Depending upon one’s view of the custom of dueling, the “duel” between Thomas Clingman and William Yancey was either a noble instance of two men desperately trying to uphold the rigid customs of honor or a revealing example of the ridiculous nature of wanting to avenge insult with murder. Yancey, an Alabama congressman, had viciously attacked Clingman in a political speech, impugning Clingman’s loyalty to the South. This was in retaliation to Clingman’s attacks upon the Democrats which was a notably fiery piece of rhetoric (Jeffrey, p. 49). Both speeches were characteristic of the fierce partisanship of the time.
Clingman was a Whig and Yancey a Democrat. However, a distinction between the remarks given by Clingman and those given by Yancey were that Yancey’s attacked Clingman personally . Clingman’s remarks were certainly over-the-top but they were not, at least in a personal sense, over-the-line (Jeffrey, p. 49). Yancey had turned the art of parliamentary rhetoric into a personal assault. The North Carolina Standard said that “Never was any man so severely castigated as Mr. Clingman was. (Jeffrey, p. 49). On January 6 or 1845 Clingman told Yancey that he intended to press the matter.
He challenged Yancey to meet him in Baltimore where he intended to deliver a formal challenge. Unfortunately, despite Clingman’s enthusiasm for the duel, he was not familiar with the art of shooting and Yancey had a reputation for being a skilled marksman (Jeffrey, p. 50). The pair went back and forth, through their Seconds, until it was finally apparent that Yancey was either possessed of much conviction and willing to back up his statements with lethal force, that he was simply unafraid of Clingman and not concerned about the consequences of the duel or both.
Either way, the duel was on. They agreed to have it out the following Monday (Jeffrey, p. 50). This would seem in keeping with the Southern practice of dueling as a whole on Clingman’s part: honor before wisdom. After a ridiculous series of events involving newspaper reports about the duel, evading the police and attempting to teach Clingman how to fire a pistol, the duel was finally engaged. The duelists stood ten paces apart, each armed with a pistol.
Clingman managed to fire first and hit nothing. Yancey returned fire, only managing to hit the ground but hitting it close enough to where Clingman stood that dirt was thrown up on him and he was overtaken with fear (Jeffrey, p. 51). By that time, the police were on their way to the site and both men made amends. Clingman stated that he had meant no personal attack upon anyone and Yancey agreed to take back the personal remarks, publically, he had made about Clingman (Jeffrey, p. 52).