Ditties, Dirges, and Duels

by Michael Liss

I have a problem. Each December I write a political New Year’s ditty to send to friends and family. I’ve had a good time with them, even when the news (at least from my perspective) is less than cheery. I get to crib shamelessly from great authors of the past, ruin perfectly good metre with my tuneless ear, and throw in some real groaners. My “Mitchie at the Bat” is considered a classic of the genre, and even last year’s dirge-y “Wreck of the Hillary C” induced a small avalanche of comments from the similarly agonized.

But I’m blocked. Eleven months of government by cattle-prod has depleted my mirth supply, so, in a last-minute Hail Mary, I am going to recharge by pivoting to a dispassionate discourse about something we are all passionate about—money. Not Bitcoin, or something esoteric that’s way above my humble understanding, but plain old cash—the real stuff, actual specie, as in old coins.

I happen to have a few. Not many, and they don’t have much in the way of numismatic value, but they are a treasure trove of history, and history cheers me up. About a dozen assorted coins dating from the late 18th Century to 1892, all from a worn-out purse my grandmother found in her basement catacombs. Among them were some two-cent pieces from the 1860s, a half-dime, an 1803 large penny, a commemorative coin from the Columbian Exposition, and an absolutely exquisite 1826 Capped Bust half-dollar.

To a junkie like me (for history, not necessarily for coins) they are all wonderful. Collectively, they tell a story that starts with 16 states and ends with 44, of powdered wigs and multi-hour speechifying, several wars, horses and stagecoaches, cotton pickers and cotton merchants, the creation of whole new cities out of swamp, and the building of an empire (by whatever means necessary) that stretched across the continent.

I was particularly lucky to have that 1826 half because, while it might have been the least rare, it had more stories to tell than I originally anticipated. It was in unusually good condition, well struck (perhaps early in the year, when the dies were still new) and with a faint patina that enhanced its beauty. Today’s pocket change doesn’t have much personality, but this half-dollar had elegance and character and craft, and even a little provenance to intrigue. This half had something to say. The design was by John Reich, a German immigrant who arrived here in 1800 (the model was supposedly his “fat German Mistress”). His work was noticed by Thomas Jefferson, who arranged for the US Mint to hire him as an assistant to the Engraver…but first they had to redeem his bond–because Reich came here as a bondsman, owing twenty guineas, to be paid off by working for $1 per week, for two years, for a Philadelphia engraver. Beyond that rather stark reminder that the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence allowed for a few business transactions, it also turns out that 1826 was a rather unexpectedly significant year, one that not only had the poetic passings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both on July 4, the 50th Anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration), but a spicy brew of political chaos which included a duel of honor that might have, but didn’t, alter the course of American History.

As anyone of us who was around in 2008 can attest to, it’s amazing how quickly things can change in politics. Things were going so well in James Monroe’s first term that, in 1820, he ran unopposed for a second. But by the 1824 Election, his Era of Good Feelings had run its course. The only viable political party, the Democratic-Republican party, was riven with internal disagreements, and, in what had to be the oddest Presidential contest in American history, four candidates, all nominally Democratic-Republican, ran against one another. Three were giants—John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay. The fourth, William Crawford of Georgia (former Secretary of War and sitting Secretary of the Treasury), was formidable in his own right, but had suffered a serious stroke in 1823. The four split the popular and Electoral College vote along ideological and regional lines. Although Jackson clearly led in both, he was unable to muster enough Electors, and, as per the 12th Amendment, the race was thrown into the House of Representatives, where each State was given just one vote. The 12th also stipulated that only three contestants could advance to the next round, which knocked out Clay, who had more popular votes than Crawford, but four fewer Electoral Votes. Clay was no fan of Jackson (their disagreements dated back to Jackson’s capture of Pensacola in 1818), and he was the preeminent dealmaker in Washington. He threw his support to Adams, thus handing him the victory. Whispers (loud whispers) began that Adams and Clay had made a behind-the-scenes agreement (the “Corrupt Bargain”), with Clay trading his votes in return for the job of Secretary of State.

Whether or not there really was a corrupt bargain (and historians are split on this, because Clay also had very good policy reasons for backing Adams), the result irrevocably splintered the Democratic-Republican Party. To compound the problem, angry men on both sides kept at the hammer and tongs, and Jackson, in particular, was not exactly the forgiving type. The Era of Sharp Elbows and Outraged Egos had begun, and the primary battleground was in Washington.

There, the rules for combat were a little idiosyncratic. In the Senate, for example, you could say just about anything at all…including what would in other contexts be seen as a serious personal insult, so long as you were doing it in an official capacity—like naming a post office. But outside the boundaries of official duty, even far more temperate language might discharge the hair-trigger of honor, with occasionally messy results. A man’s gotta be a man.

Enter John Randolph of Roanoke, Senator from Virginia, verbal incendiary. As a Randolph (a family which included Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Light Horse Harry Lee, and Robert E. Lee, and traced its ancestry back to the actual Pocahontas), he was part of a power elite. He was also a man of undeniable talent who served in both the House and the Senate, and later as Ambassador to Russia. He had some genuine friendships, but generally was regarded as one of the meanest, nastiest guys around—the Ted Cruz of his day. He regularly tore into his opponents. On the appointment of Richard Rush as Secretary of the Treasury, he opined, “Never were abilities so much below mediocrity so well rewarded: no, not when Caligula’s horse was made Consul.” About Ben Hardin of Kentucky, “He is like a carving knife whetted on a brickbat.”  And Edward Livingston, ”[L]ike a rotten mackerel in the moonlight, he both shines and stinks.”

It was perhaps inevitable that he clash with Henry Clay. Philosophically, they couldn’t have been more different. Randolph was a man of the 18th Century—he once said, “I’m an aristocrat. I love justice and hate equality.” Clay was of the West (the West, then being Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois)—he pushed for expansion, internal improvements, and a more open society where energy and intelligence would come to be the predicate for success. They had argued for years, but the resolution of the 1824 Election brought it to a boiling point. Randolph lit into Clay, not merely charging the “corrupt bargain,” but that the combination “was of the Puritan and the blackleg,” and adding Clay was “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.”

Them’s fightin’ words. Clay had to respond with a challenge. Official Washington worried, even Jackson’s supporters. Randolph was considered both a crackpot and a crack shot. Clay was simply essential, at the peak of his intellectual power. He had already been the youngest Senator in American history, Speaker of the House three times, and instrumental, with Senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, in brokering the 1820 Missouri Compromise (bitterly opposed by Randolph) to defuse the always-volatile slavery issue.

On April 8, 1826, John Randolph of Roanoke, Senator and Jackson supporter, and Henry Clay, Secretary of State, Adams supporter, and possibly corrupt bargainer and blackleg, met on the field of honor. Dueling was outlawed in some states, including Virginia, but, as the challenged, Randolph got to pick the grounds, and he insisted on the Virginia bank of the Potomac. As he represented Virginia in the Senate, if he were going to die, he wanted it to be on home soil. They fortified themselves (perhaps also with a beverage or two), brought their seconds and surgeons, and prepared for destiny. Randolph, displaying a little extra cunning, apparently also wore an oversized coat over his decidedly lean frame.

It was pistols at ten paces. What happened next may involve a little myth-making, but history records it as a series of acts of gallantry. There was a misfire, a permitted reload, and then both men’s first shots missed. At this point, Thomas Hart Benton, Senator of Missouri, tried to stop it, but honor was still unsatisfied, so the two went on. Clay’s second shot also missed, passing through Randolph’s generously-sized cloak, and, by the code, he had to wait to receive Randolph’s return fire. One wonders what might have been going through Randolph’s mind, but in the event, he raised his pistol above his head, and fired into the air.

Clay ran to him, and grabbed his hand. “Mr. Randolph, are you hurt?” “No, Mr. Clay,” replied Randolph, “but you owe me a new coat.” “I am thankful the debt is no greater” replied Clay. Of the Clay-Randolph duel, Benton later said it was the “last high-toned affair” he ever witnessed.

Randolph returned to the Senate, then back to the House, and finally was appointed by President Jackson to be Ambassador to Russia. He left after a few months, in declining health exacerbated by heavy drinking and occasional dabbling in opium. He died in 1833, of tuberculosis that he may have contracted as an adolescent. According to his attending physician, his last thoughts were to be certain his slaves were freed. Fascinating coda for this most unpleasant of men—in his Will he wrote, “I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one.”

Clay continued as Secretary of State, then went back to the Senate, ran for President twice more, in 1832 and 1844, helped broker a settlement to the Nullification Crisis in 1832, and, even more critically, the Compromise of 1850, which kept the Union together at a time of high tension between the slave and free states. He, too, died of tuberculosis, on June 29, 1852, and, like Randolph, freed all of his slaves on his death.

Clay was also the inspiration for another man of the West, a rather awkward and ugly lawyer with political ambitions himself, who organized a memorial tribute in Springfield, Illinois. He led a procession through the streets, ending at the Statehouse, where he rose in the Hall of Representatives and offered the following to Clay’s half century of service:

Throughout that long period, he has constantly been the most loved, and most implicitly followed by friends, and the most dreaded by opponents, of all living American politicians. In all the great questions which have agitated the country, and particularly in those great and fearful crises, the Missouri question—the Nullification question, and the late slavery question, as connected with the newly acquired territory, involving and endangering the stability of the Union, his has been the leading and most conspicuous part…. It is probably true he owed his pre-eminence to no one quality, but to a fortunate combination of several. He was surpassingly eloquent; but many eloquent men fail utterly; and they are not, as a class, generally successful. His judgment was excellent; but many men of good judgment, live and die unnoticed. His will was indomitable; but this quality often secures to its owner nothing better than a character for useless obstinacy. These then were Mr. Clay’s leading qualities. No one of them is very uncommon; but all taken together are rarely combined in a single individual; and this is probably the reason why such men as Henry Clay are so rare in the world.

And that concludes my therapy session. A country that develops a Clay and a Lincoln can always do better. My mood is improving. I think I’ll start working on that ditty. Fair warning—it probably won’t be a high-toned affair.

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