Historical Marker #611 in Simpson County notes the location where Tennessee antagonists sometimes met to settle affairs of honor by fighting duels.
When a gentleman in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century was publicly humiliated by a rival suitor, opposing newspaper editor, political competitor, or other social adversary, one course of action in order to regain lost honor was to fight a duel. In those days a man’s honor was often his most cherished possession, so any attempt to harm his reputation would be regarded as a grave affront. To many, a man’s honor had to be defended even at the risk of death, because dying was better than living as a humiliated individual.
Dueling has a long history that goes back to early-modern Europe. Early on, dueling often involved swords, but soon transitioned to firearms with their rise in popularity. However, it was up to the two opponents and their immediate supporters, called “seconds,” to decide on the weapon of choice. To maintain proper order when an offense had been received—whether intentional or not—the “Code Duello,” a manual on the rules of dueling was sometimes consulted.
Famous duels in America sometimes involved noted political figures. Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Secretary of the Treasurer Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel. While the Burr-Hamilton duel was fought in New Jersey, dueling seemed to take particular hold in the southern states. Southerners such as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton and Sam Houston, all chose dueling to settle affairs of honor, some more than once.
Sam Houston’s duel occurred in Simpson County, Kentucky in September 1826. Houston, future president of the Republic of Texas, fought William White over a series of aspersions concerning a political appointment. The date was set, weapons were chosen—pistols at fifteen feet—and a site across the Tennessee state line in Kentucky was selected. Due to most states’ laws against dueling, it was not uncommon to fight out of state. In the fight Houston hit White in the groin. Although the wound was severe and caused White to be confined to the bed for four months, he survived.
Duels continued to be fought in Kentucky through the late nineteenth century, but the ideal of defending one’s honor to the point of death slowly fell out of favor. An interesting point that speaks to the state’s long association with dueling is the fact that Kentucky’s oath of office for governor includes the following sentence: “and you do further solemnly swear that since the adoption of the present (Kentucky) Constitution, 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 a second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”