Dueling is a formerly legal form of dispute settlement in America. Any man who felt like his honor had been called into question could challenge the offender to a duel. Of course, there were some rules, but in essence, it was a fight to the death, often over a petty squabble. Numerous famous duels have taken place in the United States, many of them involving prominent politicians and the nation’s founding fathers.
Button Gwinnet vs. Lachlan McIntosh
Button Gwinnet is one of the men from Georgia who signed the Declaration of Independence. He was among the men who forged the United States out of a rebellious war. On March 4, 1777, he became the President and Commander in Chief of the militia in Georgia. It was a post that would cost him his life.
As the leader of the militia, Button managed to evoke the ire of Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh by appointing a lesser-ranking soldier to head an expedition to Florida. The expedition ended badly and McIntosh took to insulting Button for it in public. The only way to end such disputes and save face at the time was to duel. Button Gwinnet challenged Lachlan McIntosh to a duel.
The Gwinnet/McIntosh duel took place in Thunderbolt, Georgia on May 16, 1777. The men stood only 12 feet apart and fired at each other. Gwinnet was shot in the leg. The wound turned gangrenous and he died three days later.
Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton
Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton and then current Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr had a running feud by the time they decided to duel. Burr had gone out of his way to embarrass Hamilton and Hamilton was angry at Burr’s success. He went out of his way to keep Burr out of office. These grievances were larger than those that which led to arguably the most famous duel in United States history.
In February of 1804, Hamilton spoke ill of Burr at a dinner party. Another man who had attended the party wrote about Hamilton’s feelings in a letter. The letter was published in the paper and Burr was put in the position of defending his honor. He challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel.
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met in Weehawken, New Jersey for their duel on July 11, 1804. Hamilton missed, but Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton. He died on July 12, 1804. Burr was charged with murder, but nothing ever came of the charges.
Andrew Jackson vs. Charles Dickinson
Future President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, engaged in an impetuous duel on May 30, 1806. He had been arguing with another horse breeder with whom he was competitive. His name was Charles Dickinson. Charles called Jackson a “coward and equivocator.” Jackson called Dickinson’s wife “a bigamist.” It was a petty argument, but it led to a duel.
Andrew Jackson challenged Charles Dickinson and they met in Kentucky. Jackson was struck in the chest before he had a chance to fire. He remained standing and shot Dickinson in the stomach. Jackson survived to become the president. Dickinson died from blood loss later that day.
Stephen Decatur vs. James Barron
Stephen Decatur was a naval officer and hero of the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. In May of 1807, Captain James Barron negligently allowed his ship to be taken by the British. This act would lead to a duel with Decatur years later.
Barron was court martialed and kicked out of the Navy for five years. When the five years was up, he tried to rejoin and Decatur was against it. Barron decided that was grounds for a duel. The pair met in Bladensburg, Maryland on March 22, 1820. Both men were hit, but only Barron survived. Decatur was hit in the stomach and died the following day.
Thankfully, fashion and law in the United States have outgrown dueling. Of course, you still have your illegal gunfights, but they are not condoned by society as a whole. Therefore, we are unlikely to see the Vice President of the United States shoot the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.
Button Gwinnet, retrieved 9/12/10, revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/button-gwinnett.html
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s Duel, retrieved 9/12/10, pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/peopleevents/pande17.html