Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Brutal Political Murder

Last summer I was invited to participate in the biennial meeting of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. This timely gathering was aptly called "Nathaniel Hawthorne: Starting Over," as Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College for four years, graduating with the Class of 1825. A couple points of clarification, however. First off, I am not a Hawthorne scholar and would not claim to be one. Secondly, I was not invited to this meeting to talk about Hawthorne. Instead, I journeyed to Bowdoin to tell the sad tale of Jonathan Cilley, one of Hawthorne’s oldest friends and college chums, whose death in 1838 in a ravine less than a mile from my home in suburban Washington, DC led to the outlawing of dueling in the United States. And it was Cilley’s former Bowdoin classmate Hawthorne who helped spearhead the effort to ensure that others might not suffer the same fate as his old friend. So, wearing my historian’s hat this week, let me share a portion of the story I told during my visit to Hawthorne’s alma mater where I was also afforded an opportunity to see several manuscripts, correspondence, and other ephemera surrounding the Cilley-Hawthorne friendship. I am also including some photographs taken here in the Washington area, as well at Bowdoin and in Thomaston, Maine. Thankfully individuals no longer settle disputes in ways that violate “their duty to themselves, their wives and children, their immediate constituents, their country, their god, upon contemptible punctilios . . . .”

On the morning of February 24, 1838, two distinguished members of the United States House of Representatives met at Bloody Run, a small tree-shaded ravine in Bladensburg, Maryland, just over the District of Columbia boundary. To these dark and bloody grounds came Washington’s gentlemen to settle disputes by firing large caliber lead balls at one another. Jonathan Cilley, a Congressional representative from Maine, stood opposite William Graves, a colleague from Kentucky, and when it was over, Cilley lay mortally wounded. His tragic death led to a public outcry encouraging Congress, which characterized the killing as “the Washington murder” and “a brutal political murder . . . without any circumstance of extenuation,” to outlaw dueling the following year.

Jonathan Longfellow Cilley was born July 2, 1802 at Nottingham, New Hampshire, the son of Major Greenleaf Cilley and the grandson of General Joseph Cilley, a hero of the American Revolution. Young Jonathan was raised in a family with a strong political legacy; he was the nephew of Bradbury Cilley, an at-large member of the U.S. House of Representative from New Hampshire between 1813 and 1817, and his older brother Joseph, who had distinguished himself on the Canadian frontier during the War of 1812, would later serve two years as the U.S. Senator from New Hampshire.

Following his father’s death in 1808, the family’s New Hampshire holdings came to his brother Joseph, and Jonathan would have to look elsewhere to make his way in the world. After attending the prestigious Atkinson Academy and Hampton Academy, in his home state, Cilley traveled to Maine in 1821 where he attended Bowdoin College along with classmates including Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In the same coach in which Cilley left Portland for Brunswick and Bowdoin College were Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These three young men, along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of Portland, and Horatio Bridge, of Augusta, would become fast friends at school. Unlike Hawthorne and Bridge, who from time to time violated the school’s rules for acceptable decorum, Pierce, despite his poor grades, and Cilley became pillars of their class. Hawthorne would later describe his friend as a “popular leader,” a “fervid and successful advocate,” and “a young man of quick and powerful intellect, endowed with sagacity and tact.”

These four friends were not interested only in academic pursuits mixed with various adventures and innocent indiscretions. They were also young partisans in a dynamic transformation of American democracy. A case in point was the national elections of 1824, during their final year at Bowdoin. The Democratic-Republican party, which had been in its ascendency since the election of Thomas Jefferson as President, in 1801, was growing larger and more diversified as the country expanded westward. During this critical election, four candidates were vying for the Democratic-Republican nomination for the Presidency. John Quincy Adam of Massachusetts, a former independent Federalist much in the guise of his father, represented the traditional Eastern and New England interests. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Great Compromiser of 1820 responsible for Missouri and Maine’s admission to the Union, represented the western interests while William H. Crawford of Georgia, who was supported by outgoing President James Monroe and former President Thomas Jefferson, represented the more traditional Southern views. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, supporting the varied frontier interests, found support in all sector of the country.

Franklin Pierce, a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, enlisted Cilley, Bridge, and Hawthorne to his cause. Bridge and Cilley were plausible converts given the fact they came from the frontier edges of New England. Hawthorne was a different story. A scion of two established Massachusetts families, he would have traditionally fallen into John Quincy Adams’ camp. Perhaps it was Hawthorne’s deep and abiding love for rural Maine, now a state with its own representation in Washington, that allowed him to take up Jackson’s cause. Indeed, Jackson won the popular and electoral vote in 1824 while failing to gain a clear majority. The election of the next President then fell to the House of Representatives which elected John Quincy Adams, the more traditional candidate to whom Henry Clay had thrown his support. Although their candidate lost, the Bowdoin classmates would become life-long Jacksonian Democrats.

One of the more interesting episodes involving Cilley and Hawthorne concerned a wager between the two men during their last year at Bowdoin. The winner of this wager - Cilley’s strong belief that Hawthorne, despite showing little interest in courting while in college, would marry within twelve years of graduation – would receive a cask of fine Madeira wine from the loser. According to Bridge, papers were drawn up on November 14, 1824, signed by the principals, and entrusted to Bridge for safe-keeping until the wager came due, in November 1836. Hawthorne and Cilley did not see each other for years after their graduation, and they seldom corresponded, but they remained friends. “I love Hawthorne; I admire him; but I do not know him,” Cilley would later confess. “He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter.”

After graduation, Hawthorne returned home to Salem where he struggled to become the writer he always dreamed he would be. Franklin Pierce was destined for a career in politics, representing New Hampshire in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before being elected the 14th President of the United States, in 1853. Horatio Bridge went on to become a prominent naval officer, rising to the rank of commodore and serving in appointed positions in several administrations, beginning with that of his old Bowdoin classmate Pierce. Jonathan Cilley, who had nothing waiting for him back in New Hampshire, left Brunswick for Thomaston, Maine, where he studied law under John Ruggles, who had represented Thomaston in the state legislature in Augusta since 1823. Following the completion of his law studies under Ruggles, Cilley was admitted to the Lincoln County bar in 1829, the same year he married Deborah Prince, the daughter of a prominent Thomaston family with whom he resided after leaving Bowdoin. Together they would have five children - three sons and two daughters - born between October 1829 and December 1837. Cilley did not practice law right away; he served as the editor of the Thomaston Register, from 1829 to 1831.

John Quincy Adams’ tenure as President would last only one term. In the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson finally won a clear majority, carrying all sections of the country with the support of Adam’s Vice President, John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, and Martin Van Buren, of New York. John Ruggles, a Jacksonian Democrat in a predominantly Federalist (and later, Whig) district, was not only Jonathan Cilley’s legal mentor, but his political mentor as well. When Ruggles left the state legislature in 1831 following his appointment as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, Maine’s supreme court, he encouraged his young protégé to replace him. With Ruggles’ support Cilley won the 1831 election, taking his seat in the legislature in Augusta in January 1832.

When Ruggles subsequently ran for the United States Senate that same year, he trusted that Cilley would use his newfound influence in the state legislature to assist him. Cilley’s reluctance to do so, however, angered Ruggles, who, with his allies in Augusta tried to prevent Cilley’s reelection. Failing in the attempt, and still rankled by Cilley’s supposed treason, Ruggles also sought and obtained Cilley’s expulsion from the legislature’s Democratic caucus, in 1834. Regardless, Cilley was elected to five successive terms as Thomaston’s representative in Augusta, and was named Speaker of the House in 1835, a position his former mentor had once held.

Despite a Whig majority in Maine’s Lincoln Congressional District, and without the support of the Ruggles faction in the Democratic party, Jonathan Cilley was nominated in 1836 as that party’s candidate in the upcoming election for the United States House of Representatives. Cilley had now allied himself to Vice President Martin Van Buren’s juggernaut to succeed Jackson in the Presidency and thereby continue his Democratic legacy. Cilley, with the support of the superior organizational skills of the Democratic party facing four regional Whig candidates for President, was elected to the 25th Congress on March 4, 1837, and his longtime defense of Jackson and his policies, and his alliance with President Van Buren, would put him at odds with many powerful men in Congress, along with their supporters.

Leaving his wife and young children in Thomaston, Cilley moved to Washington where he assumed his new duties “with real heart felt & active benevolence, mutual simplicity, unaffected humility, manly strength of mind, & everlasting truth.” By all accounts, Cilley took his position in the House of Representatives very seriously and considered himself not only one of Maine’s representatives, but also duty-bound to protect New England’s honor and interests as a gallant and incorruptible public servant.

The wager into which Cilley and Nathaniel Hawthorne entered in 1824, toward the end of their collegiate tenure at Bowdoin, came due for settlement in October 1836, while Cilley was running for a Congressional seat. Horatio Bridge, then residing in Augusta and who remained curator of the records of the wager in the intervening years, notified Cilley that Hawthorne, much like himself, had not yet married and therefore Cilley owed Hawthorne the cask of Madeira as obliged by the wager. Cilley wrote to Hawthorne questioning the validity of his claim to the wine and giving the impression that he had no intention of honoring the wager. Hawthorne complained to Bridge who cautioned: “if a bet grows old it grows cold.” Cilley, ever the politician, offered an alternative resolution to the matter. They would all meet at Bowdoin College at the next commencement ceremony and share the wine with as many classmates as might gather there for the occasion. Bridge suspected Cilley’s true motive: “to pay over the balance after taking a strong pull at it.” The wager remained unresolved when Cilley left Maine in early 1837 for his new duties in Washington.

Upon the publication of Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales in 1837, Horatio Bridge sent a copy to Representative Cilley, hoping to recruit him to an effort by Franklin Pierce, now a U.S. Senator, to secure for Hawthorne a position as chronicler and historian for a planned expedition to the South Seas. Cilley congratulated Hawthorne on the publication of his book, taking the opportunity to chide his old friend over his failure to find a bride. “What, suffer twelve years to pass away, and no wife, no children, to soothe your care, make you happy, and call you blessed.”

Hawthorne did not get the job, and he visited Bridge at his home in Augusta during the summer of 1837. They spent a great deal of time together, catching up on old times and fishing the local waters. Hawthorne continued on to Thomaston where he visited Cilley in late July, the first time they had seen each other since they graduated from Bowdoin. There is no record of any discussion of the wager, and writing in his journal on July 28th, Hawthorne referred to the visit with his old classmate and friend. “We met like old friends, and conversed almost as freely as we used to do in college days, twelve years ago and more.” Hawthorne found Cilley to be “shrewd, crafty, insinuating, with wonderful tact . . . a daring fellow as well as a sly one.” He could well understand how a man such as Cilley would be successful in politics. “There is such a quality of truth and kindliness and warm affections, that a man’s heart opens to him, in spite of himself. He deceived by truth.”

In Washington, Cilley exemplified the true Jacksonian Democrat, trying to represent his constituents who had intrusted their public interests to his care. He was also baptized in a vicious partisanship and vile journalism the likes of which he had not known at home despite his unpleasant dealings with John Ruggles, his former mentor, and his faction within the Democratic party. “A man,” Cilley confessed, “if he thinks freely and boldly, must take his life in his hand.” In his role of guardian of Northern principles and traditions, Cilley believed that other members of Congress from the North too frequently allowed their esteemed colleagues from the Southern states “to hector and lord it over them” in return for their loyalty and support on key issues. He felt it was his solemn duty, and that of his Northern compatriots, to address these attacks in kind. If they did, such arrogance would cease. It is therefore not surprising that Cilley took great offense when he read in a newspaper account that several of his Congressional colleagues were doing business with James Watson Webb, one of the North’s most virulent opponents of the Abolitionist movement and a prominent Whig editor of two influential New York City newspapers. Cilley perceived Webb to be a corrupt scoundrel and sought to expose him, reading the New Hampshire newspaper’s allegations into the Congressional Record.

William J. Graves, a Whig elected to the House of Representatives from Kentucky and a good friend of the powerful New York editor, came to Webb’s defense and offered to defend his honor by challenging Cilley to meet him at Bloody Run. At first Cilley dismissed the challenge; all he had done was quote something already on the public record. Quickly realizing that the challenge could not go unanswered, the mild-mannered Cilley, unfamiliar with the protocol of dueling and who honestly believed this matter might be satisfied without firing a shot, finally accepted the challenge for “the honor of the New England States.” His inexperience and naivete would cost him his life.

Cilley and Graves met at the secluded ravine on the appointed day. Unlike most duels of the time, which were fought using pistols at a relatively close range, the two principals stood opposite one another at a distance of 80 yards armed with more unconventional rifles. Three separate volleys were fired. Following a customary practice in duels, Cilley fired his first round into the ground only a short distance away. The seconds for both men, as well as a number of prominent Washingtonians who had gathered to witness the duel, urged the two men to call off the challenge, presuming that both men had defended their honor by showing up. Cilley agreed, but Graves demanded satisfaction and refused to abandon his challenge. The second volley also failed to find its mark and once again Graves refused to stand aside. Again the two men raised their weapons, aimed and fired. The smoke hung in the cold February morning air as the rifles’ reports echoed down the ravine. The lead ball from Graves’ rifle had struck Cilley in the upper leg severing an artery, and he fell to the ground and quickly bled to death. He was thirty-five years old.

Cilley’s state funeral was held in Washington at noon on February 27, 1838, when his body was placed in the center aisle of the House of Representatives, in the Capitol. In attendance were President Martin Van Buren, a long time Cilley ally, as well as Vice President Richard M. Johnson, another prominent Jacksonian Democrat from Kentucky. Also attending were members of the Cabinet and the Supreme Court, both houses of Congress, and many other distinguished guests filled the House galleries. The Chaplain of the Senate gave the invocation, but it was the Reverend Levi R. Reese, the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, who spoke out vigorously on the questionable morality of dueling to solve personal feuds at “a service the most painful and delicate I have ever been called upon to perform,” a funeral “fraught with solemn admonition and instruction to us all.” Reverend Reese questioned how it had become honorable to issue and accept challenges that might lead to the death of one or both men involved; “there is no righteous principle that will justify such a course . . . they fight, the ball is received, and the unhappy man falls a lifeless corpse on the earth.” He ended by challenging Cilley’s Congressional colleagues to do everything in their power “to change this wicked and ruinous state of public opinion” and put an end to “this awful relic of barbarism.”

Following the funeral service in the Capitol, the cortege and all in attendance made their way to the Washington Parish Burial Ground (the present-day Congressional Cemetery), that “grand and gloomy cemetery” on a hillside above the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (now the Anacostia) River, and there Cilley was laid to rest temporarily in the Public Vault. His body was eventually returned to his family in Thomaston where he now lies buried in the family plot in Elm Grove Cemetery. A cenotaph (literally “empty grave”) in his honor remains to this day in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

Condemnation of the duel and Cilley’s senseless death was swift and harsh. Several newspapers and journals ran editorials denouncing Webb and his Congressional cronies for provoking the duel, and there were a number of published satirical cartoons portraying the events surrounding Cilley’s brutal “murder.” One of the loudest voices condemning the duel was that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who noted that such a challenge “was never given on a more shadowy pretext,” and that his friend had been “slain for an almost impalpable punctilio.”

In the September 1839 issue of Democratic Review, Hawthorne penned a glowing tribute to his old friend whose loss obliged him to “write with a blunted pen and head benumbed.” Describing his college friend as an “Active and Efficient Partisan,” he reminded the reader that Cilley had fallen victim to an unjust cause. “Alas, that over the grave of a dear friend, my sorrow for the bereavement must be mingled with another grief - that he threw away such a life in so miserable a cause! Why, as he was true to the Northern character in all things else, did he swerve from his Northern principles in this final scene?” Cilley may have been a strong voice and a man of action for his native New England, yet Hawthorne believed his loss would be felt far beyond those precincts; the entire country had “lost a man who had the heart and the ability to serve her well.”

Perhaps some good came from this senseless act. A Congressional committee, of which Senator Franklin Pierce was a member, conducted a long investigation into the circumstances surrounding Cilley’s death which resulted in a number of censures and dismissals. Subsequent inquiries eventually led to ending the practice of dueling - not just at Bloody Run - and the making or accepting of a challenge became a criminal offense throughout the United States.

Deborah Prince Cilley survived her husband by only six years, passing away in Thomaston in August 1844 at the young age of 36. Their eldest surviving son, Greenleaf Cilley, who was nine when his father was killed, later served in the Navy, rising to the rank of commander, and eventually became a prominent businessman in Thomaston. Jonathan Prince Cilley, who was only two in 1838, would grow up to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Bowdoin College where he graduated in 1858. Commissioned an officer in the First Maine Calvary, he was wounded several times during the Civil War and rose to the rank of general in the Union Army. After the war he served in the Maine Senate. Daughter Julia, who never knew her father, grew to adulthood, married, and raised her family in Maine.

Bloody Run, in Bladensburg, Maryland, is now preserved as a county historical site situated between a strip mall and a cemetery, an almost forgotten patch of grass in a small ravine adjacent to a concrete culvert where the stream once flowed. There is a small historic marker nearby and from time to time one can see a reenactment of the famous 1820 duel between Stephen Decatur and James Barron. Nothing is said of that duel on a cold morning in February 1838 that claimed the promising life of a young politician from Maine, and forever ended legalized dueling in the United States.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jonathan Cilley, Horatio Bridge, and any number of fellow classmates never did convene at Bowdoin College to take strong pulls from that elusive cask of Madeira. With the publication of his glowing tribute to his old friend Jonathan Cilley, Hawthorne put that youthful chapter of his life behind him. Their 17-year friendship was based on a mutual admiration while recognizing that mysterious world that ultimately separated them.

NEXT WEEK: A Visit to the Banks of Plum Creek

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