A Duel to End All Duels: Richard Dobbs Spaight vs. John Stanly

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

When a politician switches political parties today, many times his or her defection gives one side cause to praise the open-mindedness of the decision, while the other side vilifies their former compatriot.

Allegations of party defection or questioning the loyalty of a party member in early 1800s North Carolina were enough cause for a duel—at least it was for former Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight and state legislator John Stanly, both of New Bern.  

Outdoing any staged violence on Monday Night RAW or the increasingly popular mixed-martial arts pummeling exhibited on UFC, lower-class Tar Heels settled their differences with duels that showcased the wielding of bowie knives and the finger-gouging of eyes.  The elite, however, settled their differences with pistols and accompanying seconds, who ensured that both participants fired weapons of equal destruction.

Many times duels ended in death or until the honor of the offended party had been satisfied.  The supposedly offended said when that was.

The Spaight-Stanly duel occurred because Stanly allegedly dishonored Spaight during the heated campaign for a legislative seat in 1802. The former governor’s recent conversion to Democrat-Republican principles had prompted insults from Stanly, who questioned Spaight’s loyalty.   

All of this was hearsay, by the way.  But the word of others was never questioned.

In a series of correspondence, both seized their quills to claim that the other’s allegations were “falsehoods” and that offended gentlemen deserved satisfaction. After a series of correspondence, the matter seemed settled—especially when the two agreed to publish their letters in the New Bern Gazette so that (no doubt) voters and neighbors could be informed and gossips would be silenced.  

Spaight, however, took the liberty to add some commentary that affronted Stanly, and a media blitz of insults ensued.

The gentlemen answered each other with incessant insulting, which the Gazette seemed to publish without hesitation.  But seeking the advantage in debate and apparently claiming the moral high ground, Stanly paid for the printing of a handbill that condemned Spaight’s false bravado and “unmanly” actions.  Spaight subsequently acted in kind, paying for the distribution of a handbill denouncing Stanly’s impudent lies and essentially disreputable and immoral behavior.

No doubt fueled by a gentleman’s ego and sense of honor and a concern of what others thought about them, the two met behind the Masonic Hall to duel for satisfaction and the restoration of honor.  

After their pistols were checked and approved, both fired and missed. A second try proved equally unsuccessful.  A third proved them once again to be poor shots (although one of the previous shots had narrowly missed Stanly and clipped his coat collar).  

Stanly knew his fourth shot found its mark, as the former governor grasped his side.  The next day, Spaight died.

In November 1802, the legislature outlawed dueling and declared that culprits from then on would be fined heavily and barred from public office. If a death resulted from a duel, the victor would be satisfied with his restored honor only for a short time, for the General Assembly declared that he and his second would hang and would not be allowed to have the counsel and consolation of the clergy minutes before execution.

Then and now, political struggles and debate often bring out the worst in people, and a resolution is needed.  Thankfully it is now unlawful to shoot someone to settle a difference, but the personal pettiness that is saturating the political process makes me long for the spirit of the good ol’ days to be placed in a modern-day boxing ring, where the disgruntled can find satisfaction and then get on with the business of genuine debate.