Politics as blood sport, literally

A bust of the 7th President of the United States at the National Portrait Gallery. | Phil Roeder CC

If you think the headlines of 2018 reveal a recent phenomenon of combative American politics, then the study of history may surprise you.

People describe the politics of today as a blood sport.  Opponents plot and strategize.  Opposition research looks for scandalous behavior.  Indeed, one has to have a thick skin to play the game of politics. The game can be brutal.

In the past, however, American politics could literally be a blood sport.

Two hundred years ago, politicians did not settle “matters of honor” with a terse e-mail or a 140-character tweet.  Like today, they often retaliated with aggressive public relations campaigns.

Unlike today, they sometimes met on the field for satisfaction for being publicly insulted, falsely accused or any other slight of personal honor.  Of course, as time went on and more and more states outlawed dueling, the offended might have to travel to a state that still had “more tolerant laws regarding affairs of honor.”

There are instances of fights breaking out in the halls of Congress.  The most famous incident is probably Preston Brooks’ defense of his older and politician cousin, Andrew Butler.  Brooks brutally caned Charles Sumner in 1856.

The flamboyant John Randolph of Roanoke and North Carolina Congressman Willis Alston often disagreed.  Once after a heated Congressional debate, Randolph hit Alston on the head with his cane.  The blow drew blood.  Alston did not retaliate.  Another time, a heated dinner discussion between Alston and Randolph devolved further into hurling insults and throwing objects at each other.

Randolph’s oratorical flair and windiness uncommonly resulted in someone being offended.  Henry Clay, ironically known as “The Great Compromiser,” once challenged Randolph to a duel.  The two met on a field, twenty paces apart, and fired two rounds.  Randolph’s gun malfunctioned. His first shot was errant.  Clay’s first shot tore through Randolph’s overcoat.

The seconds were surprised when Clay demanded another round – an unwise continuation, but acceptable according to the rules.  Clay missed again.  Randolph deliberately fired his second round into the air.  Embarrassed, Clay extended his hand to Randolph.  The Virginian remarked: “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay.”  The Kentuckian replied: “I am glad the debt is no greater.”

Before he became the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson never shied away from a duel.  He was easily insulted.  He was also quick to defend others’ honor.

In one instance, Jackson challenged the governor of Tennessee, John Sevier.  The older statesman did not wish to duel the younger Jackson.  The governor thought a duel might launch an ambitious Jackson’s political career.  Yet the challenge had been given.  The “Affair of Honor” ended with both men cursing at each other and calling each other a “coward and a poltroon.”  Another duel ended with the death of Charles Dickinson.  Dickinson’s round had gone through Jackson’s coat.  Jackson’s round mortally wounded his opponent.

One of Jackson’s earliest duels was with the first Attorney General of North Carolina, Waightstill Avery.  At the time, both men practiced law in the state.  On numerous occasions, Avery criticized the younger lawyer’s arguments.  His criticism typically referenced Francis Bacon’s writings.  For effect when making a point, stories say, Avery would pull out a copy of Bacon’s reports from his bags.  As a prank one day, Jackson placed a “side of bacon” in the bag.

This incident embarrassed a refined Avery.  He chided Jackson.  The young attorney then challenged Avery to a duel. After both men fired a round (Avery shot into the air), they shook hands. With a storybook ending, they “were friendly ever after.”

When I hear people talk about American politics being a blood sport, I remember that at one time, well, it could literally be one.