The election of Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has gotten me thinking about Lexington’s greatest link to this position: Henry Clay.
Moreover, reports that Rep. Kevin McCarthy allegedly threw an elbow at Rep. Tim Burchett, and Sen. Markwayne Mullin’s threats to brawl during a senate hearing, provide another link to Clay, who sometimes resorted to violence to handle personal difficulties.
The stakes for Clay, however, were much higher. The Kentuckian known as the “Great Compromiser” fought two duels with pistols while in office.
Born in Virginia, Clay found success as an attorney, farmer and thoroughbred breeder at Ashland, his plantation located near Richmond Road. There, Clay enslaved dozens of African Americans. Nineteenth century notions of honor, which led Clay to the dueling ground, did not deter upper-class, white southerners from owning other human beings.
Voters elected Clay to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1803. He eventually served as speaker of that body, became a U.S. senator, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811. He immediately became Speaker of the House, a post he held for six terms.
According to Kentucky state historian Dr. James C. Klotter, author of “Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President,” Clay “transformed the office of Speaker . . . For well over a century, no Speaker held the office longer than Clay did.”
Clay helped negotiate the end of the War of 1812, served as U.S. Secretary of State and later returned to the U.S. Senate.
Although many 19th-century Americans were shocked when prominent politicians fought duels, affairs of honor were not always a political hindrance. Some voters saw the practice as an appropriate way for upper-class white males to protect their reputations, assert their manhood and prevent charges of cowardice.
Clay fought his first duel in 1809, when he was a Kentucky state legislator. At the time, tensions were high with Great Britain, and Clay proposed that Kentuckians should only purchase American-made clothing. Another legislator, Humphrey Marshall, called Clay’s idea the “clap-trap of a demagogue.” Insulted, Clay challenged Marshall, who accepted. They fought near Louisville with pistols. Although both men missed twice, on the third fire Marshall shot Clay in the leg.
After the fight, Clay informed a friend, “My wound is no way serious, as the bone is unhurt, but prudence will require me to remain here some days.”
Clay’s friends praised him for defending his honor. One wrote him that “Your firmness and courage is admitted now by all parties—I feel happy to hear of the heroism with which you acted—I had rather heard of your Death than to have heard of your backing [down] in the smallest degree.”
Seventeen years later, when Clay was U.S. Secretary of State, he fought another duel.
In 1826, U.S. Senator John Randolph called Clay a “cross between the Puritan and the Black-Leg,” or a swindler. To avenge the insult, Clay challenged Randolph. They fought with pistols outside of Washington, D.C. Both men missed on the first volley. On the second shot, Clay fired first and missed. Randolph could have aimed and shot Clay, but he instead fired into the air. This gesture impressed Clay, and the two men eventually reconciled.
A year later, rumors spread that Andrew Jackson, Clay’s major political rival, was going to challenge Clay to fight. In response, Clay remarked, “I shall be prepared for any and every honorable event,” meaning a duel.
Clay and Jackson never fought, but some found Clay’s participation in duels to be abhorrent. In 1831, for example, a newspaper claimed that if leading figures like Clay and Jackson had not been duelists, “it would long since have fallen into disrepute and been numbered among those relics of a barbarous age . . . as unworthy a place in the temple of freedom.”
Later, an Ohio newspaper lambasted Clay’s participation in duels, asking, “Can a moral and religious community conscientiously support such a man for the highest office?” Voters answered this question. Clay ran for president three times and was never elected.
Although dueling was illegal across the United States, Clay realized that laws alone would not end the practice. Instead, a cultural change was needed. In 1813, when rumors stirred about a likely duel between two members of the House of Representatives, Clay wrote, “I fear, in spite of all the efforts of Legislation, we shall go on to fight, in single combat, and go on to condemn the practice. The remedy lies deeper than legislative acts—public opinion must be corrected.”
Dueling faded out of fashion shortly after the American Civil War. Clay, who died in 1852, did not live long enough to see this change. Today, as political passions burn as hot as the rivalry between Clay and his political antagonists, one hopes Speaker Johnson, Rep. McCarthy, and Sen. Mullin will leave their dueling pistols at home.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of five books, including “Anatomy of a Duel: Secession, Civil War, and the Evolution of Kentucky Violence,” which was just published by the University Press of Kentucky.