It was Saturday, the first day of April, toward noon, the Senate not being that day in session, that Mr. Randolph came to my room at Brown's Hotel, and (without explaining the reason of the question) asked me if I was a blood-relation of Mrs. Clay? I answered that I was, and he immediately replied that that put an end to a request which he had wished to make of me; and then went on to tell me that he had just received a challenge from Mr. Clay, had accepted it, was ready to go out, and would apply to Col. Tatnall to be his second. Before leaving, he told me he would make my bosom the depository of a secret which he should commit to no other person: it was, that he did not intend to fire at Mr. Clay. He told it to me because he wanted a witness of his intention, and did not mean to tell it to his second or anybody else; and enjoined inviolable secrecy until the duel was over. This was the first notice I had of the affair. The circumstances of the delivery of the challenge I had from General Jesup, Mr. Clay's second, and they were so perfectly characteristic of Mr. Randolph that I give them in detail, and in the General's own words:
"I accordingly informed Mr. Randolph that I was the bearer of a message from Mr. Clay in consequence of an attack which he had made upon his private as well as public character in the Senate; that I was aware no one had the right to question him out of the Senate for anything said in debate, unless he chose voluntarily to waive his privileges as a member of that body. Mr. Randolph replied, that the Constitution did protect him, but he would never shield himself under such a subterfuge as the pleading of his privileges as a Senator from Virginia; that he did hold himself accountable to Mr. Clay; but he said that gentleman had first two pledges to redeem: one that he had bound himself to fight any member of the House of Representatives, who should acknowledge himself the author of a certain publication in a Philadelphia paper; and the other, that he stood pledged to establish certain facts in regard to a great man, whom he would not name; but, he added he could receive no verbal message from Mr. Claythat any message from him must be in writing.
"I replied that I was not authorized by Mr. Clay to enter into or receive any verbal explanationsthat the inquiries I had made were for my own satisfaction and upon my own responsibilitythat the only message of which I was the bearer was in writing. I then presented the note, and remarked that I knew nothing of Mr. Clay's pledges; but that if they existed as he (Mr. Randolph) understood them, and he was aware of them when he made the attack complained of, he could not avail himself of themthat by making the attack I thought he had waived them himself. He said he had not the remotest intention of taking advantage of the pledges referred to; that he had mentioned them merely to remind me that he was waiving his privilege, not only as a Senator from Virginia, but as a private gentleman; that he was ready to respond to Mr. Clay, and would be obliged to me if I would bear his note in reply; and that he would in the course of the day look out for a friend.
"I declined being the bearer of his note, but informed him my only reason for declining was, that I thought he owed it to himself to consult his friends before taking so important a step. He seized my hand, saying, 'You are right, sir. I thank you for the suggestion; but as you do not take my note, you must not be impatient if you should not hear from me to-day. I now think of only two friends, and there are circumstances connected with one of them which may deprive me of his services, and the other is in bad healthhe was sick yesterday, and may not be out to-day.' I assured him that any reasonable time which he might find necessary to take would be satisfactory. I took leave of him; and it is due to his memory to say that his bearing was, throughout the interview, that of a high-toned, chivalrous gentleman of the old school."
These were the circumstances of the delivery of the challenge, and the only thing necessary to give them their character is to recollect that, with this prompt acceptance and positive refusal to explain, there was a perfect determination not to fire at Mr. Clay. That determination rested on two grounds; first, an entire unwillingness to hurt Mr. Clay; and, next, a conviction that to return the fire would be to answer, and would be an implied acknowledgment of Mr. Clay's right to make him answer. This he would not do, neither by implication nor in words. He denied the right of any person to question him out of the Senate for words spoken within it. He took a distinction between man and senator. As senator he had a constitutional immunity, given for a wise purpose, and which he would neither surrender nor compromise; as individual he was ready to give satisfaction for what was deemed an injury. He would receive, but not return a fire. It was as much as to say: Mr. Clay may fire at me for what has offended him; I will not, by returning the fire, admit his right to do so. This was a subtle distinction, and that in case of life and death, and not very clear to the common intellect; but to Mr. Randolph both clear and convincing. . . .
The "two friends" alluded to were Colonel Tatnall and myself, and the circumstances which might disqualify one of the two were those of my relationship to Mrs. Clay, of which he did not know the degree, and whether of affinity or consanguinityconsidering the first no obstacle, the other a complete bar to my appearing as his secondholding, as be did, with the tenacity of an Indian,2 to the obligations of blood, and laying but little stress on marriage connections. His affable reception and courteous demeanor to General Jesup were according to his own high breeding, and the decorum which belonged to such occasions. A duel in the circle to which he belonged was "an affair of honor"; and high honor, according to its code, must pervade every part of it. General Jesup had come upon an unpleasant business. Mr. Randolph determined to put him at his ease; and did it so effectually as to charm him into admiration. The whole plan of his conduct, down to contingent details, was cast in his mind instantly, as if by intuition, and never departed from. The acceptance, the refusal to explain, the determination not to fire, the first and second choice of a friend, and the circumstances which might disqualify one and delay the other, the additional cut, and the resolve to fall, if he fell, on the soil of Virginiawas all, to his mind, a single emanation, the flash of an instant. He needed no consultations, no deliberations to arrive at all these important conclusions. I dwell upon these small circumstances because they are characteristic, and show the mana man who belongs to history, and had his own history, and should be known as he was. That character can only be shown in his own conduct, his own words and acts: and this duel with Mr. Clay illustrates it at many points.
The acceptance of the challenge was in keeping with the whole proceedingprompt in the agreement to meet, exact in protesting against the right to call him out, clear in the waiver of his constitutional privilege; brief and cogent in presenting the case as one of some reprehensionthe case of a member of an administration3 challenging a Senator for words spoken in debate of that administration; and all in brief, terse, and superlatively decorous language.
The afternoon of Saturday, the 8th of April, was fixt upon for the time; the right bank of the Potomac, within the State of Virginia, above the Little Falls bridge, was the placepistols the weaponsdistance ten paces; each party to be attended by two seconds and a surgeon, and myself at liberty to attend as a mutual friend. There was to be no practising with pistols, and there was none; and the words "one," "two," "three," "stop," after the word "fire," were, by agreement between the seconds, and for the humane purpose of reducing the result as near as possible to chance, to be given out in quick succession. The Virginia side of the Potomac was taken at the instance of Mr. Randolph. He went out as a Virginia Senator, refusing to compromise that character, and, if he fell in defense of its rights, Virginia soil was to him the chosen ground to receive his blood. There was a statute of the State against dueling within her limits; but, as he merely went out to receive a fire without returning it, he deemed that no fighting, and hence no breach of her statute. This reason for choosing Virginia could only be explained to me, as I was the depository of his secret.
The week's delay which the seconds had contrived was about expiring. It was Friday evening, or rather night, when I went to see Mr. Clay for the last time before the duel. There had been some alienation between us since the time of the Presidential election in the House of Representatives, and I wished to give evidence that there was nothing personal in it. The family were in the parlorcompany presentand some of it stayed late. The youngest child, I believe James, went to sleep on the sofa a circumstance which availed me for a purpose the next day. Mrs. Clay was, as always since the death of her daughter, the picture of desolation, but calm, conversable, and without the slightest apparent consciousness of the impending event. When all were gone, and she also had left the parlor, I did what I came for, and said to Mr Clay, that, notwithstanding our late political differences, my personal feelings toward him were the same as formerly, and that, in whatever concerned his life or honor my best wishes were with him. He exprest his gratification at the visit and the declaration, and said it was what he would have expected of me. We parted at midnight.
Saturday, the 8th of Aprilthe day for the duelhad come, and almost the hour. It was noon, and the meeting was to take place at 4.30 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 questionany 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 beforeof the late sittingthe child asleepthe 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 goldthat coin not being then in circulation, and only to be obtained by favor or purchaseand sent his faithful man, Johnny, to the United States Branch Bank to get a few pieces, American being the kind asked for. . . .
He delivered me a sealed paper, which I was to open if he was killedgive 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 be was killed, and find so many pieces of goldI believe ninetake 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 sat out, Mr. Randolph and his seconds in a carriage, I following him on horseback.
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 westa 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, tho 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 dissatsified. 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 freea 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. 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 exprest in the note which he had immediately written in pencil to apprize me of his possible change), whether, under these circumstances, he might not "disable"his adversary? . . .
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 kneesnot 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 fixt 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 pistoldischarge 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 stopt to sup with Mr. Randolph and his friendsnone of us wanted dinner that dayand 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, Sir. 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 oaksnot let him be buried at Washington, with an 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 sha'n'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 armsamong the quarterings a lion rampant. That is the family, said he; and had the arms engraved on the seal, the same which I have habitually worn; and added the motto, Factis non verbis; of which he was afterward 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 issuea result due to the noble character of the seconds as well as to the generous and heroic spirit of the principals.
1From Benton's "Thirty Years' View."
2Randolph, it will be remembered, was a descendant of Pocahontas.
3Clay was then Secretary of State in the administration of John Quincy Adams.
Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jeffersontwo of the most eminent political men of the Revolution, who, entering public life together, died on the same dayJuly 4th, 1826exactly fifty years after they had both put their hands to that Declaration of Independence which placed a new nation upon the theater of the world. Doubtless there was enough of similitude in their lives and deaths to excuse the belief in the interposition of a direct providence, and to justify the feeling of mysterious reverence with which the news of their coincident demise was received throughout the country.
The parallel between them was complete. Born nearly at the same time, Mr. Adams the elder, they took the same course in life-with the same successand ended their earthly career at the same time, and in the same way: in the regular course of nature, in the repose and tranquillity of retirement, in the bosom of their families, and on the soil which their labors had contributed to make free.
Born, one in Massachusetts, the other in Virginia, they both received liberal educations, emman capable of conceiving measures useful to the country and to mankindable to recommend them to adoption, and to administer them when adopted. I have seen many politiciansa few statesmenand, of these few, he their preeminent head. He was a republican by nature and constitution, and gave proofs of it in the legislation of his State, as well as in the policy of the United States. He was no speaker, but a most instructive and fascinating talker; and the Declaration of Independence, even if it had not been sistered by innumerable classic productions, would have placed him at the head of political writers. I never saw him but once, when I went to visit him in his retirement; and then I felt, for four hours, the charms of his bewitching talk. I was then a young senator, just coming on the stage of public lifehe a patriarchal statesman just going off the stage of natural life, and evidently desirous to impress some views of policy upon mea design in which he certainly did not fail. I honor him as a patriot of the Revolutionas one of the Founders of the Republicas the founder of the political school to which I belong; and for the purity of character which he possest in common with his compatriots, and which gives to the birth of the United States a beauty of parentage which the genealogy of no other nation can show.
END OF VOL. V
1 From Benton's "Thirty Years' View."