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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Duel between Randolph and Clay

By Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858)

[Born near Hillsborough, N. C. Died in Washington, D.C., 1858. Thirty Years’ View; or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years. 1854.]

SATURDAY, the 8th of April (1826)—the day for the duel—had come, and almost the hour. It was noon, and the meeting was to take place at 4 1/2 o’clock. I had gone to see Mr. Randolph before the hour, and for a purpose; and, besides, it was so far on the way, as he lived half-way to Georgetown, and we had to pass through that place to cross the Potomac into Virginia at the Little Falls Bridge. I had heard nothing from him on the point of not returning the fire since the first communication to that effect, eight days before. I had no reason to doubt the steadiness of his determination, but felt a desire to have fresh assurance of it after so many days’ delay, and so near approach of the trying moment. I knew it would not do to ask him the question—any question which would imply a doubt of his word. His sensitive feelings would be hurt and annoyed at it. So I fell upon a scheme to get at the inquiry without seeming to make it. I told him of my visit to Mr. Clay the night before—of the late sitting—the child asleep—the unconscious tranquillity of Mrs. Clay; and added, I could not help reflecting how different all that might be the next night. He understood me perfectly, and immediately said, with a quietude of look and expression which seemed to rebuke an unworthy doubt, I shall do nothing to disturb the sleep of the child or the repose of the mother, and went on with his employment—(his seconds being engaged in their preparations in a different room)—which was, making codicils to his will, all in the way of remembrance to friends; the bequests slight in value, but invaluable in tenderness of feeling and beauty of expression, and always appropriate to the receiver. To Mr. Macon he gave some English shillings, to keep the game when he played whist. His namesake, John Randolph Bryan, then at school in Baltimore, and since married to his niece, had been sent for to see him, but sent off before the hour for going out, to save the boy from a possible shock at seeing him brought back. He wanted some gold—that coin not being then in circulation, and only to be obtained by favor or purchase—and sent his faithful man, Johnny, to the United States Branch Bank to get a few pieces, American being the kind asked for. Johnny returned without the gold, and delivered the excuse that the bank had none. Instantly Mr. Randolph’s clear silver-toned voice was heard above its natural pitch, exclaiming, “Their name is legion! and they are liars from the beginning. Johnny, bring me my horse.” His own saddle-horse was brought him—for he never rode Johnny’s, nor Johnny his, though both, and all his hundred horses, were of the finest English blood—and rode off to the bank down Pennsylvania Avenue, now Corcoran & Riggs’s—Johnny following, as always, forty paces behind. Arrived at the bank, this scene, according to my informant, took place:
  • “Mr. Randolph asked for the state of his account, was shown it, and found to be some four thousand dollars in his favor. He asked for it. The teller took up packages of bills, and civilly asked in what sized notes he would have it. ‘I want money,’ said Mr. Randolph, putting emphasis on the word; and at that time it required a bold man to intimate that United States Bank notes were not money. The teller, beginning to understand him, and willing to make sure, said, inquiringly, ‘You want silver?’ ‘I want my money!’ was the reply. Then the teller, lifting boxes to the counter, said politely: ‘Have you a cart Mr. Randolph, to put it in?’ ‘That is my business, sir,’ said he. By that time the attention of the cashier (Mr. Richard Smith) was attracted to what was going on, who came up, and understanding the question, and its cause, told Mr. Randolph there was a mistake in the answer given to his servant; that they had gold, and he should have what he wanted.”
  • In fact, he had only applied for a few pieces, which he wanted for a special purpose. This brought about a compromise. The pieces of gold were received, the cart and the silver dispensed with; but the account in bank was closed, and a check taken for the amount on New-York. He returned and delivered me a sealed paper, which I was to open if he was killed—give back to him if he was not; also an open slip, which I was to read before I got to the ground. This slip was a request to feel in his left breeches pocket, if he was killed, and find so many pieces of gold—I believe nine—take three for myself, and give the same number to Tatnall and Hamilton each, to make seals to wear in remembrance of him. We were all three at Mr. Randolph’s lodgings then, and soon set out, Mr. Randolph and his seconds in a carriage, I following him on horseback.

    I have already said that the count was to be quick after giving the word “fire,” and for a reason which could not be told to the principals. To Mr. Randolph, who did not mean to fire, and who, though agreeing to be shot at, had no desire to be hit, this rapidity of counting out the time and quick arrival at the command “stop” presented no objection. With Mr. Clay it was different. With him it was all a real transaction, and gave rise to some proposal for more deliberateness in counting off the time; which being communicated to Col. Tatnall, and by him to Mr. Randolph, had an ill effect upon his feelings, and, aided by an untoward accident on the ground, unsettled for a moment the noble determination which he had formed not to fire at Mr. Clay. I now give the words of Gen. Jesup:

  • “When I repeated to Mr. Clay the ‘word’ in the manner in which it would be given, he expressed some apprehension that, as he was not accustomed to the use of the pistol, he might not be able to fire within the time, and for that reason alone desired that it might be prolonged. I mentioned to Col. Tatnall the desire of Mr. Clay. He replied, ‘If you insist upon it, the time must be prolonged, but I should very much regret it.’ I informed him I did not insist upon prolonging the time, and I was sure Mr. Clay would acquiesce. The original agreement was carried out.”
  • I knew nothing of this until it was too late to speak with the seconds or principals. I had crossed the Little Falls bridge just after them, and come to the place where the servants and carriages had stopped. I saw none of the gentlemen, and supposed they had all gone to the spot where the ground was being marked off; but on speaking to Johnny, Mr. Randolph, who was still in his carriage and heard my voice, looked out from the window, and said to me: “Colonel, since I saw you, and since I have been in this carriage, I have heard something which may make me change my determination. Col. Hamilton will give you a note which will explain it.” Col. Hamilton was then in the carriage, and gave me the note, in the course of the evening, of which Mr. Randolph spoke. I readily comprehended that this possible change of determination related to his firing; but the emphasis with which he pronounced the word “may” clearly showed that his mind was undecided, and left it doubtful whether he would fire or not. No further conversation took place between us; the preparations for the duel were finished; the parties went to their places; and I went forward to a piece of rising ground, from which I could see what passed and hear what was said. The faithful Johnny followed me close, speaking not a word, but evincing the deepest anxiety for his beloved master. The place was a thick forest, and the immediate spot a little depression, or basin, in which the parties stood. The principals saluted each other courteously as they took their stands. Col. Tatnall had won the choice of position, which gave to Gen. Jesup the delivery of the word. They stood on a line east and west—a small stump just behind Mr. Clay; a low gravelly bank rose just behind Mr. Randolph. This latter asked Gen. Jesup to repeat the word as he would give it; and while in the act of doing so, and Mr. Randolph adjusting the butt of his pistol to his hand, the muzzle pointing downward, and almost to the ground, it fired. Instantly Mr. Randolph turned to Col. Tatnall and said: “I protested against that hair-trigger.” Col. Tatnall took blame to himself for having sprung the hair. Mr. Clay had not then received his pistol. Senator Johnson, of Louisiana (Josiah), one of his seconds, was carrying it to him, and still several steps from him. This untimely fire, though clearly an accident, necessarily gave rise to some remarks, and a species of inquiry, which was conducted with the utmost delicacy, but which, in itself, was of a nature to be inexpressibly painful to a gentleman’s feelings. Mr. Clay stopped it with the generous remark that the fire was clearly an accident: and it was so unanimously declared. Another pistol was immediately furnished; and exchange of shots took place, and, happily, without effect upon the persons. Mr. Randolph’s bullet struck the stump behind Mr. Clay, and Mr. Clay’s knocked up the earth and gravel behind Mr. Randolph, and in a line with the level of his hips, both bullets having gone so true and close that it was a marvel how they missed. The moment had come for me to interpose. I went in among the parties and offered my mediation; but nothing could be done. Mr. Clay said, with that wave of the hand with which he was accustomed to put away a trifle, This is child’s play! and required another fire. Mr. Randolph also demanded another fire. The seconds were directed to reload. While this was doing I prevailed on Mr. Randolph to walk away from his post, and renewed to him, more pressingly than ever, my importunities to yield to some accommodation; but I found him more determined than I had ever seen him, and for the first time impatient, and seemingly annoyed and dissatisfied at what I was doing. He was indeed annoyed and dissatisfied. The accidental fire of his pistol preyed upon his feelings. He was doubly chagrined at it, both as a circumstance susceptible in itself of an unfair interpretation, and as having been the immediate and controlling cause of his firing at Mr. Clay. He regretted this fire the instant it was over. He felt that it had subjected him to imputations from which he knew himself to be free—a desire to kill Mr. Clay, and a contempt for the laws of his beloved State; and the annoyances which he felt at these vexatious circumstances revived his original determination, and decided him irrevocably to carry it out.

    It was in this interval that he told me what he had heard since we parted, and to which he alluded when he spoke to me from the window of the carriage. It was to this effect: That he had been informed by Col. Tatnall that it was proposed to give out the words with more deliberateness, so as to prolong the time for taking aim. This information grated harshly upon his feelings. It unsettled his purpose, and brought his mind to the inquiry (as he now told me, and as I found it expressed in the note which he had immediately written in pencil to apprise me of his possible change), whether, under these circumstances, he might not “disable” his adversary? This note is so characteristic, and such an essential part of this affair, that I here give its very words, so far as relates to this point. It ran thus:

  • “Information received from Col. Tatnall since I got into the carriage may induce me to change my mind, of not returning Mr. Clay’s fire. I seek not his death. I would not have his blood upon my hands—it will not be upon my soul if shed in self-defence—for the world. He has determined, by the use of a long, preparatory caution by words, to get time to kill me. May I not, then, disable him? Yes, if I please.”
  • It has been seen, by the statement of Gen. Jesup, already given, that this “information” was a misapprehension; that Mr. Clay had not applied for a prolongation of time for the purpose of getting sure aim, but only to enable his unused hand, long unfamiliar with the pistol, to fire within the limited time; that there was no prolongation, in fact, either granted or insisted upon; but he was in doubt, and General Jesup having won the word, he was having him repeat it in the way he was to give it out, when his finger touched the hair-trigger. How unfortunate that I did not know of this in time to speak to General Jesup, when one word from him would have set all right, and saved the imminent risks incurred! This inquiry, “May I not disable him?” was still on Mr. Randolph’s mind, and dependent for its solution on the rising incidents of the moment, when the accidental fire of his pistol gave the turn to his feelings which solved the doubt. But he declared to me that he had not aimed at the life of Mr. Clay; that he did not level as high as the knees—not higher than the knee-band; “for it was no mercy to shoot a man in the knee;” that his only object was to disable him and spoil his aim. And then added, with a beauty of expression and a depth of feeling which no studied oratory can ever attain, and which I shall never forget, these impressive words: I would not have seen him fall mortally, or even doubtfully, wounded, for all the land that is watered by the King of Floods and all his tributary streams. He left me to resume his post, utterly refusing to explain out of the Senate any thing that he had said in it, and with the positive declaration that he would not return the next fire. I withdrew a little way into the woods, and kept my eyes fixed on Mr. Randolph, who I then knew to be the only one in danger. I saw him receive the fire of Mr. Clay, saw the gravel knocked up in the same place, saw Mr. Randolph raise his pistol—discharge it in the air; heard him say, I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay; and immediately advancing and offering his hand. He was met in the same spirit. They met half way, shook hands, Mr. Randolph saying, jocosely, You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay—(the bullet had passed through the skirt of the coat, very near the hip)—to which Mr. Clay promptly and happily replied, I am glad the debt is no greater. I had come up, and was prompt to proclaim what I had been obliged to keep secret for eight days. The joy of all was extreme at this happy termination of a most critical affair; and we immediately left, with lighter hearts than we brought. I stopped to sup with Mr. Randolph and his friends—none of us wanted dinner that day—and had a characteristic time of it. A runner came in from the bank to say that they had overpaid him, by mistake, $130 that day. He answered, I believe it is your rule not to correct mistakes, except at the time, and at your counter. And with that answer the runner had to return. When gone, Mr. Randolph said, I will pay it on Monday: people must be honest, if banks are not. He asked for the sealed paper he had given me, opened it, took out a check for $1,000, drawn in my favor, and with which I was requested to have him carried, if killed, to Virginia, and buried under his patrimonial oaks—not let him be buried at Washington, with a hundred hacks after him. He took the gold from his left breeches pocket, and said to us (Hamilton, Tatnall, and I), “Gentlemen, Clay’s bad shooting shan’t rob you of your seals. I am going to London, and will have them made for you;” which he did, and most characteristically, so far as mine was concerned. He went to the herald’s office in London and inquired for the Benton family, of which I had often told him there was none, as we only dated on that side from my grandfather in North Carolina. But the name was found, and with it a coat of arms—among the quarterings a lion rampant. That is the family, said he; and had the arms engraved on the seal, the same which I have since habitually worn; and added the motto, Factis non verbis: of which he was afterwards accustomed to say the non should be changed into et. But, enough. I run into these details, not merely to relate an event, but to show character; and if I have not done it, it is not for want of material, but of ability to use it.

    On Monday the parties exchanged cards, and social relations were formally and courteously restored. It was about the last high-toned duel that I have witnessed, and among the highest-toned that I have ever witnessed, and so happily conducted to a fortunate issue—a result due to the noble character of the seconds as well as to the generous and heroic spirit of the principals. Certainly duelling is bad, and has been put down, but not quite so bad as its substitute—revolvers, bowie-knives, blackguarding, and street-assassinations under the pretext of self-defence.