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Pistols and politics

Posted: August 23, 2014 - 11:23pm

“Having a high sense of honor, and a quick response in the protection of it, led men to fight duels. The only good to come from this custom was to make men more careful of their language – or, some might say, it was a good way to get rid of political opponents.”

– E. Merton Coulter

Big signs, little signs and some with life-sized dimensions clutter the highways, while words promising and civil, or demeaning and destined for the courts, pepper the campaign trail. Has any election season ever been this bad?

As a matter of fact, yes. Right from the beginning. Right here in “backcountry (now CSRA) Georgia” about 200 years ago.

If anything, politics were even greater sport at the turn of the 19th century than they are today, and shenanigans between candidates more creative than they are now. And candidate was the operative word, because party affiliation was secondary to one’s loyalty to the strong personalities ruling each factional roost. Political parties – Federalists, Jeffersonians, Democratic-Republicans, etc., – may have existed at the time, but for at least one lengthy generation, Georgia voters and politicians were less likely to claim a party name than they were to ally themselves with one of two scrapping political camps: the Crawfordites and the Clarkites.

It all started in the 1790’s with a grand real estate scheme known as “The Yazoo Land Fraud.” Revolutionary War hero Elijah Clarke and his son John favored legislation to sell Georgia’s western lands – mainly to the legislators themselves – at a ridiculously low price from which great profit could be made, while the more principled William Crawford, rising legal star from Columbia County, led the opposition. The “Yazooists” then opposed Crawford, whose integrity, according to historian Spencer King, “was very much in the way of their success.”

Yazoo was the initial line in Georgia’s political sand, but other criteria also separated the two groups. As with the Clarke family itself, the Clarkites usually originated in North Carolina, had little education and identified with the small farmer or frontiersman, while the more educated and often prosperous, or those who had similar ties to Virginia, sided with Crawford. Sometimes differences between the two sides were settled at the ballot box. Occasionally they were resolved another way.

Murder, it seems, was more forgivable at the time than either insulting a gentleman’s honor or letting such an offense go unchallenged. So when Wilkes County attorney and Crawfordite Charles Tait learned that Clarkite attorney Peter Van Allen did not consider him a gentleman, Tait felt obliged to counter this breach of manners with a reply: “I shall not attempt to vie with you in the low arts of scurrility and abuse (by) calling you an insidious rascal....” Instead, to emphasize his disdain, Tait challenged Van Allen to a duel.

As was the custom, the challenger had to select someone else, called “a second,” to deliver the challenge, and Tait chose his friend, William Crawford. Van Allen took plenty of time to reply, before refusing “to make reparation for the injury I have caused.”

In the following weeks vitriolic letters, written by the attorneys or their supporters, were delivered to each other or to their seconds, some reaching the pages of The Augusta Chronicle for all to read. Finally, when Tait accused Van Allen of retreating into “the Temple of Cowardice,” Van Allen took out his venom on Tait’s second, and challenged Crawford to a duel.

Crawford felled the Clarkite attorney with his second shot, and went on to an illustrious national and international political career – even after surviving a second duel with another Clarkite, despite the life-long after-effects of a wound to his wrist.

Dueling in Georgia or anywhere else has never been legal, but in certain cultures and historic eras the practice was widespread and, apparently, condoned. In 1809, Georgia passed a law diminishing if not outlawing duels, by forbidding anyone in any way connected with the practice to hold office in the state. But, as historian E. Merton Coulter observed, “So imbedded was the custom that for more than half a century a few duels were still being fought.”

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