Duel! Clay and Wickliffe, Men of Honor


“In 1841, [Cassius Marcellus Clay] fought a duel with Robert Wickliffe, Jr.; neither was injured.”

That is all The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Kleber 199) has to say about the duel between Cassius Marcellus Clay, the Lion of White Hall, and Robert Wickliffe, Jr., son of Kentucky Statesman Robert Wickliffe and nephew to Governor Charles A. Wickliffe. But for Locust Grove, this was a significant event in the history of the site, and on  July 31, when Clay and Wickliffe face off for a 21st century reenactment of this conflict, and all the ritual and etiquette that comes with dueling itself.

In its heyday in the United States, dueling was a fashionable way of defending one’s honor. There was a prescribed set of steps that must be followed in order to challenge one to a duel, accept the challenge, decide on time, location, and weapons, and so forth. It was perhaps not the most productive form of conflict resolution, but it allowed one individual to demand satisfaction from another for an insult or an injustice without descending into chaos and brawling. Historian Joanne B. Freeman remarks in Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic that “The strictures of honor controlled, channeled, and masked political combat by providing a shared code of conduct that enforced gentlemanly standards of behavior. Men who did not abide by these rules were neither gentlemen nor leaders” (170). Over time, there have been several codifications of the rules of dueling, but one of the most widespread was the Code Duello, set out in 1777 by a group of Irishmen. You can read the complete list of rules here, but we here at Locust Grove have caught Hamilton mania and would be remiss if  we didn’t share “Ten Duel Commandments”, which helpfully compresses the dueling code into a catchy tune. Have a listen:

So, let’s recap. A conflict arises; one man challenges the other to a duel to demand satisfaction for an injustice against him. The other accepts. Through their seconds, the challenged chooses weapons and location while the challenger chooses the distance. The seconds, the only true witnesses to the duel, negotiate all other terms of the duel, all the while offering opportunities for the challenged man to apologize to the challenger. If an apology was given and accepted at any time, the matter would be ended, and the duel would be cancelled. Generally, in a duel with pistols, the weapons are discharged by each man at least once, with further shots being taken if no one is injured and no one yields. As stated in Rule 22, “Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day.” There are no winners or losers in a duel–the challenger will be satisfied that his honor is intact, while the challenged will have upheld all the rules of the duel to answer for his insult to his rival’s character.

As time passed, it seems that most people agreed with Burr’s (fictional) statement that “duels are dumb and immature.” (For those specifically interested in the Hamilton-Burr Duel in 1804, there will be a special lecture on this event at 3PM on July 31 as part of the duel reenactment.) Duels were outlawed in 18 states by 1859, and continued to lose popularity by the end of the 20th century. However, here in Kentucky, since a new state constitution was ratified in 1891, any official elected to state office must swear to the following statement:

“I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”

This constitutional statement effectively put an end to the practice of dueling in Kentucky–but according to the office of the Kentucky Secretary of State, forty-one duels were fought in Kentucky between 1790 and 1867, including the one between Cassius Marcellus Clay and Robert Wickliffe, Jr. on May 13, 1841.

Cassius Marcellus Clay “the Lion of White Hall”, was the son of Green Clay, and the cousin of Henry Clay. He served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and became an anti-slavery advocate after hearing a speech given by William Lloyd Garrison while attending Yale. He published an anti-slavery newspaper, True American, and suffered many death threats and physical attacks on his purpose due to his political views. A friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, he served as United States Ambassador to Russia from 1863 to 1869.


Cassius Marcellus Clay, c. 1844-1860 (Image: Library of Congress)


Robert Wickliffe, Jr., “the Young Duke”, was the son of Robert Wickliffe, who like Clay’s father, was one of the richest planters in Kentucky. Wickliffe’s uncle was Charles A. Wickliffe, governor of Kentucky from 1839-1840. Wickliffe Jr. served as Charge d’Affairs to Sardinia under President John Tyler. Wickliffe and Clay had been classmates at Transylvania University, and came up in Kentucky politics together, although Wickliffe was greatly influenced by his father, “the Old Duke”.

So, why did Clay and Wickliffe duel on Locust Grove’s lawn? For one thing, they were political rivals. In the election of 1840, they both campaigned for the same seat in the Fayette County General Assembly. They also had very different views on slavery, specifically the repeal of an 1833 statute that outlawed the importing slaves in to Kentucky to be sold. Clay opposed the repeal of this law, and the practice of slavery, declaring himself in favor of the gradual emancipation of slavery, while Wickliffe accused him of being an abolitionist who sought a rebellion against the state. At one point during a speech, Wickliffe brought up Clay’s wife, Mary Jane Warfield Clay, and an outraged Clay challenged him to a duel. As Lashe D. Mullins and Charles K. Mullins write in A History of White Hall: House of Clay, “Clay was always certain to act if he felt like his views or his (or his wife’s honor) were put into question” (44). As the Code Duello states in Rule 10, “Any insult to a lady under a gentleman’s care or protection to be considered as, by one degree, a greater offense than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regulated accordingly.” Clay had an obligation to stand up for his wife’s honor was well as his own. Other sources state that Clay also insulted Wickliffe’s father, Robert Wickliffe, “the Old Duke”, one of the richest slaveholders in the state. Both men had their reasons for entering into such an affair of honor.

In a letter to his brother-in-law, General Thomas Jesup, Dr. John Croghan details the day of the duel, as several men essentially showed up on his lawn to duel it out:

“Locust Grove, May 15, 1841
Dear Genl,
In my letter to Mary [Jesup] I remarked that I would write to you the ensuing Tuesday; but the unexpected arrival here of some half a dozen gentlemen to settle an affair of honor prevented my doing so. It seems Mr. Cassius Clay of Lexington (son of Genl Green Clay) & Mr. Wickliffe junr are candidates for the Assembly, and in the heat of debate, while addressing the multitude, the former spoke very disparagingly of the Father of the latter. The consequence of which was Wickliffe challenged Clay. John Rowan [1773-1843] was Wickliffe’s second, & Mr. Peyton of Virginia, Genl [Albert Sidney] Johns(t)on [1803-1862] of Texas & Mr. W[illiam] Preston [1816-1887] his friends. They remained here until Thursday & left enough in the post at the end of the lane to answer my purposes for 12 months. The friends of Clay were Majr [William R.] McKee [1806-1847] formerly of the Army[,] second, and W. Payne & Dr. Marshall junr of Lexington. Both parties it seemed had agreed to meet here & but for an accidental circumstance would. They fought near our Mill and after the exchange of a shot a reconciliation ensued. They missed, but my opinion has that they are men of courage. A laughable report got out of my getting them to fight in the mill house. After the affair was over all parties came to the house, where they met Judge [Henry] Pirtle [1798-1880], Judge [Samuel Smith] Nicholas [1797-1869]; [William Fontaine] Bullock [1807-1889]. & [James] Guthrie [1792-1869] who had come out with a view of stopping the fight. I had for all something to eat & drink and I think they went home as happy as they left there.”


We hope you’ll join us for the reenactment of this Kentucky affair of honor on July 31! Full schedule is below; admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children. It will satisfy all my dearest wishes to see you there.

Schedule of Events
Historical Fashion Show 1:30 pm
Dancing in the Auditorium (includes lesson) 2 pm
Lecture: The Burr & Hamilton Duel 3 pm
Clay & Wickliffe Duel 4 pm
Includes a demonstration and discussion of firearms in 1841 as well as a narration and reenactment of the duel itself

Honorably yours,


Further reading:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic by Joanne B. Freeman

The Kentucky Encyclopedia by John Kleber

A History of White Hall: House of Clay by Lashe D. Mullins and Charles K. Mullins

Lion of White Hall: The Life of Cassius M. Clay by David L. Smiley

Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom by H. Edward Richardson

“Kentucky and the Code Duello”, Kentucky Secretary of State.

*Promotional photographs courtesy of Fox and Rose Photography.


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