A Duel, a Death, and a Failed Amendment

Did you know Maine has a deadly connection to a failed constitutional amendment?

In honor of the Bill of Rights and You pop-up exhibit currently on display at the library, we’re taking a trip back to 1838. That year, the House of Representatives considered H.R. 8, a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited anyone who was involved in a duel from holding public office.

The proposal came about after Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Maine was killed in a duel in February of that year. Cilley, who previously represented Thomaston in Maine’s statehouse from 1831 to 1836, began his ill-fated term in Congress in 1837.

The duel, between Cilley and Kentucky Congressman William J. Graves, stemmed from remarks Cilley made on the House floor on Feb. 12, 1838. A 2013 post by Margaret Wood, for the Law Librarians of Congress blog, recaps the grievance between Cilley and Graves:

The root of the disagreement between Rep. Cilley and Rep. Graves lay in remarks made by Rep. Cilley on February 12, 1838 when he questioned an anonymous newspaper report which had charged a member of Congress with corruption. A resolution had been proposed to appoint a select committee to investigate the allegation but Rep. Cilley had spoken against the resolution and had as well raised questions about reliability of said newspaper.  On February 21st, the editor of this newspaper, James Watson Webb, had asked Rep. Graves to deliver a note to Rep. Cilley. Rep. Cilley had declined to receive this note.

Like another famous duel that happened 34 years before, this bout ended in tragedy. (In fact, a number of politically-related duels did.) Rifles, rather than pistols, were the weapon of choice, and it took three rounds of shooting (and two rounds of failed negotiations by Cilley and Graves’ seconds) until the matter was settled.

On the third round, Rep. Cilley was shot: “[he] was shot through the body … put both his hands to his wound, fell and in two or three minutes expired.”

The incident started a congressional debate about dueling. Though lawmakers didn’t approve the constitutional amendment, they did enact tougher federal laws prohibiting dueling in Washington, D.C.

And in case you were wondering, yes, there were rules governing deadly duels between politicians, many of which were helpfully recapped and dramatized in the musical Hamilton.


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