Great American Duels #4

Challenger:  Henry Clay- United States Secretary of State, Former Speaker of the  US House of Representatives

Challenged: John Randolph- United States Senator from Virginia, Seven term US Representative from Virginia

The Offense:  On the floor of the US Senate, Randolph challenged the legitimacy of the John Quincy Adams administration and implicated Clay was part of the “Corrupt Bargain” which gave the presidency to Adams.  Clay demanded public satisfaction and was ignored; he quickly challenged Randolph to a duel. 

Henry Clay of Kentucky

Background:  The fiercely proud, frontier statesman, Henry Clay had already been wounded in a duel in 1809.  Clay was arguably the most influential politician of the early republic period; guiding the country through the War of 1812, crafting the American System of economics following the war, and transforming the Speaker position to the powerful post we recognize today.  John Randolph of Roanoke was brilliant, eccentric, and unpredictable.  He defied Jefferson in 1807, opposed the War of 1812, and became a loyal Jacksonian; Randolph frustrated many in his native Virginia.  It is believed he suffered from consumption and consumed liberal amounts of opium to manage his pain.  Randolph was a crack shot and many powerful people in Washington approached him on Clay’s behalf- Henry Clay was too valuable to lose in a duel…..

John Randolph of Roanoke

The Field of Honor:  Saturday, April 8, 1825- The duel was held in Virginia, Randolph declared that only Virginia soil could catch his blood.  Dueling was illegal in Virginia, so both men would face criminal charges.  Randolph’s Second, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, tried in vain to settle the dispute; even after Randolph’s pistol discharged early because of a hare-trigger.  Clay demanded a reload and his satisfaction.  At 30 paces, the two men turned and fired….both missed.  Clay shouted, “This is child’s play!”  and pistols were reloaded.  Clay fired first and hit Randolph’s coat, missing the mark again.  The Code Duello demanded that Clay absorb his opponent’s charge.  Randolph took his time, a very tense 2 minutes passed…..he aimed high and fired over Clay’s head.  The two men met halfway and shook hands, Clay asked, “Mr. Randolph are you hurt?”  “No”, Randolph replied, ” but you owe me a new coat.”

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