In 1838, politicians in Washington, like Maine representative Jonathan Cilley, didn’t have Twitter to settle their political fights. But they did have guns and dueling was still legal in parts of the country, including Maryland.
Nothing in Jonathan Cilley’s early years would suggest he would die in one of the last legal duels east of the Mississippi. Born in 1802 in Nottingham, N.H. he attended Atkinson Academy and Bowdoin College, graudating in the class of 1825. Cilley moved to Thomaston, Maine where he began studying law and teaching school. He apprenticed himself to John Ruggles, a judge and politician.
Ruggles initially supported Cilley’s ambition, and helped him win election to the Maine House of Representatives. But the two had a falling out when Ruggles accused Cilley of not enthusiastically supporting Ruggles’ own campaign for U.S. Senate. The split set up a life-long political feud between the two men, and Ruggles would attempt to have Cilley expelled from the Democratic Party.
Jonathan Cilley Congressman
Cilley, however, prevailed and was elected Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. In 1837 he won election to Congress. In his private life, Cilley was known as an amiable man, whose outlook was somewhat darkened by the deaths of two of his four children in infancy. He remained humble, despite his successes. The student at Bowdoin who had served as a school teacher to support his education still traipsed through town on his own looking for his cow when it took off wandering.
Cilley was fond of flower gardening and enjoyed spending time with his beehives, admiring the industrious occupants. In his public life, Cilley was eloquent, but direct. His bluntness would eventually lead to his death.
War of Words
Trouble began when Cilley attacked newspaper publisher James Watson Webb, publisher of the New York Morning Courier and Enquirer. Webb was a Whig and later a Republican. Cilley a Democrat. Webb was pugnacious, vain and corrupt. Cilley had called out Webb for flip-flopping on the issue of whether the Second Bank of the United States should be allowed to continue operating.
Webb had opposed the bank but then supported it after receiving substantial payments of $52,000 from the bank.
Webb took exception to comments Cilley made on the House floor. Webb gave a letter to his friend, Rep. William ‘Tip’ Graves of Kentucky, demanding an explanation or an apology of Cilley.
The etiquette of dueling was peculiar, and the appropriate response to a challenge was a touchy business. Cilley responded by explaining his criticism had not been intended to impugn the honor of either Webb or Graves. At first, the reply satisfied Graves. However, a group of his friends, including Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay, urged him not to accept the apology.
Webb responded with a note, probably written by Clay, asking Cilley to explain what he had meant in the House debate. Offended, Cilley replied that he would not accept any demand to further explain himself. That prompted Graves to issue the challenge to a duel.
The Dueling Grounds
Graves was a trained marksman with a pistol, so Cilley chose to fight with rifles. The two went to the dueling grounds in Maryland, with their seconds, on Feb 24, 1838. There they took their positions – some 90 yeards apart – and lowered their rifles and fired. The first shots missed. The seconds conferred and decided another round should be fired, this time from a closer range. Again, both men missed.
The seconds conferred again. Cilley had repeated his earlier statement that he had not impugned the honor of his opponents. But the seconds agreed to a third round. On his third shot, Graves hit Cilley in the leg. The bullet tore through his femoral artery. Cilley bled to death in a matter of a few moments.
A Nation Outraged
In reaction to the duel, outrage erupted from Thomaston, Me. to Washington, D.C. Congress investigated whether Graves had violated the rules of the House of Representatives. By a narrow margin, he survived an effort to expel him from the House. But he retired from politics at the end of the term.
Dueling was outlawed across the country. The fallout from the Cilley duel helped destroy Henry Clay’s career. He would seek the presidency, but was passed over. One the allegations against him was that his history of dueling made him unfit for office.
Webb, meanwhile, would go on to involve himself in one more duel. He would challenge Rep. Thomas Marshall of Kentucky to a duel in 1842. The duel left Webb with a bullet in his leg that caused him to limp for the remainder of is life. Adding insult to injury, Webb was arrested in New York and sentenced to two years in jail for breaking the laws against dueling. His political connections saved him; the governor pardoned him and spared any jail time.
Cilley, meanwhile, had been memorialized in an emotional service at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and then taken home to Thomaston where even his former political enemies condemned the manner in which he died.