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Antebellum Period

Antebellum Period

Jonathan Cilley in Antebellum Period

Jonathan Cilley (1802-1838) was a Democratic Maine congressman who was killed in a duel with Whig Kentucky congressman William Graves. He was the last member of the U.S. House to die in a duel. Standing almost 100 yards from Graves on a frozen field outside Washington, D.C. in February 1838, Cilley intentionally fired the first shot into the ground. Two more rounds were ordered before Graves mortally wounded his colleague, who left a wife and three young children back home. Cilley had been an up-and-coming figure in the House, a proud New Englander and an adamant abolitionist. He had antagonized the Whigs by alluding to the idea that James Watson Webb, a Whig newspaper editor in New York City, had accepted a bribe. Cilley's Whig enemies goaded Graves into challenging the Maine congressman to a showdown. Cilley was equally reluctant to participate, but he felt obligated to do so because he thought that New England's honor was at stake.

When Maine separated from Massachusetts to become its own state in 1820, it passed anti-dueling laws that authorized a $1,000 fine against anyone who challenged another person to a duel or who accepted such a challenge. The public outcry over Cilley's death resulted in a popular reaction against dueling in the North and the passage of a Maine state law that fined a person $100 for ridiculing anyone who refused to duel. All of the Supreme Court Justices refused to attend Cilley's funeral as a show of protest against the practice of dueling. Congress declared a national mourning period for Cilley but Graves was not punished.

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