190218-news-lookingback

Lithographic portrait of Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine as he appeared in 1838, the year he was killed in a duel.

After he arrived in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, 1833, Benjamin Brown French rented a room in the same boarding house where his friend and fellow New Hampshire native Congressman Franklin Pierce was staying. At the end of December, French was hired as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives, and after a few weeks he was joined by his wife Elizabeth. Over the next few months they lived in boardinghouses that catered to members of the Democratic Party. This enabled French to enjoy social interactions with like-minded people involved in the business of government.

In 1828 French began writing a personal journal where he made it a habit of organizing his thoughts and recording accounts of his activities on a regular basis. He gave this up in July 1834, but after a time he realized how fulfilling the practice had been. He again took up his pen on Sept. 10, 1835, writing, “What a break in my journal! More than thirteen months have elapsed since I have written a word by way of journalizing … One motive which induces me again to commence a journal is — it has for some time past seemed to me as if I was living without a motive, and as if my mind was becoming a mere chaos — as if, like a building without a tenant, it was falling into ruin …”

At first, the Frenches wasn’t certain how long they would remain in Washington, but by 1835 they had decided to make the city their permanent home. After their first child, Francis Ormond French, was born in 1837, they rented a small house on Capitol Hill. In 1842 they built a spacious residence on East Capitol Street (located on part of the current site of the Library of Congress). Their second son Benjamin Brown French, Jr. was born there in 1843. The couple welcomed many visitors into their household, including relatives and friends from New Hampshire. Benjamin kept track of the domestic goings-on in his journal, and often wrote about parties, fishing trips, and sightseeing expeditions. He also chronicled the family’s frequent trips, including their visits to their hometown of Chester, N.H.

Although home was a happy place, French observed much that was disturbing occurring within the U.S. Capitol Building. During the decades before the Civil War, political tensions were high, and simmering conflicts led to many episodes of bullying, both verbal and physical. On Feb. 21, 1838, French appeared to comment on the behavior of elected officials when he wrote, “Saw one of the hardest fights between two dogs this morning that I have ever seen — how much like men they acted — obstinate and surly, and the one that was beaten would not surrender. Dogs are like men in many particulars, but unlike in one — dogs are honest.”

On Feb. 24, 1838, Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley was killed in a duel by Kentucky Congressman William J. Graves. The two men were armed with rifles, and Cilley was shot in the abdomen and quickly bled to death. French was greatly distressed when he learned of Cilley’s death as he considered him “a man of fine talents.” Cilley was a native of Nottingham, N.H., and a close friend of Pierce, who had been his classmate at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

The events leading to the fatal duel, which took place in Maryland, began when Cilley, in a heated argument with Virginia Congressman Henry A. Wise, accused James Watson Webb, publisher of the New York Courier and Enquirer newspaper, of corruption. Cilley was a Democrat, and Wise and Webb were members of the Whig Party. The dispute escalated, reflecting the bitter rivalry that existed between the two parties. Graves, a Whig, became the stand-in for Webb, and after receiving advice on the tradition of the “code of honor” from their congressional colleagues, both he and Cilley felt compelled to face each other in a duel. The shocking event became an obsession with the general public. French blamed Wise, a trouble-maker, for inflaming the situation, and wrote in his journal that there was evidence that “Mr. Wise urged it on with a fiend-like thirst for blood.”

Next week: Benjamin Brown French ponders the death of Congressman Jonathan Cilley, and more.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.