Charles Town, the metropolis of the South (today Charleston, South Carolina), was a leading location for duels in the late eighteenth century. One detailed example reveals much about the practice and about honor in general. In this case, an elite gentleman used every means available to him to defend his honor and police the bounds of his class. A man from a lower class violated the protocols of gentlemanly behavior, attacked the reputation of an elite, questioned that man’s conduct as a political leader, and attempted to destroy his reputation. The gentleman, intimately familiar with elite protocols of honor, used them effectively to defend his political and personal reputation. This incident, which occurred during the early stages of the American Revolution, also clearly shows the difficult position occupied by conservatives who opposed questionable, extra-legal tactics that were being used for the sake of ideological conformity.
By the fall of 1775, Charles Town was in the midst of revolution. The Council of Safety had assumed executive power and the Provincial Congress had supplanted the old Commons House of Assembly. The provisional government also actively debated about how to treat royalists. Henry Laurens served as president or chair of the Council of Safety and consistently opposed persecuting royalists. As a member of the council, he was also expected to keep its proceedings in strict confidence. A bizarre incident began to unfold in October 1775, shortly after the twenty-two-year-old John Faucheraud Grimké returned to Charles Town from a trip to England. The young man was the son of John Paul Grimké, a Charles Town silversmith, skilled in making English-style silver luxuries. He also owned a small plantation of about 500 acres on Edisto Island. Both father and son zealously opposed British policy during the imperial crisis and fought in the subsequent war. Neither ever served in the Commons House of Assembly or on the Council of Safety.
Henry Laurens was a friend to both Grimkés, which makes the incident even more bizarre. When J.F. Grimké returned from England in October 1775, Henry Laurens planned to visit the family’s home in Charles Town to “pay my respects to the young man.” Laurens was running late thanks to a Council of Safety meeting, but he met J.F. Grimké in the street. Laurens asked if he had brought any letters from his son in England. He had not, but the younger Grimké did have another packet of letters he showed to Laurens when the two arrived at the Grimké home. As Henry Laurens was about the leave the house, J.P. Grimké stopped him to reveal several letter packets. They were letters the younger Grimké had been entrusted to carry from England to Charles Town, but they had already been opened and examined. J.P. Grimké explained they were sent to “suspected persons” (that is, persons suspected of supporting the royal government). The elder Grimké asked Laurens what should be done. Should the letters go to the Council of Safety or one of its committees? Should they go to the press to shame the recipients?
Henry Laurens refused to become involved, saying that “I have never interfered in such matters.” He only agreed to take an unopened packet of London newspapers to the printer Robert Wells, but he again refused to take the intercepted letters to Peter Timothy as the elder Grimké had requested.Peter Timothy was the printer of the South Carolina Gazette and served as the Council of Safety’s secretary.
The events that followed became increasingly bizarre and perplexing for Henry Laurens. Within days, the younger Grimké claimed that Henry Laurens had actually tried to persuade his father to turn the open letters over to either the council or a local newspaper. Laurens was stunned. He had stated “by repeated declarations that I never opened letters, or concerned myself in such matters, I meant to discourage the delivery of private letters to any but the persons to whom such letters were respectively addressed.” Then J.F. Grimké accused Laurens of removing letters from the Grimké home without permission, presumably referring to the packet of newspapers for Wells. He did not specify what letters had been removed. J.F. Grimké refused to discuss the dispute with Laurens in any detail and bungled an attempted exchange of notes by publishing at least one of Laurens’ notes in a newspaper attack piece. The younger Grimké continued to insist that Laurens had removed some of the letters from his home without permission and advised his father to turn over other letters to the provisional government or the press. Laurens was at a loss. He wrote, “I should as soon have expected such a base, unmanly, ungenerous, cowardly attack from my own son as from Mr. J.F. Grimké, a lad to whom I have been a father, for whom I have done more than his own father would have done.” His newspaper article, printed in response to Grimké’s public accusations, flatly stated that “I have done Mr. Grimké no injury. If I have not merited his bitter censures, it will become him, if he has one spark of honor, to make a concession as public as his affront has been, and as ample as it has been unjust.”
Laurens provides an interesting insight into honor with his response. He damned Grimké’s attack as dishonorable because it was not based in truth or fact. Moreover, Grimké’s background and behavior demonstrated his unworthiness to even make a challenge to a recognized gentleman like Laurens. Grimké broke protocol by taking the dispute public before attempting to resolve the confusion directly with Henry Laurens. Laurens also suggests that such a public attack could only be corrected by an equally public and honest apology and admission of wrong. If the young Grimké failed to do so, he would prove his lack of honor.
Laurens’ honor had been called into question in a very serious way. He would have to find some other means to restore it if Grimké refused to make a public apology. Grimké either did not understand the rules of elite protocol or did not care about them, but the incident clearly points to the existence of established rules of conduct between gentlemen who had fallen into dispute. In any event, Laurens quickly brought honor to the forefront of the issue. He even went so far as to swear that, “upon my honor,” he never took letters or advised their reading. In the end, he was totally exasperated: “I am an oldish man, and infirm . . . yet if he will name his time, place and weapons,” Laurens would duel him. This terrible breach of honor could be repaired in no other way given the total failure of protocol.
The seedy politics surrounding this situation made it even more difficult for Henry Laurens. He believed that the whole thing was a scheme on the part of the young, brash J.F. Grimké to rise politically at Laurens’ expense. Laurens consistently defended individual rights and opposed how some in the revolutionary movement hoped to pressure and persecute conservatives and royalists. Laurens even thought the whole affair may have been a set-up cloaked in “love of country,” designed to discredit him politically. David Wallace, Henry Laurens’ biographer, agrees. He suggests that Grimké may have been pressured into the scheme by a “radical clique” who either wanted to discredit the more conservative and cautious Laurens or were trying to cover their own misdeed of letter-opening without council authorization. Laurens even wrote his brother that J.F. Grimké would never have acted so, if he had not been pressed by a group who harbored a political grudge against Laurens and his consistent opposition to opening private letters.
Laurens was naturally outraged and wrote to his son that Grimké had made an “attempt to rob your father of both his reputation and his life and that without the smallest provocation on your father’s part or truth or justice on his own.” Laurens saw this political attack as an unprovoked assault on his honor, and he believed that the real dishonor was Grimké’s, for “his conduct was ungentlemanlike and unmanly—he has dishonored and disgraced himself.” J.F. Grimké had betrayed a close relationship for petty causes. Friends sometimes fall out. However, Laurens’s newspaper account makes it clear that there were protocols and rules that gentlemen followed when reputation and honor were involved. The bitter politics grieved Laurens, but the personal betrayal, failure of protocol, and attack on his honor demanded a response.
Honor was integral to one’s genteel status. When attacked or challenged, especially in a dishonorable (or false) way, honor had to be defended if one still wanted to claim the title of gentleman. Why was this challenge false? Laurens disputed the facts of the case, but he really focused on his accuser’s character. When protocol failed, Laurens had two weapons at his disposal: shame and ritual violence. Thus, he first set out to destroy his accuser’s reputation and make it clear that J.F. Grimké had no just claim to the title of gentlemen. If such were the case, Laurens’ peers would have to trust his word of honor over the word of a dishonored man, and he might be able to avoid violence. Laurens claimed he did not want any physical harm done to Grimké. Grimké was a young man, who may not have known better and was full of passion. Hence, Laurens was willing to just shame Grimké and make him to suffer the “universal censure of the people” for the sake of self-defense. Laurens, as a respected gentleman, simply had to refute the charges and brush the unworthy youth aside. Unfortunately, Grimké would not let the issue die so easily, and he challenged Henry Laurens to a duel on October 16, claiming that the shame Laurens inflicted on him was also an attack on his honor that must be answered. Grimké believed himself to be a gentleman despite the “universal censure” heaped upon him. It is also possible he realized he was in over his head in having insulted a man as prominent as Laurens, and pride prevented him from backing down at this point.
Laurens did not want to engage in violence, but he hoped to use the duel’s rules to finally prove that J.F. Grimké had no honor. Grimké had already proven he did not understand or respect gentlemanly protocol, and now he proved that he did not understand or respect the rules of the duel. Grimké issued the challenge through Ralph Izard (whom Laurens respected), but Laurens initially refused, saying “we [Laurens and Grimké] are not upon a par and he has no right to challenge me.” Grimké was much younger. He was from an artisan family. A silversmith stood atop artisan ranks, but no artisan could claim elite status. J.P. Grimké had purchased land in an attempt to enter the planting class, but occupation and wealth alone did not grant one elite, gentlemanly status. Grimké’s dishonorable and uncouth behavior placed him beneath Laurens on the social ladder. Notably, Laurens never attacked Grimké for his wealth or profession. He focused on behavior and reputation. Despite the disparity in status between them, Laurens agreed to meet at New Market at 6:00 the next day. John Lewis Gervais, one of the witnesses, recorded a full account of the subsequent events, which provides a rare, detailed look at the ritual of the duel.
The ritual began when the parties met at Mr. Gibbes’s house, and Henry Laurens loaded two pistols. Grimké immediately showed his lack of knowledge and respect for the ritual by challenging the presence of John Lewis Gervais, who was there serving as Henry Laurens’s “second” (i.e. representative/referee/witness). Gervais responded, “What business have I here! What business has Mr. Izard [Grimké’s second] here! What! Did you come to murder Mr. Laurens!” Once Grimké acknowledged Gervais’s role as second, Laurens went out into the middle of the street with the loaded guns. Grimké followed, and the two took their positions in the street. Grimké commanded Laurens to fire the first shot, but Laurens insisted that Grimké take the first shot instead. Doing so was Laurens’ first step in a calculated risk to avoid having to kill the young man while yet proving Grimké’s shame and his own honor. Grimké agreed, took several steps closer, aimed his gun and fired. The gun fortuitously misfired, and Grimké went for another gun. By tradition, it was now Henry Laurens’ turn to fire. A misfire did not grant one party a second shot. Laurens could have aimed, fired and killed Grimké on the spot (assuming his gun actually worked).
Laurens did not want to kill Grimké, and his gamble had paid off so far. He wanted to shame him utterly, strip him of all pretenses to honor and prove that Grimké was not a gentleman. Laurens admitted as much to his friend George Karr: “My standing up to be fired at like a Butt disdaining to take an advantage which was fairly in my hands will prove to every sensible and dispassionate man that I was willing to seal the truth with my blood.” Laurens said, “I give you your life Mr. Grimké,” immediately after the misfire. Ralph Izard insisted that it was not over. There was another pair of pistols and Laurens had to take his shot, but Laurens continued to insist that he would not take Grimké’s life. An argument between Laurens, Grimké and the two seconds ensued. Finally, Laurens told Grimké that if someone must fire, Grimké could take another shot, but Ralph Izard talked Grimké out of further dishonoring himself by brazenly killing Laurens. Grimké backed down and said that he could not fire “consistent with my honor,” and Laurens simply told him to go home if that was the case. Grimké, still hoping to fight, suggested they “take the sword” and leave the guns alone, but Laurens refused on account of having only one real leg.
This duel was far more than two men shooting at each other. The true duel here was Laurens’ bold use of the ritual to fully demonstrate Grimké’s shame—a psychological duel between an old gentleman and a young fool. Laurens’ refusal to fire was a deliberate attempt to shame Grimké and provoke him into behaving in a vulgar and dishonorable way. Grimké did not take an extra shot. It would have killed Laurens in cold blood outside the usual rules of the duel, which required alternating shots. Ralph Izard and John Lewis Gervais (themselves both elite and wealthy gentlemen) had to enforce the rules and persuade Grimké to back down. Even if Grimké had killed or wounded Laurens, Henry would have won the duel by proving his honor and Grimké’s shame. Henry Laurens risked his life to clear his name and prove that Grimké had no legitimate claim to honor or the title of gentleman.
Laurens was older, understood the duel, and won this battle. He continually refused to fire, even telling Grimké that he could “fire half a dozen shots if you please.” Grimké lost his composure, hurled some “scurrilous language” at Laurens and called him a coward. This verbal assault gave Laurens the chance to prove his gentlemanly status and highlight Grimké’s dishonor by responding, “I believe I have not acted like one. I have done more than you deserved.” He further said that Grimké was “no judge of honor for you have none.” At this point, Laurens sealed Grimké’s shame when Grimké challenged him to a second duel. Laurens said, “I receive no challenge from you . . . I have done more than you have a right to expect.” This duel went beyond personal combat and became a contest of wills and composure. Laurens successfully refused Grimké admission to elite ranks and repaired the attack on his honor by demonstrating his attacker’s shame. Henry Laurens was a very wealthy man. However, he deemed his honor and reputation worth as much as his life and fortune.
A printed code of honor would not appear until the 1830s in South Carolina, when Gov. John Lyle Wilson published his “Code of Honor,” which clearly stated the rules for dueling. Though Laurens and Grimké dueled long before its publication, the rules Wilson laid out generally fit the pattern of the Laurens-Grimké duel, which suggests the rules were well known already in the 1770s and simply awaited a man like Wilson to chronicle them.
Laurens and Grimké employed many of Wilson’s rules, though Grimké lacked knowledge or respect for those rules. According to Wilson, duels normally began with the formal passing of notes between the concerned parties. The offended party (Grimké in this case) was to send a note explaining the offense and requesting a written explanation or apology. If an apology or suitable explanation came, then some sort of public notice should be made (e.g. in a newspaper). Grimké skipped this step by going directly to the newspapers, which Laurens viewed as a breach of etiquette and an attack on his honor. Assuming the issue could not be resolved by notes and apologies, the two parties chose “seconds” or representatives who were responsible for coordinating and refereeing the duel. They were also to communicate (or pass notes) for the two parties. It was also the seconds’ job to enforce the rules. For example, a second would be expected to shoot a man for gross violation (e.g. shooting out of turn). Hence, when Grimké’s gun misfired, Izard was well within his rights to determine who should fire next. When Wilson finally codified the rules in 1838 (and included a printed Irish honor code from 1777 in his work) they reflected the traditional operation of duels in the eighteenth century.
Laurens used the ritual to prove his initial contention that Grimké was beneath him, not a gentleman, had no honor to begin with and, thus, had no right to challenge a true gentleman to a physical contest of honor. Both parties had to be recognized, honorable gentlemen. No gentleman accepted a challenge from “one not considered his social equal.” Mere wealth or land ownership did not make one a gentleman. A planter like Laurens “had both the tangible qualities of possession and the intangible ones of courtly manners and a precise understanding of what was a gentleman’s province and what was not.” Grimké’s family may have been well-off and rising, but those things alone did not automatically make him a gentleman. When Grimké showed his true nature by hurling insults and issuing continual challenges, Laurens believed he had proven his point and increased Grimké’s shame. He restored his own honor and prevented an unworthy man from claiming equal status
This episode involving Henry Laurens illustrates the importance of honor and reputation in lowcountry South Carolina’s genteel society and how members of the elite used those concepts to defend status. It was imperitive that a gentleman respond to a challenge against his honor. Courts, judges, and lawyers could not help. Honor operated according to its own rules outside of any legal body or official. One could effectively defend honor by attacking the honor and reputation of the attacker. Thus Henry Laurens destroyed Mr. Grimké’s reputation. To ameliorate an initial attack, he had to restore his honor by either discrediting his foe or meeting him in ritual combat. If a duel became necessary, only men of honor and equal status could participate. When a lesser man challenged Henry Laurens, he participated only to defend his power and honor, and then used the duel itself to demonstrate the dishonor and inferiority of his opponent. There was no written “code” in this period which directed how South Carolina gentlemen related to each other in terms of honor. An unofficial body of rules governed their relations, and the prime rules were that a challenge to honor could not be left unanswered and a gentleman must defend his status. Honor was a system of interchanges between individuals and the community—an encoded if unwritten system that helped define the boundaries of the elite, ruling class.
John Faucheraud Grimké was the son of John Paul Grimké and Mary Faucheraud. He was born in December 1752. Grimké attended Westminster School and the Middle Temple in London. He became involved in revolutionary activity and joined other colonists in petitioning George III against British colonial policy while in London. John Belton O’Neall, Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina (Charleston: S.G. Courtenay & Co., 1859), 39.
“Newspaper Account, October 13, 1775,” Papers of Henry Laurens (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968-2003), 10:461. Laurens printed a detailed narrative of the incident in the South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, which was operated by Robert Wells.
Ibid.,461. Laurens did not specify what he did for Grimké. J.F. Grimké was sent to London to study at Westminster School and the Middle Temple. Given that Henry Laurens had a close friendship with the family; it is possible that Laurens assisted John Paul Grimké in financing his son’s education and potential elevation in social status as a result. It is highly unlikely that a silversmith would have been able to afford such an education without the patronage of a wealthier man. Grimké’s educational background is noted in E. Alfred Jones, “Two Problems in the Hall-Marking of Silver,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 66.387 (June 1935): 287. Bertram Wyatt-Brown suggests that such patron-client relationships were common expressions of elite power in early America. He cites George Washington and Alexander Hamilton as examples. Clientage was a way to balance “respectable modesty and political ambition.” Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 46. Laurens seems to have adopted J.F. Grimkéas a client, and, as such, had a right to expect modesty and deference from the young man. Grimkéclearly violated this important convention, which itself was a major affront and explains Laurens’ very clear sense of betrayal.
David Wallace, The Life of Henry Laurens (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 216. Wallace only briefly recounts the incident as part of his narrative of the revolution. He does not study it as an affair of honor but treats it as another political episode in the larger narrative.