Thatcher and Dueling

    Before his father was dismissed as Alexander Hamilton’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury because of insider trading,1 William A. Duer (1780-1858) used to play truant from school to steal into the House gallery in New York’s Federal Hall and listen to the debates. It was not long before the constant calling of yeas and nays enabled him to identify the speakers by name. Among those of whom he retained “a more lively recollection, from some personal characteristics, or peculiarity of manner,” were Thatcher and his fellow Massachusetts Representative Elbridge Gerry.

    They were “antipodes of each other in character as well as in politics,” Duer recalled. “Gerry was grave, garrulous, crotchety, and nervous. Thatcher was eccentric, witty, downright and sarcastic; and seemed to take pleasure in worrying his more sensitive colleague . . . and the obstinacy for which Mr. Gerry was remarkable gave great point to the sarcasm.” One debate reporter summarized a characteristic display by writing simply that Thatcher continued one speech “in a ludicrous way peculiar to himself.” Brevity being the soul of wit, it is not surprising that Thatcher generally kept his public remarks short, and appreciated others doing the same. Abigail Adams recalled a conversation in which “Judge Thatcher was asked one day—if he had read mr Somebodys speech—how long was it? Why too or three pages—o no he replied—if it was more than three lines I never read it.”2

    Thatcher’s obituary sought to clarify the impression created by some of his barbed speeches from the House floor:

    [They] will be found to contain, in the midst of frequent irony and sometimes sharp satire, much useful information and sound argument. . . . He had apologies and pailiations for every body, and although he often indulged his natural proneness to satire in the presence of those with whom he was called into conflict, no man can remember that he ever said a harsh thing of any one who was absent. He had a vein of wit and humor which irresistibly propelled him to put into ludicrous shapes the arguments and opinions of those with whom he entered into the war of words: but his heart never took side in the struggle, and the first appearance of wounded feelings, would blunt his weapons and make him give the field to his adversary.3

    One instance of this trait, only sporadically reported in the press and sadly not mentioned at all in any of Thatcher’s correspondence, involved a brewing fight over the iconography of the nation’s newly-minted coinage. Thatcher found himself among a minority wishing to imprint Washington’s head on the coins in lieu of some “emblamatique figure of Liberty”—including “a bear breaking from his chain” as well as the more traditional “Indian or savage freedom.”4 In one version of the story, Vermont’s Rep. Matthew Lyon objected to the image of an eagle “because he was the king of the birds, and therefore inappropriate as a republican emblem.” Thatcher (continues this account), certain that any allegory of liberty was as vague and ridiculous as any other, motioned instead for a goose, “for that bird had nothing majestic in its deportment, nor could her humble rank among the feathered tribe give any offence to the most fastidious republican. Moreover (continued the Judge,) goslings would be a very convenient stamp for the ten-penny pieces and sixpenny bits.” All found the humor in this, except Lyon, who “challenged the facetious Judge to a duel.”

    “What arrangements will you make?” Inquired the man who carried the challenge.

    “None at all,” replied the Judge.

    “Why, are you willing to be called a coward?”

    “Yes, because I am a coward; and he knew it very well, or he never would have challenged me!”

    This turned the laugh upon Lyon, who wisely concluded there was no use in trying to fight with a man who fired nothing but jokes.5

    The account may be apocryphal; the widely reprinted and paraphrased source is dated fifty years after the fact—much too long a dormancy if it were true, especially about a man (Lyon) whom his contemporaries never hesitated to subject to public ridicule. Even more obscure is the story about yet another challenge that Thatcher dodged by responding that “he had a strong aversion to being placed in a position where his life was immediately endangered; but that if agreeable to his opponent, he would have a likeness of himself chalked out on a board, at which his opponent might shoot—and that if he hit it, he (the Judge) would acknowledge that he hit him!” Whether the proposal was ever accepted is, like the story’s source, lost to history.6

    Such bonhomie did not always prevail. Nor were simmering animosities with firebrands like Lyon to be explained by personality differences alone. As the crisis in French relations grew more serious, the sarcasm creeping into Thatcher’s letters echoed even louder in the House chamber, where some did not share his sense of the ironic and the absurd—no matter how leavened with levity. “His opponents often cowered under the lashes of wit and ridicule which he bestowed upon what he thought was hollow pretence of patriotism; but,” Thatcher’s eulogist hastened to add, “such was the universal opinion of the goodness of his heart and the honesty of his views, that no one felt any anger or resentment, except in one memorable instance. . . .”7

    Unlike Thatcher’s other near-duel(s), his “affair of honor” with North Carolina’s Representative Thomas Blount in June 1797 is well documented. Newspaper editor John Fenno had it in mind a week later when he wrote a friend, “You must have seen or heard that greater animosities, more ill-blood were scarcely ever discovered—nothing, like the bickerings, snarlings & quarrellings which have taken place, ever disgraced an American Legislature before.” It even makes an appearance in Sabine’s Notes, a kind of Burke’s Peerage of duels.8

    Thatcher’s principled stand against dueling was highly praised at the time—at least among northerners, who by and large did not share their southern brethren’s high regard for lethal chivalry. One anonymous supporter congratulated Thatcher for breaking the cycle of implicit assent to this mode of conflict-resolution:

    Every instance of this kind of combat, in persons of distinction especially, tends to support the custom . . . & further because every instance of refusing or getting over the business—particularly if done openly & fairly as yours was—Has a contrary tendency. . . . I shall put your name first among those who have contributed in this way to abolish from civilized society this savage, brutish, unequal & & &c. habit. . . . I believe that much tacit support has been given to this practice—or toleration at least, by the silence of those persons who are in principle its greatest enemies.9

    Fisher Ames saw Thatcher’s act as a “palpable hit” against anti-Administration forces:

    I leave it to you wise men to save the nation [he wrote Rep. Dwight Foster (Mass.)]. Some of you must watch and pray, and others must fight, if need be. I should not have thought the lot would have fallen upon Thatcher to defend his principles by the sword. And what is not the least remarkable, he got into the scrape by expressing his aversion to any thing French. He is a worthy fellow. May he long escape wounds and sickness, and enjoy as much glory as he thirsts for, without bleeding to get it.10

    Later, when Blount voted against a motion to expel Lyon for spitting in Roger Griswold’s face and precipitating the famous fracas with fire tongs, Ames wondered that he “who challenged Thacher for almost nothing” should now protect the aggressor. Predictably, the House divided along party lines when identifying the injured party. Thus Sen. Henry Tazewell (Va.) reported back to his party boss, James Madison: “Thatcher on Friday, offered Blount a personal insult in debate. Blount challenged him. Thatcher refused to accept the Challenge. Thus it remains with a determination on Blount’s part to kick him on sight. In short the insolence and scurrility of the british faction here can scarcely be born.”11

    But even Madison soon began to regret the institutional impact of such spiraling acts of vengeance. Within months, blood would be shed on the very floor of the House. The Griswold-Lyon fight, Madison concluded, “has been extremely disgraceful, but the dignity of the body will be wounded, not by the misconduct of individual members, which no public body ought to be answerable for, but by the misconduct of [Congress] itself, that is, of a majority; and it is to be feared that the majority in this case are ready for every sacrifice to the spirit of party which infatuates them.” The only other member (apart from Griswold) to have suffered Lyon’s direct provocation, Thatcher was alone among his colleagues in seeking to break the partisan spell that bewitched the House into thinking, because they could not sanction both men, they ought to sanction neither. The shamelessly partisan vote that refused to stigmatize any villain in the drama was as regrettable as it was inevitable, stoking a real risk that such antics would become the norm.12

    In the absence of a more highly developed political culture with prescribed boundaries between personal honor and public merit, Thatcher’s open scorn for the code duello paints a remarkable “profile in courage.” As noted above, the episode even merited an appearance in Thatcher’s obituary, which insisted that “his independent and manly conduct did more towards bringing the custom of duelling into contempt, than any thing which has occurred in Congress before or since. He refused to fight, and instead of sinking in the opinion even of fighting men, overwhelmed his antagonist with confusion.” When an unknown archivist (probably in the nineteenth century) annotated a copy of Thatcher’s portrait, of all the descriptors he might have employed to identify its subject, he chose to label Thatcher simply as the congressman “who Declined Blount’s Cartel.”13

    Thatcher’s “affair of honor” with Blount has been overshadowed by the feud that erupted between Thatcher’s old nemesis Lyon and Connecticut’s Representative Roger Griswold in the tense atmosphere of early 1798, as the House grappled simultaneously with western secession movements, executive prerogative in foreign affairs, and the uncertainty about France that prevailed before the XYZ revelations. Thatcher identified the real animus underlying the initial altercation between Lyon and Griswold (30 January) when he observed that “party spirit runs high as ever—Prudence in governing the passions was [never] more necessary than at this moment.”14 In his own altercation with Blount seven months earlier, Thatcher had given a competent demonstration of the self-governance he preached—while attempting yet again to re-model the political culture of the time.

    To the Editor of the Philadelphia Gazette

    Philadelphia        12 June 1797


    Whether Mr. Blount and myself are killed in a duel, or die by sickness in our beds, is a matter of little consequence to the government; which, without doubt, will be administered by those who shall succeed us, as well as it is by us; yet it may be a matter of some moment to our families that our lives should not be shortened by foolishly anticipating a voluntary death. And in my opinion it is becoming of much greater consequence (since the newspapers so frequently announce either the death or wounds to our fellow-citizens by duels) that the principle of this custom should be examined. Is it justifiable, or is it not? ought the laws of God and society against murder to be obeyed; or has every man a right, under a regular government, when he pleases, and for any cause his whim, caprice, or malice shall dictate, to call upon another, perhaps his neighbour or friend, to risque his life in a duel; and if the other refuses the infamous conflict, shall he be doomed to the stigma of cowardice? This is a question well deserving the public attention. And if I can be the means of bringing it fairly before the public for their examination, I shall not think myself disgraced by any consequences, or opinions that may be entertained of me, for not accepting the challenge sent me on Saturday by Mr. Thomas Blount.

    In order to do this, and explain the principles and motives that governed me through the whole transaction, I will state the circumstances that gave rise to the challenge.

    Soon after the House of Representatives met on Friday morning [9 June], several propositions were brought forward by Mr. Blount, and, I believe, one of his colleagues, one of which was for raising eighty thousand men.15 It was couched in language that sounded unusual to my ears for our resolutions to pass in—still I paid not much attention to it, till the chairman, as I thought, was about rising to put the question, and I heard several persons who sat near me, observe the oddity of the language; and it was suggested by some member in a low voice, that it was highly Frenchified. I then addressed the chair, not thinking any thing about the mover, or knowing, at that time, who he was, and made a few observations—very silly, if any body pleases to call them so; but I confess I felt perfectly good natured upon the occasion, and I believe they put the house into a similar temper if they had not been so all the morning, for the members generally gave innocent signs of being pleased.16 Mr. Blount then rose, and in a temper, I thought, different from what the house discovered, charged me with making very silly observations, (and I declare I will not say he was not right) but still I felt perfectly tranquil and good natured towards him and every body else. He then proceeded to defend himself, with some animation, against a charge, (which certainly must have been imaginary) of belonging to a French faction, or French party, that had been so much talked about, in the United States; and he insisted upon it that he had nothing to do with any such party. I cannot now accurately recollect his words, nor have I seen any paper which did put down his language—He then wound off by saying, that I ought to be ashamed at what I had said, and, if I am not mistaken, repeated nearly the same, in a different phrase, with the addition, that I ought to blush at it—but of this I cannot be certain. This fixed my attention, but I declare I had no unfavorable feelings towards him; tho’ his untimely defence carried a singularity with it. I rose and observed, that I could assure that gentleman, I did not very often say things in that house I was ashamed of; and if he had given himself but a moment to think before he spoke, he would have recollected, I had not said any thing about a French faction or French party, nor a single word, which, in the ordinary use of language, could have brought them into his mind—His own feelings must have suggested it—a guilty conscience needs no accuser—This is all I said. Mr. Blount then rose, and, as the papers say, with some warmth, said—that no man in no place, should cast upon him such an insinuation with impunity. The Chairman, and some members from different quarters of the house, called to order; I rose, but observing there was a general call for order, I set down without speaking a word—Had I spoke, ’tis not probable I should have mended the matter—Hence the propriety of another adage—The least said, the sooner mended.

    These are the facts and circumstances, I believe, pretty accurate; for which, according to the dueling system, two fathers of large families are called upon to risque their lives by firing pistols, and pushing swords at each other—or upon the refusal of one, who may think the practice unjustifiable, or whose connections in life render it pleasing, and worth protracting to the end of nature’s thread, he is to be deemed a coward—The other, perhaps, the intentional murderer—becomes a brave fellow—a man of courage—a gentleman! But to proceed—order being restored, the committee [of the whole House], if I am not mistaken, with the consent of Mr. Blount, actually threw away the uncouth Frenchified dress, the resolution first appeared in, and cloathed it in the true American garb, for which I had contended.

    Soon after this, I was informed that Mr. Blount was determined to challenge me to a duel, unless I asked his pardon, or made a recantation—I replied to those who spoke to me on the subject, that I was not conscious of any intention to give offence, I therefore could not ask any body’s pardon, nor did I conceive any explanation necessary—I had not been called to order during the debate by the chairman, or any member—And it was impossible for Mr. Blount to be serious, in supposing I had any particular application in the use of a common proverb: it had been very often used in debate on similar occasions, and no member ever before was silly enough to take it to himself, and acknowledge the coat suited him. However, at the solicitation of my friends, I was very willing to converse with Mr. Blount, and make any explanation public or private, that I could consistent with truth and my real feelings and opinion—

    I further declared to them that as Mr. Blount had considered himself the offended party, though in my opinion, without grounds, I would speak to him first, for even at this period my feelings were not irritated, except that I conceived he made use of the first provoking language, and if there were any fixed rule by which resentment could be graduated, & the point marked where it might lawfully commence; I ought to have felt it towards him, and not he to me. Nevertheless as all the habits of my mind are different from his, I would never think of resenting any thing he could say to such a degree as to break off the usual intercourse of people who have no particular connections, and meet one another but transiently. Therefore when he passed me, as I was setting without the bar, I accosted him and offered him my hand as the token of a disposition, on my part, to explain and endeavour to satisfy his feelings upon the points he might think I had injured him. But he turned from me with disdain. Here ends the transactions of Friday. A little after six, on Saturday morning, I was called out of my bed, and a very sweet tranquil sleep, by Mr. [Nathaniel] Macon, who on entering my Chamber, observed he had come on a disagreeable piece of business at the request of Mr. Blount, or words to that effect. He extended his arm and would reach me a letter, which I think he said was from Mr. Blount. I asked him if it contained what is commonly called a challenge to fight a duel. He did not seem to make a direct answer, but requested me to read it; I told him if it contained any statement of circumstances which he wished me to explain, I would receive [it] and give an answer. But if he did not say, upon his honor, it did not contain a challenge to fight a duel, I would not receive it. He then gave me to understand it contained a challenge to fight, which he afterwards declared in express words. I replied decidedly I would not knowingly receive a challenge to fight from any man, and he was at liberty to tell Mr. Blount, I respected the laws of God and the society in which I lived more than the ridiculous laws of honour that supported the custom of dueling; and he might post me for a coward as soon as he pleased. He pressed me to take the letter; I refused. We then set down, I told him I would explain fully to him my ideas of the subject of dueling & the circumstances that had occasioned his visit; he replied, he was not at liberty to enter into any explanation, but wished to know what I would do or what he should tell Mr. Blount. I replied, that having the day before spoke to Mr. Blount with a design, if he had been disposed, to come to some friendly explanation, I did not conceive myself bound to make any further advances towards him on that point: yet I was willing to do it, and if Mr. Blount requested it, I would go to his lodgings, or I would invite him to mine, or if more agreeable to him, I would meet him at any third place, to see if by conversing upon the matter it might not be compromised more peaceably than by a duel, which method I was determined not to adopt. His reply to this I am not certain I can accurately relate, for he seemed to me to hesitate in fixing upon a phrase to convey his meaning: but by my answer which I am accurate in, it amounted to this, That Mr. Blount would have no interview with me unless I would first make a recantation, or an acknowledgment of something I had said, to be unjust, I well remember I said this is unreasonable, it was acting as arbitrary a part to me, as the Directory of France towards the United States, and he might tell Mr. Blount, I could not make an absolute submission to any man where I was not conscious of being wrong, and I did think he gave the first provoking language. Mr. Blount must not think he is dealing with a slave whom he could order at his feet by a nod, he was dealing with a free man who had sentiments and opinions of his own, and which he knew how to respect. The respect that Mr. Blount had for his own feelings ought to teach him a decent regard to those of others, and not consider himself as every thing, and every body else as nothing. I observed to him that I had a family that depended altogether on me for their support, and education; he said, Mr. Blount also had a family: I added, there was the stronger reason then, on his part, not to increase the wicked means of his or my death; for in either case a family was thrown unprotected upon the world, and I doubted not he had an attachment to his as I had to mine; he interrupted me as before, and said all this was out of his commission.

    He said he wished only to know what I would have him tell Mr. Blount, and asked me to repeat what I had said, which I did nearly as follows: that I should make no acknowledgment without a conference or explanation with him, which I was ready for; I did think he had used the first irritating language: that he had without the least reason made a particular application of an old adage contrary to what had ever been done by any member before; that if Mr. Blount proceeded to force, and manifested an intention to attack me, I should apply to the laws of the state for protection, that I would prudently avoid him as I would a beast of prey, a robber, a madman, or an Indian in the woods, who should pursue me with his Tomahawk or scalping knife. Much other conversation passed between us, of which I desired him to relate as much to Mr. Blount as he thought within his instructions. We then bid each other good morning, and parted good friends.

    In the afternoon I had the pleasure of reading in your paper, the note of Tom Blount the gentleman;17 and I confess, and most sincerely hope, you and the world will forgive me for saying, and I say it because it is true, the sound of Tom Blount the gentleman introduces to my mind the same confusion of ideas as that of Tom Paine the Christian. And if this said Tom Blount the gentleman is satisfied with publishing to the world that in defiance of the laws of God and the state, he was willing to put his life and mine at hazard by shooting pistols, or thrusting swords, at each other with intent to murder—I am also satisfied in refusing his challenge at the risque of loosing the good opinion of the said gentleman and all other bullies, assassins, and murderers.

    * * *

    Philadelphia Gazette, 13 June 1797, edited by Andrew Brown (1774-1847), who had inherited the paper from his father just months earlier. The elder Andrew (1744-97) founded the pro-government paper as the Federal Gazette in 1788, to support ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania, but changed the name in 1793.