I found this article from an Atlas Obscura article here, and have then supplemented it with my own research.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. This show has not only taught me loads about the nitty-gritty of America’s founding, but it’s also the show that’s taught me how to rap. I’m getting really good. My rapper name is “Candy-Ass White Girl”.
What I didn’t realize is that early American history is full of batshit insane duels between politicians. We know all about Hamilton and Burr, but I had never heard of the duel between John Randolph and Henry Clay before.
Henry Clay was not only a celebrated orator, but also a congressman, senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State. He also ran for president 5 times. He also also had a creepy, steely gaze that could stop stampeding cattle in their tracks, probably.
“He was also a dueling enthusiast who once called out Congressman Humphrey Marshall for wearing British finery, rather than simple homespun garb, during an 1809 General Assembly.”
John Randolph was an equally colorful character. He was not only descended from a very old and wealthy Virginian family, he was descended from straight-up American royalty. That’s right: Pocahontas was his great-great-great-great-grandmother.
He was a bit of a weird guy, drank frequently and ate opium, suffered from tuberculosis or Klinefelter’s syndrome (which meant that he never went through puberty), dressed like a fop, and, despite the fact that he was a tobacco-farming slave-owner, helped found the American Colonization Society which repatriated slaves to Liberia. That said, he also believed that slavery was essential to Virginia, at least economically.
He was elected to Congress at the very young age of 26, but soon after broke with Jefferson to found his own party with the snappy name of “Tertium Quids“. It didn’t really catch on. He also had hopes for running for president, but made too many volatile attacks on public figures to be a serious contender.
“Randolph was a champion of swearing and public insult. He once referred to senator Daniel Webster as “a vile slanderer,” accused President Adams of being a “traitor,” and called statesman Edward Livingston “the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs.” He especially loathed Congressman Willis Alston. An 1804 argument between the two at a DC boardinghouse led to a violent skirmish with knives and forks. Alston later called Randolph a “puppy,” leading to fisticuffs in a House stairway. Randolph caned Alston into a bloody mess, for which he was fined $20. ”
WE HAVEN’T HAD A GOOD FLOGGING ON THIS BLOG FOR SO LONG
DEAR GOD, I THOUGHT THAT YOU HAD FORSAKEN ME
“When not casting aspersions on colleagues, Randolph was, to put it in formal terms, ‘requesting satisfaction.’ His first duel was precipitated by a mispronunciation. There were, apparently, some grammatical crimes up with which he simply would not put. While undergraduates at William & Mary, Randolph and Robert Taylor disagreed about which syllable to stress in the word ‘omnipotent.’ Randolph—’a stickler for correct orthoepy,’ according to his 1922 biographer William Cabell Bruce—wounded Taylor’s buttocks, but soon afterwards they became close friends.”
Fuck’s sake, you guys. Save the fighting for an issue that’s actually important, like the Oxford comma.
Anyway, these two dudes seemed to be just aching for a fight with anyone or anything, and they had such big and abrasive personalities, it’s a miracle they didn’t duel each other sooner, especially since they both worked in the same nasty industry. Randolph even said of Clay, “He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.”
We need to write a sequel to Hamilton, purely because those would make some dope song lyrics.
In 1826, during one particularly hot-headed Senate session, Randolph called Clay a “blackleg”, which is an archaic term for someone who cheats at cards. It was a very “J’accuse!” “LE GASP!” situation. (I don’t know why I’m French right now).
While nowadays I’ll happily fess up to cheating at Monopoly every. damn. time., in the nineteenth century and earlier, cheating at cards was considered a sickening disgrace for gentlemen. Even the accusation or suspicion of being a cheater could drive otherwise prominent, respectable people out of society forever, sometimes even causing legal issues (see the Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1891, for example).
So, what I’m trying to say is that you didn’t just throw the term “blackleg” around without some hard evidence. Unless you were a fucking asshole. Which, let’s be real, both of these men kind of were.
I have no idea if there was any justification for Randolph’s accusation, but he threw that word out there, which was the first of many “no-nos” between the pair. However, despite the magnitude of such an insult, it was generally accepted that political rivals could sling any kind of mud they wanted on the Senate floor and be exempt from a duel challenge.
So while Randolph calling Clay a card-cheat was in extremely poor taste and a real dick-hole move, he kind of had a free shot to do whatever he wanted and Clay just had to turn the other cheek. Because we were in the Senate. And these were gentlemen.
Only that is the exact opposite of what Clay did, which was to challenge Randolph immediately. So he escalated the situation in the second of many “no-nos”, because he assumed (for some reason) that Randolph waived his no-dueling Senate exemption.
Rather than just saying, “Hey, Clay, we’re in the Senate, I can say what I want. Shove your challenge up your ass”, Randolph went, “YEAH, BABY, LET’S DUEL, I HAVEN’T SHOT ANYTHING AT ALL TODAY.” Then, because he was kind of a twat, Randolph (who not only provoked the challenge in the first place through a really uncool insult, but then also accepted the challenge) reminded everyone that Clay wasn’t behaving in a gentlemanly fashion and had no right to have issued the challenge at all.
Boys, please. Mommy hasn’t had her coffee yet.
Randolph, who wasn’t actually interested in killing Clay, started boasting all over town that he was going to shoot expertly over Clay’s shoulder and “do nothing on the morrow to disturb the sleep of the child or the repose of the mother”, and then spent the night before the duel reading poetry.
Because he’s a fucking wanker.
They met in North Arlington, Virginia, at sunset on April 8th, bringing their seconds and a surgeon with them. “Randolph showed up wearing a ridiculously oversized morning gown, which made it difficult for Clay to take aim—a cunning, if not quite gentlemanly, ploy.”
Then Randolph kind of changed his mind, suggesting to his second that he might actually shoot at Clay, after all, if it looked like Clay was going to shoot at him. “While the pistols were being prepared, Randolph complained that his “thick buck-skin glove” would “destroy the delicacy” of his aim. Indeed, his pistol discharged prematurely because it was set to hair-trigger.”
So . . . take off your glove? I know gentlemen always wear gloves when outside, but come on, dude.
They both walked their paces, turned, fired, and missed. Clay shot through Randolph’s big coat. So they prepped for round two, and missed again.
Then Clay called off the fight, declaring that his honor had been restored. They shook hands and became, apparently, good friends after that. Randolph told Clay “You owe me a new coat”.
The fuck was the point of that?
Randolph died seven years later, amazingly of natural causes. How he managed not to get shot is one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Clay outlived him by twenty years.