June 29, 2011

The Clay-Randolph Duel

One of the most interesting (in my opinion) well-known duels in American history is the one that took place between Henry Clay and John Randolph.  On that topic, here are two articles and a book excerpt.

The Ogden Standard of Ogden, Utah on July 2, 1910


The first is an excerpt of an article entitled "Fist Fights in the Hall of Congress"  first published by the New York Herald, and reprinted in The Ogden Standard of Ogden, Utah on July 2, 1910.  I like this one because, unlike the other two, it discusses why the duel occurred.  The second is a short recounting of the duel itself from a book titled A Treasury of Southern Folklore, followed by a longer article from the New York Tribune which discusses the duel as well as the personalities and careers of both men.

Excerpt of "Fist Fights in the Halls of Congress" first published by the New York Herald
reprinted in The Ogden Standard of Ogden, Utah on July 2, 1910.
  John Randolph, of Roanoke, possessed probably the most caustic tongue in American legislative history.  He had a veritable genius for breeding quarrels.  Scarcely a member of Congress in his day went unscathed.  In 1826, Randolph declared that the election of John Quinc Adams to the Presidency was the result of a bargain whereby Clay was to become Secretary of State.

Speaking on the floor of the House, Randolph in tones of passion cried out:--"I was defeated, horse, foot and dragoons--cut up and clean broke down by the coalition of Bliful and Black George--by a combination unheard of til' then of the Puritan with the blackleg."

Upon Randolph's refusal to explain his language, Clay challenged him to a duel.  They met across the Potomac on Virginia soil on April 8, 1926.  After a harmless exchange of shots the contestants were reconciled and became close personal friends.  Clay previoiusly had fought a duel with Humphrey Marshall in 1808 as a result of personal remarks made in the heat of political debate.

A Treasury of Southern Folklore, edited by B. A. Botkin, copywright 1949, Bonanza Books, New York, pg 258.

The Randolph-Clay Duel
The particulars of the duel between Mr. Randolph and Mr. Clay may be unknown to some of our readers.  The eccentric descendant of Pocahontas appeared on the ground in a huge morning gown.  This garment constituted such a vast circumference that the "locality of the swarthy Senator" was at least a matter of very vague conjecture.  The parties exchanged shots and the ball of Mr. Clay hit the centre of the visible object, but Mr. Randolph was not there! The latter had fired in the air, and immediately after the exchange of shots he walked up to Mr. Clay, parted the folds of hs gown, pointed to the hole where the bullet of the former had pierced  his coat, and, in the shrillest tone of his piercing voice, exclaimed, "Mr. Clay, you owe me a coat--you owe me a coat!" to which Mr. Clay replied, in a voice of slow and solemn emphasis, at the same time pointing directly at Mr. Randolph's heart, "Mr. Randolph, I thank God that I am no deeper in your debt!"


American Duels
The Clay-Randolph Duel
Article by Edgar Allen Forbes
From the New-York Tribune., March 07, 1915
Henry Clay said he would rather be right than be President, as every schoolboy knows; but he did not hesitate to fight a duel under provocation.  Of all the commanding figures in the early history of this country, no one else between Washington and Lincoln, with the possible exception of Jackson, came so near to being the idol of the American people.  Yet Clay missed the Executive Mansion just as he missed Randolph--barely. 
Clay was forty-nine when he went out to fight John Randolph on the banks of the Potomac.  Since both men returned in safety to their exalted places in public life, the duel itself does not greatly matter.  The most interesting facts concern the personalities of the two men. 
Clay was a Virginian, the son of a Baptist minister, and began life as an ordinary clerk in Richmond.  Eventually be became a law student, and at the age of twenty removed to Kentucky, which was thenceforth to be his "native" State.  At twenty-six he was a member of the Kentucky Legislature, and before he was thirty he was a member of the United States Senate.  From that date, 1806, up to his death in 1852, he was one of the foremost men in the public life of America. 
Clay's career at Washington differed in some respects from that of many others who had risen to such lofty heights.  After having twice been sent to the Senate, for instance, he became a member of the House of Representatives, of which he was for a long time Speaker.  He regarded the opportunities for usefulness in the House as being so great that he consistently declined appointments that other Congressmen have almost broken their necks to secure. President after President offered him foreign ambassadorships and Cabinet appointments, nearly all of which he turned down.  This persistent declination was disappointing to many political foes and some friends, who would gladly have seen Clay eliminated from the floor of the House, where many fierce oratorical battles were being fought. 
Two years before his duel with Randolph, Henry Clay almost became President of the United States.  It was in 1824, when a successor to James Monroe was being chosen.  When the electoral votes were counted it was found that Clay was fourth on the list.  None of the four having a majority, the election went to the House of Representatives. 
Had Clay been a real politician, knowing well how to play the game, he would have won.  As it was, John Quincy Adams went to the presidential chair; though Andrew Jackson had beaten him badly in the electoral college.  First and last, Clay aspired to the presidency more times than  William Jennings Bryan; but this was the closest that he ever came. 
A man of inflexible convictions, gifted with an oratory that frequently took the hide off his opponents, it was inevitable that Clay should make powerful enemies.  Two of the most notable of these were Andre Jackson and John Randolph.  By some strange circumstances Jackson, himself a famous duelist, never met Clay on the field of honor; though such an event would not have been surprising after the election of 1824, when Clay's support of Adams cost Jackson the presidency.  It was the much less peppery Randolph who exasperated Clay to the point of firearms. 
The name of John Randolph is only slightly less illustrious than that of Henry Clay, but with far less reason.  Randolph differed from Clay as widely as a peacock differs from a game rooster.  He also was a Virginian, an "F.F.V.," but one of a type now happily vanishing.  It was no small part of Randolph's pride that he could claim direct descent, seventh in line, from the historic Pocahontas--who also could rightfully claim distinction among the first families of Virginia. 
Randolph had been born four years earlier than Clay, and with a silver spoon in his mouth.  He was the pampered son who had the misfortune never in the course of his long life to know anything of toil or discipline.  His youth and early manhood, during which he made a few spasmodic attempts to acquire a superficial education, were spent in such a manner that nothing short of a miracle could have made a real man of him. 
At the age of twenty-six he became a candidate for Congress.  His entrance into political life was picturesque.  It was in March, 1799, and Patrick Henry--old and feeble, but with a voice that still vibrated with the oldtime thrill--stood on the tavern porch at Charlotte and warned the people of his native Virginia not to raise their hands against the national government.  As he fell back exhausted, so the story goes, young Randolph climbed up to the platform and took his place.  What the young man said is not recorded, probably was not worth recording; but he went to Congress, and held his place there throughout his life. 
Randolph's political career was brilliant in the beginning. His social prominence, his wealth, and his power as a vindictive speaker made him a  man to be reckoned with as early as 1800.  He was soon in line for the presidency; but he attained distinction chiefly by the bitterness of his attacks upon public men.  In fact his career was so erratic that his friends were at times driven to the lame excuse that their leader was insane.  His enemies ascribed his actions to drink.  Randolph's own explanation was that he had an ungovernable temper--which he apparently never tried to control.
Of all men in public life whom Randolph detested, probably Henry Clay was the most hated.  his dislike was not lessened by the fact that Clay, as Speaker of the House, had frequently called him to order.  It seems also to be true that Randolph's most brilliant speeches were likely to be delivered upon issues in which he knew Clay to be strongly on the other side.  And so they drifted along, each increasingly in detestation of the other, until the crises came in 1826. 
The duel was the immediate outcome of a harangue that Randolph delivered on March 30, 1826, attacking President Adams and Secretary of State Clay.  It has been described as "probably the most blackguardly speech ever heard in either branch of Congress," and the maudlin manner of the speaker might have kept Clay from taking note of it had it not been for the publicity it received.  Randolph not only exhausted his large vocabulary in denouncing two of the leading men of the nation, but he impoverished history and literature all the way from Don Quixote to Shakespeare and Fielding in his effort to express his feelings.  Clay was the special target of his venom.  He not only reviled the Secretary of State himself, but he bitterly censured his ancestors for bringing into the world "this being so brilliant yet so corrupt, which like a rotten mackerel in the moonlight, shined and stunk!"  The remark that stung like a lash, however, was Randolph's allusion to Clay's support of Adams in the presidential election.  He called it "the coalition of Blifil and Black George--a combination unheard of until then, of the Puritan with the blackleg." 
It is safe to say that if a Senator from Virginia were to rise in the Senate nowadays and refer to Secretary Bryan's support of President Wilson as "a coalition of Blifil and Black George" the remark would pass unnoticed.  In fact, the chances are that there would not be more than one or two men in the whole United States Senate who would have the least idea of what the speaker meant.  But Fielding's novel of "Tom Jones" was more familiar then than now; and even though Randolph did not say which of the two men was the hypocritical Blifil and which was Black George, the mere mention of the names was sufficient to call for prompt action.  Besides there was the reference to rotten mackerel.  There were some things that a Kentuckian could not be expected to overlook. 
On the day following the speech General Jessup, presenting Secretary Clay, called upon Randolph, and found the Virginian no wise reluctant to appear on the field of honor.  The time was fixed for the afternoon of Saturday one week later, and the place was to be above the Little Falls Bridge, on the Virginia bank of the Potomac.  The weapons were to be pistols. 
General Jessup was Clay's second; while Colonel Tattnall acted in a similar capcity for Randolph.  Senator Thomas H. Benton would probably have been Randolph's second had it not been for the fact that he was a blood relation of Mrs. Clay's and was therefore barred by the code from participating.  He had to content himself with being present as a friend.  In his book, "Thirty Years," Benton has declared to be "the last high-toned duel" that he witnessed. 
On the night before the duel Randolph sent for General James Hamilton, a friend from South Carolina, and talked confidentially with him.  He announced his intention of not returning Clay's fire.  Hamilton was somewhat upset by this announcement, and reported it to Colonel Tattnall.  Tattnall went to Randolph at midnight before the fight and told him that if he intended following such an absurd course he would have to select another friend.  Randolph finally said that he would probably change his mind if he saw the devil in Clay's eye. 
The devil was not in  Clay's eye when they met the next afternoon on the field of battle.  Nevertheless it looks as if Randolph did change his mind; though what happened first is attributed to the fact that Randolph's pistol was unintentionally set at the hair trigger.  As he was adjusting the butt of the weapon to his hand, with the muzzle pointed to the ground, it was  accidentally discharged. 
Instantly Randolph protested against "that hair trigger."  Colonel Tattnall 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," wrote Senator Benton, "though clearly an accident, 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.  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, and the exchange of shots took place." 
When the word was given both pistols were discharged.  Randolph's bullet struck a stump behind Clay; while Clay's knocked up the earth near Randolph.  Benton, in his capacity as a friend of both men, stepped in and tried to convince each that honor had been duly satisfied.  Bot men demanded another shot. 
The seconds loaded the pistols again and stepped back to their places.  Again the word was given.  Clay fired promptly, but his bullet only made a hole in the white flannel wrapper that Randolph was wearing. 
The second fire had given Randolph a magnificient opportunity, of which he took advantage in the most generous spirit.  When he had fired the first time the discharge had come so quickly that Clay's second even suggested that he was violating the code.  At the second opportunity, therefore, Randolph deliberately fired into the air.  He then stepped forward with his hand extended toward his antagonist, and said to Clay that he owed him another coat. 
"I am glad the debt is not greater," said Clay, grasping the extended hand. 
So ended the fight. 
Dueling did not disastrously affect a man's career in those days unless he killed his adversary.  In other words, success on the field of honor usually meant ruin in after life.  If a man was called out to fight, he might appropriately offer two simple prayers--first, that his opponent's bullet might not hit him; secondly, that he also might be lucky enough to miss. 
While it is true that John Randolph drifted along in a disappointed and unprofitable manner until 1833, the duel had nothing to do with his lack of political success.  Borrowing a figure of speech from one of his historians, "Randolph was like a jockey, thrown early out of the race, who rides on with antics and gesticulations, amid the jeers and wonder of the crowd, and tries to win the post that his old rivals have long since passed."  With the exception of an occasional outburst of a spectacular character Randolph was a figurehead in national life throughout his declining years.  Sometimes he was in the Senate, sometimes in the House, and sometimes appointed to an ambassadorial post. 
In Congress, he often presented the pitiable spectacle of a Senator leaning against the railing and prattling for two or three hours at a time without any reference to the subject under discussion, with John C. Calhoun sitting like a statue in the Vice President's chair and the Senators one by one retiring until there was no longer a quorum.  Partly as a matter of senatorial courtesy, these speeches were not reported.  So far as his diplomatic services are concerned, it is sufficient to remark that in 1829 he was appointed on a special mission to Russia.  he remained at his post ten days, spent a year in England in his own interest, then drew $21,407 from the government for his services. 
Randolph died in Philadelphia, June 24, 1833, of an infection of the lungs.  To the last he was the unrelenting foe of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay.  And to the last also his insanity or intemperance or peevishness--whatever you choose to call it--became more and more intensified.  Finally he rested under the sod of beautiful Roanoke. 
Three years after the duel Clay returned to Kentucky with the intention of enjoying the novelty of private life.  In two years, however, he was back in the Senate again, and soon thereafter was a candidate for the presidency, with the usual result.  In 1839, though sixty-two years old, he was thundering away at Calhoun across the floor of the Senate--and incidentally being considered from time to time as a probably candidate for the presidency. 
In 1842, after nearly forty years of public life, he delivered an affecting farewell, before retiring to the beautifal shades of "Ashland," as his home near Lexington is still called.  That farewell address was one of the most notable ever delivered in the United States Senate.  For two hours before the speaker rose the galleries were packed to suffocation, and nobody could get in or out.  He reminded the Senate that he had been in public service almost continuously since 1806.  "When death has closed the scene," he said, "then sentence will be pronounced, and to that I commit myself."  The Senate adjourned out of respect to the departing statesman, one of his colleagues remarking that "Clay's leaving Congress was something like the soul quitting the body."  Among the members who crowded round him was Calhoun, who shook hands with him for the first time in many years. 
But the man who would rather be right than be President could not resist the lure of the Big Dome.  In 1844 and again in 1848 he aspired to the office, and was hopelessly defeated each time.  Meanwhile the friends of a lifetime found an opportunity of expressing the esteem and affection in which he was held.  At a critical moment they came forward and saved "Ashland" from being sold at auction.  It is one of the greatest of all tributes to the sterling character of Henry Clay that after a lifetime of public service in positions of great financial power that he returned to private life a poor man. 
He died in the harness at Washington in 1852, at the age of seventy-five.  Of his many journeys from Washington to Lexington, none was so triumphant and so marked by genuine affection as the last journey, when his casket passed by successive stages to its final resting place.

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