Skip to main content

History Stories

Why Politicians Are Talking About Duels (Again)

A Texas congressman takes aim at the possibility of an 'Aaron Burr-style' duel.

The game of politics in America has long been a heated one, with partisan, divisive actions on both sides. In fact, there’s not much on Capitol Hill that hasn’t been said or done between politicians with opposing stances. However, one U.S. Representative recently suggested settling political problems in a manner that was thought to have disappeared nearly two centuries ago: dueling.

During an interview with local Corpus Christi radio host Bob Jones, Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold surprised many with his comments on a group of fellow Republicans (all women) who didn’t support efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“If it was a guy from south Texas, I might ask them to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr-style,” said Farenthold. Although he quickly issued a statement that his remarks were “clearly tongue in cheek,” it raised more than a few eyebrows, especially since the duel he was referencing was anything but a lighthearted affair.

The most famous duel in American history was the result of decades of long-simmering tensions between two Founding Fathers, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Although the two shared similar upbringings (both orphaned at a young age, both talented, precocious students), their political views and personalities diverged early and often.

Despite their mutual successes (Hamilton was the nation’s first treasury secretary and Burr was its third vice president), by the early 19th century their mutual animosity had spilled over. Burr successfully ran against Hamilton’s father-in-law in a race for a U.S Senate seat. Hamilton had (begrudgingly) backed Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, a move that showed just how little Hamilton thought of Burr, given his hatred of all things TJ. Hamilton also opposed Burr’s later New York gubernatorial campaign. And both men were quick to cut the other down, in both private and public conversations, which put them on a seemingly inevitable collision course.

Alexander Hamilton's duel with Aaron Burr at Weehawken, New Jersey. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr at Weehawken, New Jersey. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

In fairness, the brilliant (and arrogant) Hamilton was an easy person to hate, and his cocky self-assuredness earned him as many enemies as it did fans. By the time Burr fatally shot him on July 11, 1804, Hamilton had been involved in nearly a dozen other “affairs of honor,” although none of them had resulted in an actual duel (even when tempers flared, cooler heads usually prevailed for most early, would-be duelists). In fact, defending Hamilton’s honor was a family affair. Just a year before Hamilton and Burr met in Weehawken, New Jersey, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton was killed in another duel, after challenging yet another of his father’s critics.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for you

And while Burr and Hamilton are America’s favorite dueling duo, they’re far from the only ones who’ve taken things to the extreme. In fact, the first recorded duel in the nation took place nearly two centuries earlier, when a pair of squabbling colonists in Massachusetts faced off in 1621—just a year after the Mayflower deposited them at Plymouth Colony.

Officially, however, the practice of solving your issues 10 paces at a time was frowned upon, and as the number of duels increased in the 1700s, so did legislation aimed at forbidding it. George Washington himself spoke out against it (clearly Hamilton, a Washington protégée, wasn’t listening to his boss).

Andrew Jackson winning a pistol duel against Charles Dickinson. (Credit: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)

Andrew Jackson winning a pistol duel against Charles Dickinson. (Credit: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)

Just two years after the Hamilton-Burr duel, another legendary American political figure risked his life to restore honor. But in Andrew Jackson’s case, it was his wife’s, not his. The future president challenged Kentucky lawyer Charles Dickinson to a duel in 1806, after Dickinson attacked Rachel Jackson as a bigamist (Rachel’s divorce from her first husband may or may not have been finalized before she and Jackson wed). Although Dickson was known for his prowess with a firearm, Jackson had his share of dueling scuffles in the past as well, and when the pair met on May 30, Dickinson shot first. But Jackson shot better, and “Old Hickory” lethally wounded his foe.

But when it comes to dueling members of Congress, two incidents stand out. By the mid-19th century, much like today, the rhetoric among elected officials could get brutal. To diffuse tensions, the U.S. Senate had adopted an informal rule that legislators could speak freely (and fiercely) about each other, with the understanding that it was all a matter of political discourse. Almost the senatorial version of “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

So, in 1826, when Virginia Senator John Randolph attacked Henry Clay (a long-serving congressman, senator and then-secretary of state), most assumed it was political, not personal. But Randolph seemingly waived his rights to protection, and the duel was on. Randolph may have had second thoughts, however, and conspired with yet another senator to make sure his first shot missed Clay, hoping that would put an end to the duel. Randolph’s gun misfired, and Clay asked for a reset. Both men then aimed, fired and missed, finally letting the odd affair come to an end.

Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley wasn’t so lucky. In 1836, after Cilley accused a newspaper editor of bribery, the editor sent another representative, William Graves of Kentucky to intercede. Cilley’s refusal to meet with Graves seems to have set the Kentuckian off, and despite the pair having no history to speak of, Graves challenged Cilley to a duel. In February 1838, Cilley was killed by Graves’ third-round shot, and shortly afterwards Congress put forward legislation banning dueling in Washington, D.C.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.