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Authors

Annie Powers

Abstract

“A Duel!” In late March of 1854, the northern press burst with the news. A duel had allegedly taken place between two members of the House of Representatives—Francis B. Cutting of New York and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Confusion and anticipation reigned, and a flurry of rumors circulated. Had Breckinridge been shot in the neck? Was he killed or wounded? Did Cutting emerge victorious? Or was the entire affair a mere hoax? The situation became so dramatic that it even appeared in a theatrical advertisement, beckoning people to see a play that promised to be just as exciting as the alleged duel. By early April, it had become clear that despite the conflict between Cutting and Breckinridge, an actual duel had been averted. Although their misunderstanding had been amicably settled, the affair still left many questions unanswered. Why did these two Congressmen feel compelled to resort to arms? And how did Cutting, a northerner, nearly become embroiled in a duel—a violent ritual typically understood by historians today as an archaic institution that was confined to the Old South? These questions can be partially answered by examining the Cutting-Breckinridge affair within the context of nineteenth century dueling culture generally and the increased sectional tensions that emerged during the Kansas-Nebraska debate specifically. However, the near-duel was given meaning and political staying power only through interpretation and manipulation by the northern anti-slavery press, which used the conflict to indict dueling as a product of violent southern slaveholding culture.

The Cutting-Breckinridge affair was part of the larger sociopolitical phenomenon of dueling that has been discussed by historians of early and nineteenth century America. In her critical study Affairs of Honor, Joanne B. Freeman explains that duels in early America stemmed from a commitment to “sacrifice one’s life for one’s honor,” or a sense of self-worth tied up with manliness and, in some cases, ability as a political leader. [excerpt]

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