Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

On the mercifully few occasions when I engaged in boyhood fisticuffs, I had no inkling that my drama was unfolding on soil with a notable history of one-on-one violence.

A few steps from my Arlington childhood home, off North Glebe Road just up from Chain Bridge, lies the probable location of an infamous dueling ground of the early 19th century.

If you pull your car over, you can read the historic sign erected by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in 2000. Here on April 8, 1826, witnesses watched the famous duel between two American political luminaries: Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Randolph of Virginia.

Clay, of course, would become known in Congress as the Great Compromiser. But the two men that day were hardly in a compromising mood.

The clash—like many in the era that accepted dueling as a way to defend one’s honor—erupted over personal insults. Clay, 49, a southerner, had just become Secretary of State for President John Quincy Adams—whom Sen. Randolph of Roanoke, 53, loathed for his abolitionism.

Clay’s political horse-trading offended Randolph, who stood in the Senate and called Clay, among other quaint epithets, a “blackleg,” which meant an unsavory gambler. Such calumnies on the chamber floor raised a host of political stakes and legalisms. So Clay challenged the acid-tongued Randolph to give him satisfaction.

“No one had the right to demand an explanation for remarks in the Senate, least of all a member of the executive branch,” wrote Clay biographers David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler.

Randolph wanted to duel across the Potomac on his native soil, even though the tradition was illegal. The completion of the Little Falls Bridge (a Chain Bridge predecessor) had opened a new dueling ground a convenient carriage ride from Georgetown.

The site at what is now Randolph Street and Glebe Road inspired a fascinating review of the geography by Ruth M. Ward in the 1981Arlington Historical Magazine. Massaging a variety of sources, she places the dueling ground 50-to-75 feet south of Fort Marcy (off G.W. Parkway), on the back of Pimmit Hill Palisades.

On that snowy-rainy Saturday at around 4:00 P.M, Clay and Randolph arrived with their “seconds,” military officers and politicos. Friends had sought desperately to dissuade the two from going through with the duel, for which Randolph had chosen pistols at 10 paces. During the run-up, Randolph recklessly promised to receive Clay’s shot passively and avoid making his wife a widow, as recounted in Michael Lee Pope’s bookThe Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C. “If I see the devil in Clay’s eye,” Randolph told friends,” I may change my mind.”

Clay stood before a small stump, Randolph by a low gravelly embankment. The two saluted.

After an accidental premature shot by Randolph, each fired once, Randolph hitting the stump and Clay’s ball ricocheting off the gravel. After their seconds reloaded the weapons, Clay fired and hit the gravel again, but a projectile pierced Randolph’s billowing coat.

Randolph shot in the air. “I do not fire at you, Mister Clay,” he proclaimed.

“You owe me a coat, Mister Clay,” said Randolph.

“I’m glad the debt is no greater,” replied Clay. They shook hands.

The outcomes of my own boyhood “duels” are lost to history. But my recollection is that they ended with a similar gained wisdom.