On this date in 1819, The Genius of Liberty newspaper in Leesburg reported details of a duel that would be discussed and written about for generations.
The combatants were second cousins and next-door neighbors, Armistead Thomson Mason of Selma and John Mason McCarty of Raspberry Plain. Their family nicknames were "the Chief of Selma" and "the fire-eater."
Their plantations remain a few miles north of Leesburg, although the original manor houses are gone, replaced by newer buildings at Selma in 1902 and Raspberry Plain in 1916.
Mason, a farm owner and soldier, and McCarty, a lawyer, were born into distinguished Virginia families. Mason's father, Stevens Thomson Mason, was a U.S. senator, and his father, Thomson Mason, was Loudoun County delegate to the General Assembly. Thomson Mason was the older brother of George Mason, author of the Revolutionary War document, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was a model for the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
McCarty's mother, Sarah Mason McCarty, was George Mason's daughter. McCarty was also a direct descendant of Daniel McCarty, the first grantee of Loudoun County land, buying 2,993 acres in the Lowe's Island area from Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, in 1709.
The quarrel leading to the duel began in 1816 when Mason and Charles Fenton Mercer of Leesburg were candidates for the House of Representatives. Their qualifications were similar.
Mason had graduated from William and Mary College in 1807, and Mercer, first in his class, from Princeton College in 1797. Both were veterans of the War of 1812 against the British and were brigadier generals in the Virginia militia. Mercer had commanded troops defending Norfolk and the lower James River area, and Mason's militiamen guarded the Virginia coast to the north.
Mercer was a Federalist, who favored a strong centralized government that would encourage industry and commerce.
Mason was a democratic Republican, a member of a party that emphasized personal liberty and limited federal powers. In deference to his father having been a U.S. senator, the Virginia legislature appointed Mason in January 1816 to fill the U.S. Senate seat of William B. Giles, who had resigned.
A U.S. senator had to be 30 years old, but Mason, born Aug. 4, 1787, was 29. Somehow, he was allowed to take his Senate seat, and when his age became known, promised to resign when the term expired March 3, 1817. It is not known whether Mason lied about his age or whether no one asked.
It is also not known whether Mason's age was a factor in the campaign against Mercer. The few existing copies of The Washingtonian, the Leesburg newspaper that supported Mercer, do not mention the campaign, which became acrimonious.
It was not the difference between states' and federal rights that heated up the rivalry, according to the Genius, which supported Mason. Rather, it was Mason's amendment to a militia bill, which had been introduced by Giles, his predecessor. The amendment said ". . . Whenever a quaker, menonist[Mennonite] or dunkard [German Baptist] or any other person whose religious tenets rendered him conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms were drafted . . . he should not be bound to go in person as furnish a substitute."
Mason placed the burden of finding a substitute on the conscientious objector's commanding officer. The substitute could be offered as much as $500 for service of unspecified length, a sum that would have taken a rural Virginia worker about 16 months to earn at the time.
Mason's amendment said that if the conscientious objector were unable to pay, "he should be bound to go in person . . . [but] should not be bound to bear arms," serving instead in another capacity, such as "a waggoner, or a pioneer [scout], or an artificer; & not as a slave, or a shoeblack, or in any other menial office."
Mason's letters to the Genius in support of his amendment in March 1817 were supported by letters of "Junius" of "Short Hill," who said, "This bill was only to operate in time of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe, or in time of imminent danger of such invasion."
In late March, Loudoun voters opted for Mercer, 594-323, more than canceling a 204-76 plurality for Mason in Prince William County. Mason was popular there because his family had been early settlers and because of his war service protecting the county's navigable rivers and seaports of Dumfries and Occoquan.
"Junius" continued his missives in the Genius after the election, often contrasting Mason's ideas with Mercer's expected policies and hinting at irregularities in the counting of Loudoun ballots.
Fed up with Junius's comments, John Mason McCarty entered the fray in the April 25 issue, saying he knew who Junius was. He gave the name to Genius editor Samuel Benjamin Taylor Caldwell, who did not publish it. McCarty, too, used a pseudonym, "Old Gouty," but the address, "Rasbury Plain," identified him.
From September 1817 through January 1818, Mason and Junius united against Mercer in a spate of letters, alleging that non-property owners and nonexistent and underage people had voted for Mercer. One of those people they accused of not being 21 was McCarty.
Mercer, in an October 1817 Washingtonian, countered with a list of hundreds of voters who he said had illegally cast ballots for Mason for the same reasons.
Mercer called Mason a "blackguard and bully." Mason called Mercer "an infamous liar and scoundrel!" Sometime that fall, Mason challenged Mercer to a duel.
"As a man, and more especially a Virginian, I ought not to accept your professed challenge: as a christian, I cannot," Mercer replied in the Genius in December 1817.
Mason's counter to Mercer's reply appeared in the same issue: "A CONSUMMATE HYPOCRITE, AND A MOST CONTEMPTIBLE COWARD." Mercer, however, was obeying an anti-dueling law passed by the state legislature in 1810. All state officials, elected or appointed, were to take an oath that they would not engage in a duel. The act also decreed that any death resulting from a duel in Virginia was to be considered murder, punishable by hanging.
As the state committee of elections did not confirm Mercer's victory and McCarty's age until Jan. 19, 1818, Mason still thought that McCarty was a minor.
As being underage had become an issue regarding Mason's U.S. Senate seat, McCarty's supposed status as a minor took on import when he announced that he would run for the House of Delegates in early 1817.
That spring, after McCarty took an oath on the Leesburg Courthouse steps in front of more than 100 people stating that he was 21, Mason, according to the Washingtonian, called him a "perjured scoundrel." He was not perjurious, for he was then almost 22.
Accusations in the Genius between Mason and McCarty became brutal, with Mason calling McCarty "an ass in lion's clothing" and McCarty countering that Mason had a "paucity of talent which rendered him so conspicuously dumb in the Senate of the United States."
Lawyers Ludwell Lee of Belmont and George Graham of Leesburg, a former acting secretary of war, offered to mediate. Mason rejected their overtures.
The diatribe continued well into spring 1818, while McCarty was campaigning for the House of Delegates. He received 280 votes in the election April 24, compared with 452 for Robert Braden and 184 for Leesburg's Sydnor Bailey. As Loudoun had two delegates, Braden and McCarty would represent the county. Braden was postmaster, storekeeper and miller of Braden's Store, a village three miles southwest of Waterford.
Records of the Virginia General Assembly, though, show that McCarty did not take his seat because he had refused to take the anti-dueling oath. The election was held again, and Braden and George Rust Jr. of Leesburg became Loudoun's delegates.
In early May, Genius editor Caldwell published the letters between Mason and McCarty. "Hear with both ears, and then judge," he told readers. The pamphlet, now apparently lost, was probably biased toward Mason and may have been the reason McCarty challenged Mason to a duel May 15, 1818.
Mason accepted the challenge but first wanted to make sure that Gov. James Preston would allow him to keep his militia rank of brigadier general. That caveat was tantamount to a refusal because the governor could not violate the 1810 anti-dueling act.
Mason's hedging probably came about because his new bride, the former Charlotte Taylor, was either pregnant or had already given birth to Stevens Thomson Mason, their first child. McCarty, too, had fallen in love, with Lucinda Lee of Coton (now Lansdowne), daughter of Thomas Ludwell Lee and Fanny Carter Lee. Thomas Ludwell Lee was the neighbor and cousin of Ludwell Lee.
McCarty exacerbated the quarrel in September 1818 by publishing a booklet of the letters between Mason and himself, for in a perusal of the missives, McCarty is the verbal winner.
According to local lore, Mason was returning to Richmond after reading McCarty's pamphlet and found himself in a stagecoach with Gen. Andrew Jackson, who told him to go forward with the duel. Mason resigned his militia commission and challenged McCarty to a duel on Maryland soil.
McCarty was reluctant to fight, agreeing only after Mason's seconds threatened to label him a coward. Even then, McCarty's proposed that they both leap from the dome of the U.S. Capitol, and then he proposed that they sit on a barrel of gunpowder and ignite it.
After McCarty's third proposal, to fight with dirks, was rejected as a violation of dueling tradition, the antagonists agreed on muskets, loaded with a single ball, at a distance of 10 feet. The site was a traditional dueling ground along a stream nicknamed "Blood Run," near Bladensburg, Md.
At 8 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1819, Mason fell mortally wounded with a bullet in his left breast. Mason's ball had hit McCarty's musket, and then entered his left arm above the wrist. But the wound was minor.
Mason's body was brought to Leesburg and lay in Osburn's Tavern, now 7 Loudoun St. SE, before being buried at the St. James' graveyard on Church Street. The tombstone can no longer be found.
According to old-time Leesburg-area residents, Charlotte Mason locked the front gates to Selma and refused to enter the house by the front door until her son reached 21. He followed in his father's footsteps as a soldier, and after his wife died, enlisted in the Army during the Mexican War and died at the battle of Cerro Gerdo in August 1848.
McCarty, fearing for his life, left for New York City after the duel but returned to Washington after a year or so. There, at a party, he encountered Lucinda Lee. McCarty lore recounts that he avoided her, fearing she would shun him, until she sang for the guests.
She gazed into McCarty's eyes as she sang a Thomas More melody, "Come rest in this bosom my own stricken dear, though the herd have all left thee, thy home is still here!"
He proposed on the spot, and they were married in December 1820. McCarty ran successfully for the House of Delegates in 1834 and served one term. Family members recalled that he never lost an opportunity to mediate a quarrel.
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.