In the early honor cultures of the United States, particularly in the South, any slight or insult demanded satisfaction. The upper classes engaged in “civilized” dueling. The insulted party would demand the satisfaction of a duel, and the challenged party would usually be allowed to choose the weapon. 

This behavior reached the highest ranks of the American government in 1804 when sitting Vice President Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, a former Secretary of the Treasury.

Given the current political climate, duels in Washington might see a renaissance in the near future. As of this writing, however, the last congressman to be killed in a duel was Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston in 1838.

Cilley was born in New Hampshire, the grandson of a Revolutionary War hero. He went to Bowdoin College in Brunswick during its golden years in the early 1800s and became friends with Nathanial Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce. 

Cilley settled in Thomaston after college and was editor of a local newspaper. Eventually he served several terms in the Maine House of Representatives, ultimately becoming Speaker of the House. He became a member of Congress in 1837, but his term wouldn’t last long.

Partisanship in Washington was high at the time, and the two parties — Democrats and Whigs — were in conflict over the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States. A newspaper editor named James Watson Webb flip-flopped on the issue in the pages of his newspaper. Cilley publicly accused him of changing his position because of a $50,000 bribe from the bank. 

The insulted newspaperman convinced his friend, Congressman William J. Graves, to deliver Cilley a written challenge to a duel. Cilley refused to accept the challenge, which Graves felt was an insult to his own honor. Graves himself challenged Cilley to a duel.  

Graves was considered an expert with pistols, so Cilley chose rifles as the dueling weapon. Cilley still lost, and his body now rests back home in Thomaston.

As a result of this duel, Congress passed strict laws against dueling in Washington, D.C., and the practice came to an end. 


Zac McDorr is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. He can be reached at:
[email protected]