November 7, 2013

Vengeance is Mine; I Will Repay

This is the true story of John Swartwout, a man whom history remembers not for who he was or what he did, but because he hung around with someone actually famous.

John Swartwout's claim to notability is that he knew Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States. Swartwout, along with his brothers (the Sensational Swartwout Brothers) was a long-time member of Burr's entourage. His duties as an entourage member included 1) offering counsel and 2) not known.

Aaron Burr was roundly disliked in his time. He was considered ruthlessly ambitious, and the archetypal career politician. The aspersions cast on Burr were vicious and correct. For example, on the moment of Burr's greatest political victory, winning the vice presidency, he immediately looked into forcing out the president-elect, Thomas Jefferson, and claiming the presidency for himself.

But once, Aaron Burr stepped up in a time of public crisis. Yellow fever had broken out in Lower Manhattan, thought to be the result of a contaminated and sub-par water supply system. "I will do something about this," Aaron Burr announced. "I will make a water company, and provide clean, safe water to the people of Manhattan."

Even Burr's political enemies were like: "Yes. We like this. We love this idea, and we will do whatever it takes to make it happen, Aaron Burr." With broad support and political goodwill, a bill setting up Burr's water company and assigning it responsibility for servicing Manhattan was swiftly signed into law by the governor of New York.

"Thank you," said Aaron Burr, "thank you for your faith in me. One thing, though, one thing and it's almost not even worth mentioning, I changed the legislation you signed at the last second so that I don't have to do any of that water supply stuff, and instead I can run my new company as a bank. And I can use the capital we raise to fund my presidential campaign. I think I'm probably going to do that. The yellow fever thing... yeah, that's tough. Yeah, I don't know the answer to that one."

Burr's plan had worked, and everybody was mad at him again. With his newfound largesse, Burr ran a strong campaign, barely losing the presidential race to Thomas Jefferson. He became Jefferson's vice president in a show of unity. Things were good for John Swartwout, too. Burr had set him up with a job as associate director of the fake water company/secret bank, drawing upon Swartwout's skills and experience in 1) not known.

But the enemies of Burr had not forgotten. In 1802, a year and a half into Burr's vice presidency, they struck. A gang of New York politicians, led by senator and rising star DeWitt Clinton, forced a takeover of Burr's company and ousted the vice president from his position as director. Swartwout was thrown out as well.

Swartwout wasn't happy. He complained that DeWitt Clinton was a big bully and had only gone after them for personal reasons. And whether or not he meant for this to happen, word of his complaints reached Senator Clinton, who responded publicly by branding John Swartwout "a liar, a scoundrel, and a villain."

Swartwout was shocked. "You're calling me names!" he said. "You're saying that I'm a liar and a scoundrel and a villain and that's not true. That's not fair." Such an affront, Swartwout figured, demanded a public apology. He drafted a letter for Clinton to sign, in which a remorseful, pathetic Clinton threw himself upon the mercy of a righteous Swartwout and begged him to accept his profuse apology. Clinton told him to fuck off.

Now Swartwout was furious. "You have offended me, DeWitt Clinton," he said, "and I must have satisfaction. I want to fight you. I want to fight you in a duel. I challenge you to face me in a duel, and if you have any honor at all, you must accept."

"Whatever," said Clinton. Clinton was in!

In the honor duels of the 18th and 19th centuries, killing your opponent was not the point. The rules of duelling, in fact, made that extremely unlikely. The flintlock pistols typically used in duelling often misfired, and duellists had no more than three seconds to take aim. It was not common at all for participants to be killed or even shot.

The purpose of duelling to settle scores was to prove that both parties had the courage of their convictions. The wronged man could face his aggressor, fire a pistol at him, then - as was his right - declare honor satisfied and call off the duel. The two men would live, look each other in the eye and shake hands, secure in the knowledge that they were cool, sexual guys.

There was still the problem of duelling being illegal. So to do it you had to get up very early in the morning, before anyone else was awake.

John Swartwout and Senator DeWitt Clinton met at the duelling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 30, 1802. They were joined by their 'seconds', William Stephens Smith and Richard Riker. The seconds were responsible for negotiating on behalf of the 'principals' - Swartwout and Clinton - and officially calling the duel to an end once shots were fired and honor was satisfied. The principals were not able to do this because they were required to glower at one another in anger.

Clinton and Swartwout stood ten yards apart. When ordered to fire, they were to raise their flintlock pistols and, within three seconds, shoot at the other.

Swartwout sized up the senator from New York.


Both men took aim, quickly, and fired.

They missed.

"Well," said William Stephens Smith, Swartwout's second. "Is honor satisfied?"

"What?" Swartwout blinked. "No! That was very disappointing for me!"

The seconds conferred. "We're going again," Smith called out.

Swartwout and Clinton reloaded their pistols, took aim, and fired at each other.

Again, they missed.

"Is honor satisfied?" Smith asked Swartwout.

"No!" Swartwout said. "He called me a liar!"

Clinton shrugged, and they prepared to go again.


Clinton and Swartwout fired again. And missed each other again.

"Is honor satisfied?" Smith asked.

"No, it's not."

The men reloaded and waited for their instruction.


Swartwout missed. Clinton's bullet ripped through Swartwout's leg, tearing into the flesh below the knee. But Swartwout stayed standing.

"Oh shit," said Smith, looking at the wound. "Okay, this is definitely over. We have to get you to the hospital or something."

"No," said Swartwout. "Honor is not satisfied."

The code of duelling dictated that only Swartwout could declare an end to the duel, and so, the principals reloaded to shoot guns at each other again.


On their fifth exchange, Swartwout missed and Clinton hit Swartwout in the same leg, above the knee. Still, Swartwout remained standing.

"I want to go again," Swartwout said.

"No, this is really stupid," Clinton interrupted. "This is really dumb. I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going home."

"What! You can't do that!"

"I don't want to kill this fool," Clinton said. "Maybe if the real principal was here, maybe if I was up against Burr, rather than this child... but no. Forget this. I'm going home in my boat."

Clinton left with his second, and Swartwout, bleeding from two holes in his leg, turned to Smith helplessly.

"I don't know what to do."

Smith took Swartwout back to, of all places, Aaron Burr's house. Swartwout was carried inside and set down on the carpet.

"What the fuck?" Aaron Burr would probably have said. "What the fuck is this?"

"I did it for you!" said the bleeding John Swartwout. "I did this for you."

Swartwout survived his injuries, and slandered DeWitt Clinton as a coward. Clinton didn't even respond. And from there, John Swartwout served out the rest of his natural life in a manner that history has declared not important.

No comments: