What we now call “Washington, D.C.” or “the District of Columbia” was for much of its history known simply as “Washington” or “Washington City.” It was also for many years little more than a swamp, the home of pimps, corrupt cops, thugs, and many ugly buildings. In the following excerpt from Empire of Mud, his new book, J.D. Dickey explains the finer points of old Washington’s dueling culture:
The gentlemen of Washington City did more than just attend balls, feast with abandon, raise funds for charity, and live in their elite cocoons. They had other concerns too—such as trying to kill each other. The code duello, an elaborate honor code, enabled a gentleman whose pride or dignity was impugned to murder his adversary freely, as long as he did so with the proper etiquette and ceremony.
Dueling was only the tip of the sword of the varieties of violence in the Chesapeake, which spanned a broad range of socially tolerated mayhem in an era dominated by male bravado and almost cartoonish virility. Mobs rampaged, street gangs battled, and blood sport entertained, usually in combination with alcohol and social pressure, to create a heady climate of brutality that held sway from the colonial era all the way to the Civil War. Thomas Twining noticed how the region reveled in fighting, dueling, and “cruel sports,” with eye-gouging and “other barbarities” among the specialties. Not just criminals out for blood took part. All creeds and classes participated in the bloodletting, using violence as a tool of dominance to keep pariahs in line and to enforce racial, social, and cultural codes. They often did so with a wink and a nod from the proper legal authorities, who had neither the inclination nor the means to fund an effective system of law and order. Disorder resulted and verged on anarchy during times of open conflict, when citizens could maim and mangle each other at will.
Dueling represented the most acceptable form of social violence because this kind of attempted homicide “did not lower the would-be murderer in the respect and esteem of the elite of Washington society.” Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr fought the country’s most famous duel in 1804 in New Jersey, but countless other contests in the years after drew considerable attention as well, provided the adversaries had sufficient social standing to merit it. Indeed, some of the most esteemed gentlemen in the nation, and particularly in the South, became its most visible champions.
By the early nineteenth century, refined dueling etiquette in the Chesapeake went something like this: One gentleman offended another by an insult real or imagined. The aggrieved party posted a note in a newspaper or other public place declaring his nemesis, say, “an unprincipaled villain and a coward.” The other party responded in kind, and the technical legwork began as the gentlemen and their allies, or “seconds,” proposed a date and time, weapons (usually pistols), and choice of venue. All very formal and precise, it adhered to the code duello as the parties understood it. With the appropriate rules and ceremony, honor would be satisfied, regardless of whether it resulted in death or grievous injury.
The parties usually picked the dueling ground outside Bladensburg as their venue. Enclosed by hills with a little brook running through it, the site made a stirring and romantic spot for mortal combat. More importantly, while Maryland had laws against its own citizens dueling, it said nothing about Washingtonians doing the same on the state’s turf. In reality, the combatants were unlikely to be caught and arrested anyway: The District had no effective law against dueling, and tradition kept them going back to the Maryland border to uphold the demands of honor, year after year.
Perhaps the most famous battle between American naval commodores took place not at sea but in a Bladensburg forest clearing. The challenger of the duel, James Barron, had commanded the USS Chesapeake, which in 1807 the British HMS Leopard had attacked and boarded in order to seize four deserters from the Royal Navy. The shameful encounter led to Barron’s court-martial, after which the US Navy barred him from command for five years and resisted his appeals for reinstatement thereafter. Barron never forgot the humiliation and nursed a grudge against Stephen Decatur, the naval officer who had served on the court-martial and worked to keep him from commanding a ship afterward.
Commodore Decatur, one of the most accomplished and legendary officers the US Navy ever produced, commanded a squadron against the Barbary states, fought in the War of 1812, and had a mansion near the president’s. Decatur and his wife were planning a wedding reception in their elegant home for President Monroe’s daughter even as Barron and Decatur were quietly exchanging notes in preparation for their duel. Barron felt Decatur had ruined his career and good name and demanded satisfaction; Decatur argued that his motives were strictly professional, not personal, but recognized the necessity of the contest. He had fought five duels before, killing an Englishman in one of them. Even though he philosophically opposed duels, he had no choice but to participate in them, due to the social demands of the dueling code, backed by “the omnipotence of public opinion.” The president had the power to stop the actions of such men in the military, but as William Faux saw it, “such is the power of custom, that he cannot and dare not do it.”
Separated by only eight yards, the commodores each shot the other in the hip, but Barron’s bullet hit one of Decatur’s major arteries. Decatur died on the evening of March 22, 1820, in excruciating pain. Barron lived for another thirty years. Thus, thanks to the near-random result of a socially sanctioned gunfight, a mediocre seaman who had embarrassed his country lived to a ripe old age, while “one of the first officers of our navy, the pride of his country, the noble-hearted gentleman” expired early at age forty-one.
Not all duels took place at Bladensburg, nor did honor always have anything to do with dignity. One such counterexample occurred in April 1826 between Secretary of State Henry Clay and Virginia senator John Randolph. In one of Randolph’s signature tirades in the Senate, he had quoted a foreign minister’s denunciation of the John Quincy Adams administration, of which Clay was a key part, as a “puritanic, diplomatic, black-legged coalition” and dared anyone to take issue with that opinion. According to the code, Clay had no choice but to challenge the senator to a gunfight. After some hemming and hawing on Randolph’s part, the men met in a forest basin on the Virginia side of the Potomac, their loyal seconds acting as intermediaries and weapons loaders.
But instead of wearing a garment appropriate to the solemnity of the occasion, Randolph arrived in his flannel dressing gown, a billowy robe that fit him like a tent. The seconds were outraged by this flagrant disregard for the decorum of the contest, but Clay let it go. Then Randolph’s hair-triggered gun fired into the ground by mistake, and one of Clay’s allies threatened to call off the duel and leave. But again, Clay wasn’t bothered. The contest finally began: Randolph took the first shot and fired gallantly into the air. But Clay, ironically known as “The Great Pacificator,” took time to respond with his own, potentially fatal shot. He slowly counted down and took careful aim at the “vast circumference” of the senator in his “unseemly garment.” He pulled the trigger and shot a hole in it.
As Clay said later, “I might as well have tried to shoot at a pair of tongs as at Randolph.” The senator had spread his legs under his gown to keep the bullet from striking him. He had played a sneaky trick, unbecoming of a gentleman, but it was technically okay since the dueling code said nothing about housecoats and wide stances. Dignity suffered, but honor was satisfied. With that unpleasant business out of the way, the men met cheerfully and later exchanged calling cards, and “social relations were thus formally and courteously restored.”
This piece is excerpted from J.D. Dickey’s new book, Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, DC. Reprinted by permission of Lyons Press.