Dueling at William & Mary

Written by Amy Weitzman '24, Special Collections Research Center Student Assistant

Dueling may seem like a strange and antiquated practice, but it once defined an integral part of the William & Mary (W&M) student experience. While W&M today is known for its rigor inside the classroom, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was better known for duels and student riots. Honor culture, the culture in which elites asserted their masculinity and defended their private character with violence, triggered this rebellious behavior across campus.

Challenging a rival to a duel (on the spot, in a letter, or even in a newspaper) allowed a proper Southern gentleman to show that he would sacrifice his life to prove his honor. [1] It is easy to picture Alexander Hamilton’s famous and fatal encounter with Aaron Burr when thinking of early American duels. However, a duel was not always a deadly last resort after a years-long dispute; across the South, it was often a knee-jerk response to the smallest of slights. [2] Especially poignant were the lower-stakes duels proliferating in colleges. Known as student riots, another rambunctious response to conflict at W&M could manifest in loudly banging objects through the city of Williamsburg, vandalizing professors’ homes, or tearing down statues. [3] Dueling and riots highlight how our predecessors at W&M are different from the current student population.
As a Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) student assistant, I have spent the semester researching manuscripts that shed light onto W&M dueling culture. Unrest among the student body could signal flaws of the Virginia elite class, in which the early W&M student body comprised of upper-class males. [4] The Knowledgebase research guide for dueling informs us of several episodes in William & Mary history that may surprise us. For example, Professor of Philosophy Archibald Peachy challenged President of the College Robert Saunders to a duel in 1847. Just as unlikely today was an incident in 1832 involving three students, a horse, and the Wren Building. The incident began when three students, Charles Byrd, Thomas Burfoot, and Mallory Dickson, brought a horse into the Wren Building. When faculty members Thomas Dew and William Barton Rogers investigated the antics, one of the students took the investigation as an attack on his honor. In the traditional Virginia fashion, he arrived at Professor Rogers’s bedroom a few days later with a pistol and a challenge, standing his ground until Rogers locked himself inside.
This Knowledgebase page served as a springboard for my own research. Intrigued, I used SCRC’s Manuscript and Collection Guides catalog and searched “dueling” under “subjects,” which is one of the search options found at the top of the website. The subject “Dueling--Virginia” contains plenty of fascinating collections. I chose to investigate the John Floyd Jones Collection and its connection to dueling. The catalog description states that this collection includes two letters from the Secretary of the Faculty informing a student’s mother about her son’s expulsion for a duel in June 1842 and again for a riot in December 1842. It also includes a copy of the faculty resolution to expel him. John Floyd Jones clearly had a rebellious history, and I was curious to know more.
A letter from Robert Saunders to Catherine F. Jones containing a report of a William & Mary faculty meeting from the John Floyd Jones Collection, June 18, 1842 (UA 5.191).
The manuscripts in the John Floyd Jones Collection provide a snapshot of the William & Mary student experience as well as how College administration struggled to constrain students in the Antebellum period. Contributing to the unrest at W&M, John Floyd Jones violated College policies in July of 1842 by participating in a duel, and he faced the consequences. The faculty explained in their meeting notes of July 17th, 1842, “it having come to the knowledge of the faculty that Mr. John F. Jones has been engaged, as second, in a duel, it is resolved that Mr. John F. Jones be dismissed from [the] College.”
A traditional duel involved four students: two principals and two seconds chosen by the principals. Principals were the duelists themselves who initiated the conflict, challenged each other, and wielded the pistols, whereas seconds were less prone to expulsion because of their relatively benign role of preventing violence. [5] Nonetheless, the faculty dismissed John Floyd Jones for acting as a second, which reveals that the College had increased their restrictions by 1842. The same manuscript includes a letter from Secretary of the College Robert Saunders to Jones’s mother with a report of her son’s dismissal on July 18th. While expressing “much concern,” Secretary Saunders succinctly informed Catherine Floyd Jones that the faculty dismissed her son per mandatory College policy. Secretary Saunders’s indifference and concise phrasing suggests that this was not the first time the faculty had to enforce the rule. From this letter, we can speculate that dueling restrictions had tightened by mid-1842.  
A letter from Charles Minnigerode to Catherine F. Jones containing a report of a William & Mary faculty meeting from the John Floyd Jones Collection, December 14, 1842 (UA 5.191).
According to a letter from the new Secretary of the College to John Floyd Jones’s mother, the faculty readmitted John Floyd to the College—yet, within five months of his first dismissal, he landed himself in trouble once again. On December 14th, 1842, Secretary Charles Minnigerode wrote to Catherine Floyd Jones with a faculty meeting resolution to dismiss her son for engaging in “a tumultuous riot to the annoyance and injury of the inhabitants of the town and the inmates of the College-building" over the weekend. This resolution announced that not only did John Floyd Jones’s riot harass students in the College-building (now known as the Wren Building), he also disturbed the whole town of Williamsburg.
With the gravity of this resolution in mind, Secretary Minnigerode expressed much more sympathy than ex-Secretary Saunders. He stressed that he dismissed John Floyd only with “reluctance and sorrow” and that the decision “could not have been milder.” Nevertheless, he stuck to formalities, telling Catherine, “...our laws demand the speedy departure from College in case of a dismissal, I would suggest to you therefore to summon Mr. Jones to you as soon as practicable.” The faculty had made their final decision.
Only two days later on December 16th, however, Secretary Minnigerode realized he made a mistake. He clarified to Catherine Jones, “…the faculty of W.&M. were under a slight mistake in supposing that the riot… was carried so far, as to annoy the inhabitants of Williamsburg. It is known to have been confined to the College-buildings.” According to Secretary Minnigerode, Jones’s rebelliousness was not as severe as he originally made it out to be. Still, the Secretary lamented, “this indeed can make no difference in the final action of the Faculty, but it is right, the mistake in the sentence… should be corrected.” Regardless of Secretary Minnigerode’s sincereity, he maintained the strict policies. Jones had now been suspended twice, once for a relatively minor role in a duel, and once for participating in a College riot. Restrictions on student violence had grown rigid.
If dismissal were the mildest punishment for a riot, it leads us to wonder what the worst punishments were and what made students earn them. In the December 14th letter informing Catherine of the riot, Secretary Minnigerode, remaining courteous, offered John Floyd Jones his encouragement: “let me hope, that you will bear this disappointment, as an occurrence, which time can remedy, and—well-employed—have been to profit for its present victim.” Jones’s behavior did not dissuade Minnigerode from having confidence in his students’ success. However, Jones must have used his dismissal to pursue other goals. The W&M student catalog of 1841–2 listed John F. Jones as a student, but he never appeared as a graduate.
A letter from Charles Minnigerode to Catherine F. Jones from the John Floyd Jones Collection, December 16, 1842 (UA 5.191).
The John Floyd Jones Collection sheds light onto the forms of student violence at W&M, its endless recurrence, common punishments, and the role of students in dueling culture. Dueling has certainly dissipated since 1842 and students are no longer permitted to have weapons on campus at all. With this in mind, investigating the sources in SCRC can teach us about how student culture has evolved throughout W&M’s history. Our extensive manuscript and rare book collections are open to the public, in person and digitally, for anyone curious about what else we can learn from SCRC. The Knowledgebase is an excellent starting point for any curiosity. My personal interest was in dueling but, out of our hundreds of research guides on the Knowledgebase, anyone can find a subject that interests them at SCRC. 
  • [1] Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, Illustrated edition (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2002), 168‒177; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, 25th anniversary edition (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2007), 43, 92, 476.
  • [2] Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, 167, 195, 351‒4, 476; Timothy J. Williams and Edward L. Ayers, “Pursuits of Character: Rethinking Honor among Antebellum Southern College Students,” in The Field of Honor, ed. John Mayfield and Todd Hagstette, Essays on Southern Character and American Identity (University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 163–79; Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Illustrated edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 88‒91.
  • [3] Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education, 22, 40, 47, 101; Bowman, Rex, and Carlos Santos, Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).
  • [4] Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, 92, 476.
  • [5] Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 177‒179; John Lyde Wilson, The Code of Honor; or, Rules For The Government of Principles And Seconds in Duelling (Charleston, South Carolina: For T.J. Eccles, 1838).