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What Are You Dueling?
My sister-in-law Asks Me Anything about an unlucky Congressman.
Happy Friday! Today is St. Patrick’s Day, where everyone is Irish for a day, celebrating a guy who, technically, wasn’t.
Cheers to you for your continued support of Okay History and for celebrating a guy who technically isn’t a historian.
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Could you imagine if the people we elected to Congress went about killing each other while holding office?
Can you imagine a scenario where the Congressman of Kentucky’s 5th District, a gentleman named Harold Rogers, shot and killed the Congressman from Maine’s 2nd District, a gentleman named Jared Golden?
Probably not. First, I doubt Harold could pull off this sort of wild situation in the first place. Rogers is 85 and has been in Congress since 1980, which by my math, was 43 years ago. Do we think he could handle a gun and shoot it from 95 yards away and strike his intended target? Unlikely.
Plus, Golden is a retired Marine and, at 40, is probably way fitter than most people of the same age. Just taking a wild guess here, but a Marine, no matter the age, can probably shoot someone at any distance.
Why am I bringing up this random event on St. Patrick’s Day? Rogers and Golden are unlikely to hate each other so much that they end up shooting each other, let alone having one of them die. They should consider themselves lucky to serve in Congress in the 21st century and not back in the 1830s.
This brings us to our next installment of Ask Me Anything, where I answer any question you send me and tell it in a way that is okay.
Today’s AMA question comes from Anonymous’ sister, which makes her my sister-in-law.
I’ll refer to her as LV. LV is a lovely person, and a huge supporter of OKH, even though I have yet to see her smash the like button on any post in three years.
With all the recent conflict we are experiencing, she came across this fascinating historical tidbit from 1838, where William Graves, the House Rep from the 8th District of Kentucky, shot and killed Jonathan Cilley, the House Rep from the 3rd District of Maine, during a duel over what a newspaper editor wrote.
Here’s LV’s question:
Christopher, have you heard of this? What a great topic for Okay History!
No, I hadn’t heard of this crazy story before, and it is a great topic, LV. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I hope you like how I describe it. I’ll know better if you do when I see you have clicked the like button at the bottom of the email. Just scroll on down until you find it. Your sister manages to do it every once in a while.
Okay! So Let’s dive in.
Back in the early to mid-1800s, the country was incredibly divided over the idea that slavery was a good thing. What made the problem worse, as if there was anything worse than enslaving someone, was the idea that this practice would spread like a disease into new territories as the United States grew.
We grew in two ways: by purchasing territories like Louisiana in 1803 or war, like Texas, New Mexico, etc., in 1848. Either way, Indigenous people would be displaced, many would die, and whites would bring their black enslaved people with them.
We did all of this under Manifest Destiny, a thing our leaders invented where God said the United States was allowed to conquer the entire continent because God likes the idea of a larger United States. I’m sure St. Patrick would have agreed with this concept. Prove me otherwise and show your work.
Representatives Graves and Cilley served in the 25th Congress, which was in session from March 4, 1837, until March 4, 1839, because the Twentieth amendment hadn’t passed yet. Martin Van Buren was the 8th president of the United States at the time, and the Whigs and the Democrats were the predominant political powers. The pro-slavery Democrats controlled the Senate and the House, where future president James Polk was Speaker. Everyone panicked in May 1837 due to an economic depression, aptly named the Panic of 1837, and we were still in the middle of the Trail of Tears, wherein 1838, the United States began the process of displacing the Cherokees.
Andrew Jackson was also a topic of argument for his economic policies. One glaring point was not renewing the Second Bank of the United States charter, a privately owned financial institution that handled all the federal government’s banking stuff. The idea of the bank was created by one of my favorite people.
So political tensions were high.
Fake News existed back then, which led to the fatal confrontation between the two congressmen. Fake News is so helpful.
It’s no surprise that each party had newspapers that promoted their views and pushed their agendas, trying to twist the minds of citizens in the quest for power.
One of the most prominent newspapers that supported the cause of the Whigs was the New York Courier and Enquirer, and James Webb was the editor. Webb used to be against re-chartering the bank and a Jackson supporter but then flipped his support, which prompted Cilley, a Democrat, to go on the House floor to decry the Fake News Webb was publishing, which included slamming the Democrats for being Democrats.
Cilley’s rant made Webb upset, and when Webb got upset, he wanted to duel. So he asked Graves, a Whig, to deliver a written challenge to Cilley like Cilley was being served a subpoena or perhaps a St. Patrick’s Day card.
Cilley, however, declined to accept the letter from Graves, probably because he was unlucky at firing guns and thought the refusal was the end of it. On the other hand, Graves was a crack shot and took personal offense at Cilley for rejecting his action. He then decided to challenge Cilley himself to a duel.
Cilley’s luck was about to run out.
The parties traveled to Maryland because while you can’t vote for federal representation in Washington, DC, you can’t duel there, either. Out on a Maryland field created to hold duels, both men marched about 90 yards. Cilley got to choose the weapons and decided on the rifle, which he proceeded to miss Graves with. Luckily for Cilley, Graves missed as well.
They both moved forward because the main rule of dueling was to get to the end, but this second time at a closer distance, both men missed again. Running out of luck, both moved in closer, and they shot a third time. Only this time, Graves’s bullet ripped open Cilley’s femoral artery, and he bled out on the field with everyone watching him and died within minutes.
Good job, everyone.
Before you hit the like button, what's strange about this LV is how everyone just went about their lives after. Except for Cilley, obviously.
Webb would go on to beg for a minister position, finally landing one in Brazil, where he tried to sever ties with the country without being told to do so. He resigned after being accused of extorting money from the Brazilian government. He just sounds like a likable guy.
Graves would continue to serve in the House, although, by the end of 1841, he was missing half the floor votes. He returned to Kentucky and served in the state assembly until he died.
Cilley’s legacy is that Congress passed a law making it illegal to challenge anyone in a duel within the District of Columbia. I guess outlawing the practice all together is a bit too much.
So there you are, LV. The wild story of the media, partisan politics, racism, and violence. Stuff we still deal with today!
I’m back on Monday with the Maundy Newsletter. Until then, I hope the weekend doesn’t duel with your happiness.
Erin Go Bragh!