveholders perpetrated against the territory and the nation. He accused slaveholders of ‘raping’ the ‘virgin’ territory of Kansas. He specifically calls out the senators who had been vital to drafting the law, with special ire directed at Andrew Butler of South Carolina and Stephen Douglas of Illinois (he of the Lincoln-Douglas debates) and James Mason of Virginia –Y’know what, let us just quote from the speech. To set the scene, imagine the 45 year old Charles Sumner standing on the senate floor, a handsome, comparatively huge man standing 6’4” inches tall. It was an impressive scene.
Sarah: “I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs. I mean the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), and the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas), who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same adventure. I regret much to miss the elder Senator from his seat; but the cause, against which he has run a tilt, with such activity of animosity, demands that the opportunity of exposing him should not be lost; and it is for the cause that I speak. The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight – I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed. The asserted rights of Slavery, which shock equality of all kinds, are cloaked by a fantastic claim of equality. If the slave States cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution in other words, the full power in the National Territories to compel fellowmen to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block then, sir, the chivalric Senator will conduct the state of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second Exodus!”
Averill: Sumner’s insult was powerful. He compared Andrew Butler, a South Carolinian slaveholder, to the absurd and ridiculous Don Quixote. He said that all his language of “honor and courage” was little more than childish playacting. And then he said that Andrew Butler was a kind of slave himself – a slave to the harlot, the institution of slavery. He was the one who was slavish, doing anything he could, including debasing himself and the Republic, to protect the honor of a ‘woman’ who was inherently lacking honor. His references to rape also purposely called to mind the open secret of slave masters raping their enslaved women, something that we heard Mary Chestnut pointedly explain was not to be openly acknowledged. Thems, as they say, fightin’ words.
Sarah: It’s not possible that Sumner didn’t understand how impactful those words would be – he chose them purposely for their rhetorical power. Indeed, even though Sumner was a large man, his friends in the Senate asked him if they could escort him home to ensure he wasn’t attacked in the street. (Sumner refused.) It’s little wonder that after the speech, Southerners were irate and looking for retribution. But Douglas was a short Northerner – he was not going to physically assault the towering Sumner for his insults, and the aging Andrew Butler wasn’t even present during the speech. Instead, it was Butler’s relative, the South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks who felt compelled to take action. Brooks’ friends told him he had to do something to respond to the insult. But Butler couldn’t invite Sumner to duel. It wasn’t just that Sumner would have refused (which he almost certainly would have) but that Brooks believed that Sumner was without honor, and one did not duel a man of lesser standing. Brooks wanted to send the message that Sumner was weak, unmanly, and utterly lacking honor. So on May 22, Preston Brooks entered the senate chamber where Sumner sat preparing copies of the infamous speech to mail. Brooks waited until the coast was more or less clear (especially of ladies, who were in the chamber observing), walked up to Sumner’s desk, and stated “Mr. Sumner, I read your speech with care and as much impartiality as was possible, and I felt it was my duty to tell you that you have libeled my state and slandered a relative who is aged and absent and I am come to punish you for it.” His buddy Lawrence Keitt – who we talked about in the manhood episode – held off anyone trying to intervene. Brooks raised his thick, heavy, gutta percha cane and began to beat the snot out of Sumner. Sumner was effectively trapped by his heavy metal desk, which was bolted into the floor. Eventually, in desperation to get away from the blows, Sumner wrenched the desk out of the floor.
Averill: While this on its face seemed in line with an honor exchange, it deviated in important ways. Brooks had beaten Sumner on the Senate floor in a premeditated attack – while there had been other fights on the floor of Congress, they were always spontaneous. To attack a man while he sat, and sat in that hallowed chamber, was inappropriate. He also had beaten Sumner while he was sitting, and without offering any kind of warning, both also deemed inappropriate. To Northerners, the attack was proof of exactly what Sumner’s speech had been trying to convey – that a shadowy Slave Power conspiracy was operating the government in unfair and, in many cases, violent ways. Southerners were hot-headed, absurd, impossible to compromise with, and slavishly dedicated to protecting the institution of slavery. Northerners looked at the exchange and saw Sumner as a Northern man finally ready for bold action. They wanted more.
Sarah: They would get more – just not from politicians. Instead, the real example of Northern political violence came in the form of a zealous antislavery crusader and soon-to-be martyr, John Brown. Indeed, just two days after Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner, John Brown a small force made up mostly of his own sons on the homesteads of several pro-slavery settlers near Pottawattomie Creek in Kansas. They pulled five men out of their homes in the middle of the night and hacked them to death with broadswords. The event caused immense debate, but was also folded in along with the rest of the violence taking place in so-called “Bleeding Kansas.” But just three years later, Brown undertook another act of political violence in his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That raid was funded by Northern abolitionists, eager for a man of action – not just bold words, like Charles Sumner, but ready to wield political violence in the ways that Southern men always had, to great effect. After Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner, Northerners felt like they were continually bringing a knife to a Southern gunfight. Maybe with someone like Brown, who met the Southern readiness to use deadly force with his own deadly force, the Slave Power might finally be checked. We know that’s not exactly how it played out – Brown’s raid was largely a failure, and he was quickly arrested and hung. Northerners saw even this as evidence of the Slave Power: while Southerners used violent action to meet their ends in Washington, abolitionist violence was decried as terrorism. But in a way, John Brown’s final words were prescient in their reminder that the problem of slavery would never go away without political violence: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of his guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Earle, Jonathan. John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2008.
Ellis, Joseph. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Freeman, Joanne B. The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor & Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, The Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2010.
Letters from Alexander Hamilton to Aaron Burr, Founders Online, National Archives Online.