thumbnail of The Way It Was; 9
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
In the years preceding the Civil War many events took on an importance that they might not have attained in calmer times such an event occurred in mid April 1860 a week before the Democratic nominating convention and a month before the Republican the era of Washington was already electric with emotion when Virginia's Congressman Rogers a Pryor challenged John Fox Potter the representative of Wisconsin to a duo of honor. The way it was presenting eyewitness accounts of historic events material for this series was drawn from the files and papers of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Today in the saga of bowie knife Potter. John Fox Potter was born and educated in Maine and it migrated to
fronter Wisconsin at the age of 21. There he acquired land and combined the trades of Farmer lawyer and politician. Known as a charitable fearless man with a sense of humor and a genial disposition. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857. There he quickly developed an aptitude for the hairsplitting niceties of parliamentary law and brought a biting sarcasm into debates on the slavery issue. Hardly he settled into his congressional seat before he was challenged to a duel. On this occasion Congressman Barksdale of Mississippi was haranguing the house on the evils of abolition and the crimes of the abolitionists temporarily presiding over the house called the Mississippian to order. Then as Grohe passed down the aisle two Southerners sprang at him whereupon John Fox Potter came to the rescue as he was to explain many times afterwards was assaulted.
It was nearly four o'clock in the morning. I seized the man who had him by the throat and threw him on the floor. And then Davis Lamar and others came up and joined in the fracas. I hit Davis and he drew a knife. Someone seized him and Barksdale came up then. I never saw a man who looked more as if possessed of a demon. I struck out right and left and then fell down. I never struck one of those fellows but once and every blow was in self-defense. The floors seemed strewn with man. I remember looking up and seeing or the speaker standing close by with a gavel in his hand. I wheeled around and saw the Washburn in the clutches of Barksdale Washburn gave a cry. I suppose Barksdale was armed and I struck him on top of his head. To buy stylish meant I found a bunch of hair
in my hand. I never supposed Barksdale wore a wig. There it was. However I was not much surprised to hear the crowd cry out that someone had been scalped and a group of Southerners made a rush at me then the sergeant at arms bearing his mace came up and in the name of the house commanded me to take my seat. I said to go start us off. And just then one of those Southern fellows struck me. And my friends cried out Oh you wanted a veena didn't like my face was covered with blood. Finally order was restored my brother of the creature was a member of the house at that time. He was one of those who came up and spoke to me after the melee. He said the must of taken lessons in the pugilistic guard. No I replied I never took a lesson in my life. To this he replied dryly with obvious reference to Barksdale swig. I notice that I blow those were
very effectual. Twice more before that session of Congress ended representative Prado was in the fore as a belligerent figure. Once he rose in Congress to deny a newspaper report that he'd been in a fight with a Tennessee member. And once he was brought after some resistance to the buyer of the house and fined for deliberate absenteeism throughout most of the next session of Congress Potter quietly performed his duties as a member of two House committees. In the background the sectional controversy between North and South waxed in intensity as spring came and the dates for the presidential nominating conventions grew near nervousness and their inability increased. Members of Congress quarreled with one another and vied the one with the other in making bellicose speeches for the record.
On April 5th Owen Lovejoy a congressman from Illinois rose to make a violent speech against slavery. In his old age John Fox Potter was to vividly remember the sequence of events that followed and earned for him the nickname booie knife. Potter. Lovejoy was making a speech. When Lovejoy got excited he used harsh terms in relation to slavery. Now he was standing in front of his desk. Roger a prior was on the opposite side of the house. Pryor walked over and shook his fist in Lovejoy's face saying you should not come over on our side of the house. Well I stepped up fearing there might be a fight. And I said to Pryor he's not on your side you're on our side. Now the object of Pryor and his clique was evidently to force a fight and
to to have it go out through the country that Lovejoy had provoked trouble by going up on the Democratic side of the house. So you see the rule was that a member addressing the House should speak from his own place or from a clerk's desk Lovejoy didn't insist upon his right to stay where he was he went to the clerk's desk and finished just speech. He said many things that exasperated the Southern members. I remember this. He said if any poor fugitive slave comes to my house asking for bread he will have bread Constitution or no constitution. Well they Congressional Globe was always several days behind at that time. The custom was for members who had made speeches to look over the proofs and see that the reports were correct. Lovejoy came to me some days after this incident he said you know what those fellows have done with your remarks interpreted in my speech. They went down the congressional
printing office and inked out what you said and tore out several pages of proof. Well I went down with Lovejoy to see about it and I found that Singleton Pryor and others had made changes in the reports as Lovejoy had stated. I said the printer I'd like to restore those remarks and he replied all right and I did so. When the globe came out it was so far behind the matter it almost passed from my mind. But on the floor several days later Pryor had in his hand a copy of the globe and referring to the report of my interpellation he said no such remarks were made when the proof went to the speaker. They were not there when I explained the matter and I said I don't know what that gentleman's idea as a courtesy may be but if I had been in his place I would have let my right hand whether before I would have done what he's done.
And Pryor turned to me and he said Do I understand the member from Wisconsin to say that he did make those remarks. Do you stand by them. And I responded that I did. And then he hissed out the sequel show demonstrate whether you stand by him or not. And I replied let it demonstrate that same afternoon John Potter received a challenge from Roger Pryor. So when you have the kindness to choose a place outside of the District of Columbia when and where there may be further correspondence between us Roger Pryor sprang from a different background and partook of a different heritage than John Potter descended from the first families of Virginia. It already made a mark for himself as an ardent fire eating southerner when in 1859
Virginia sent him to the House of Representatives. He was an impassioned speaker with a reputation as a convincing orator and in his first session of Congress he assumed a leading position in debates with the northerners frequently in his speeches he alluded to his career as a dualist and expressed his willingness to meet his Yankee antagonists on the field of honor. The sunny southern climb the curious ones are ripping gentle and calm and a staggering swaggering sort of job that takes his whiskey straight and condemns his eyes on to some other. Just want all of them of course he's all the time in debt to those who credit given to manages upon the best the market yields to live. But if the Northern creditor or asking is built this gentleman instantly draws his boy
and he claims that in consequence of their repeated aggressions of the North and its gross violations of the Constitution that it would not only degrade him to pay whatever and in fact that he has at last determined to use this tone as some other time. JOHN POTTER always aware of Pryor's background but he nevertheless took up the challenge of observing the strict code provided for such circumstances. Potter withdrew temporarily from the House of Representatives. The other congressmen were quick to note that he had to have a prior engagement Potter bad farewell that was wife go through the house of a friend and there with a group of his fellows agreed upon strategy. Colonel F. W. lender was selected to act as Potter's second. And the response to Pryors challenge was delivered late that evening to the Hon. Mr. Rogers a prior.
So your note of this date invites a correspondence to be here after conducted outside the District of Columbia. A deadly to avoid on your part certain penalties imposed by law. I replied that the constitution of Wisconsin allows me no escape from the consequences of such a correspondence as you seem to contemplate. Wherever it may be conducted. I therefore inform you that such further correspondence as you may wish to make may be delivered to my friend Colonel F. W. lander. I have the honor to be very respectfully Your obedient servant John F. Potter Potter's note reflected the situation in which many northern congressmen found themselves during those last years before the Civil War. The Northern congressman on several occasions had been intimidated by those from the south. The Southerners were generally expert swordsman and pistol shots while the Northerners had been brought up to regard
dueling with abhorrence. In Potter's case duelling was against the law of the state he represented some of the northerners who had been insulted and bullied had replied simply that they would fight only if crowded. But there had been a growing feeling that it was necessary for some Yankee to fight a duel. JOHN POTTER realized that he had to find some way to compensate for the fact that unlike prior he was not an expert dualist prior had been engaged in a duel with a member from West Virginia. He had been a second in a duel between Pleasants and Reggie. The terms of which were that the principals were to exchange shots with pistols and then take gooey knives and fight it out. I was not a good shot with a pistol and I didn't propose to have any hair trigger business. I proposed to bring the combat down to the first principles of human butchery. 12th 1861 Roger Pryor's second Mr. T peaches MN
delivered to Potter's second Colonel F. W. Lander a more formal challenge. To the JFK plot. I demand the satisfaction usual among gentlemen for the personal affront you offered me in debate and for which you were pleased to have your responsibility. I have the honor to be very respectfully Roger. A prior to which John Fox Potter promptly responded I refer you to my friend Colonel F. W. lander to make all the necessary arrangements. I have the honor to be very respectfully. John F. Potter. From then on it was all in the hands of the seconds. A flurry of notes went back and forth between them as they endevor to agree to terms for the duel. April 12 1860 11:30 in the evening. Do the honorable men serve I have to state that my principal they Honorable John Potter is
claiming the particular rules of the code will fight they honorable Roger a prayer with a common bowie knife at such a place. A private room or open air. In this district as we may agree upon the time to be fixed within the next twelve hours by you and myself. Distance four feet at commencement of engagement two seconds present to each principal seconds restricted to 180 revolver each. Knives are principles to be of equal weight and length of blade fight to commence at the word three. The calling of the tally and the word to be decided by turning a piece of money. I have the honor to be most respectfully and response to the demand of my friend love and satisfaction unusual among gentlemen from your friend Mr. disclaim and the particular rules of the who will fight with the common man.
Not recognizing Barbara's difficult or distant notions of civilized society I must without communication or even implant it. Whenever you will reply to Mr. Pryor in such a way to me or even liberal construction whether I should be most happy to communicate. Principal responds. Respect your note is just. Without replying to your terms of indignation which seemed to pervade the note
I will simply say that my principal did tests and they were whores the barbarous and inhuman mode of settling difficulties usually among gentleman. He represents his constituents in the following manner. He asserts and maintains his right to present on the floor of Congress within parliamentary rules any matter which he believes to be correct or called upon by note to reply to your principal. He has made his statement as his friend I have presented it. You object to the terms. They were such as what alone enable my principal who is unacquainted with the usual weapons of the duelist to meet your friend on equal terms. He will not go out of this district to fight a duel. He waives the usual last resort of a non-dualist and that is the assertion that he will defend himself for ever assailed. He even goes so far as to be willing
to name time place and weapons when at this stage of the affair you appeal to the strict terms of the duelling code under express yourself is satisfied. There is but one result of this group. My friend Mr. Potter differing with politics with him that every American citizen is entitle to the free expression of opinion. Therefore present myself in his place with restrictions to be respectful. The District of Columbia with the.
Usual terminate this correspondence between principals and the usual gentleman though your principal did not have to be 30 this morning. In it you reiterate your assertion that your principal Mr. Potter is making assurance doubly sure. I have to correct an impression I
have apparently conveyed in my last letter an impression also referred to in your note. It appears that my statement that Mr. Potter is the resort of the duelist. The assertion that he will defend himself has led you to believe that he will not defend himself ever saw that this is a mistake. If for the time he waved the mere assertion and placed himself so far as he could at the disposal of Mr. Pryor in regard to a personal combat by no means believe that he will not defend himself with honor wherever it sailed. It also becomes my duty to inform you that the Honorable John Potter did not know of my offer to appear for him. The further remarks of your letter being mere expressions of opinion upon a mode of adjusting difficulties the propriety of which we are now discussing. I have nothing to offer in reply. I have the honor to be
most respectfully. You left the matter did not end here Roger prior upon his return to Washington claimed that he did not go along with the seconds refusal to fight with bowie knife. As a matter of fact he was still willing to fight with knives. And about this point the police of the district stepped in and arrested both Potter and Pryor and released them under $5000 bonds to preserve the peace. While the principals in this ludicrous incident were exchanging notes and insults the newspapers had squeezed the last drop of partisan sensationalism prominent. WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT scurried about the city gathering rumors to send their papers. At home republican editors wrote solemn editorials either praising Potter's willingness to defy southern braggadocio or deploring his risking his life for the demand of a Southern bully. During the incident of some editor wrote that
Pryor was making a cheap display of valor and offering only a paltry performance. In serious vein they discussed whether under the code there had been any real grounds for a duel. When the outcome was known they all agreed that Potter had made prior ridiculous and with one accord they agreed to laugh at the discomfiture. The Southern chivalry from all parts of the country booie knives and congratulatory letters came to Potter. So we are all delighted with your style of weapons. If he meets you cut his tory hardtop the first lick you give him the fire eater needs a good cooling off. So prior second considered booie night was a vital instruments die. Well perhaps his principal would prefer muskets loaded with slugs at 10 paces. Colonel Bissell offered to accommodate Jeff Davis with an interview on those terms. I suppose Prior is not overanxious to be sent to hell across lots
and consequently prefers pistols with which he's been practicing all his life time. There is just one way to deal with such a man and that is to cane him the first time it gives you any of his lip. Let a stranger make a suggestion. If Pryor will not fight as you suggest change the weapons to flails old fashioned flails 10 paces and advance. I think one crack of the swingle side of his head would set him. Stargazing beers are your constituency. Come to the conclusion that you're a devil of a fellow. Indeed this impression seems to be quite general in this region. People threw up their hats when the news arrived that you were driven prior to the war. Republicans congratulated each other and Democrats swore they would vote for you the next time. Here's a little model of this whole some northern pluck and the plantation manners of these large wings really materially mitigated. But
Northern men should join in repudiating the Southerners brutal and detestable code of honor. Not all the reactions to John Potter were favorable. The first reactions of the Democrats have been to point up at the state law for bad dueling and to demand that Potter resign. On second thought they concluded that the whole affair was disgusting and that it reflected no credit on either side. Potter had behaved indecently imprudent and prior had acted like a braggart fool. Moreover they reflected that time for congressional nominations was near and Potter was probably trying by some exhibition of foolhardy and Roughie Anneli valor to get into the papers. Of course Pryor's friends had a different attitude altogether they congratulated Pryor on his victory and at least one prior supporter wrote her opinion directly to Potter
there. You a thought you know I felt very smart. You need Mr. Pryor to get at you again. You nasty dirty dog. Find a lady who would like to get you whatever the opinions of the bystanders the mere duel between John Fox Potter and Roger a prior did have according to most later commentators one salutary effect their ridiculous performance had helped end the practice of dueling in this country. The way it was presenting eyewitness accounts of historic events today in the saga of a knife. Potter. Material for this series was selected from the files and papers of the State Historical Society it was Scott's. Consultant for the series was Doris planned script by Beth helper and music by kept up for
production. Ralph Johnson. This is the national educational radio network.
The Way It Was
Episode Number
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-3f4kqp4g).
Series Description
"The Way It Was" is a radio program which presents eye witness accounts of notable topics throughout American history. Each episode begins with a description of a specific event, person, or historical topic, followed by several dramatic readings of witness testimonies found in the files and papers of the state historical society of Wisconsin. The program was originally released in 1969, and was re-broadcast from the program library of National Public Radio.
Radio Theater
Local Communities
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 69-37-9 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:28:00
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “The Way It Was; 9,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 19, 2024,
MLA: “The Way It Was; 9.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 19, 2024. <>.
APA: The Way It Was; 9. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from