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Senator Killed in Duel

September 13, 1859

Photo of Senator David Broderick of California

Throughout the Senate's history, members, like baseball players, have taken satisfaction from setting records. One exception was California senator David Broderick. In September 1859, Broderick established a record that remains unbroken. He became the only sitting senator to die in a duel.

Broderick was born in Washington, D.C., in 1820, the son of a stonemason who worked on the Capitol. His family later moved to New York City, where Broderick worked as a stonemason and a saloon keeper. He read constantly and became a shrewd student of human nature as he observed the superheated political culture of New York City's ward politics. An antislavery Democrat in search of a political future, he joined the 1849 gold rush to California. He settled in San Francisco, where he quickly made a fortune in real estate.

Elected to the California state senate, Broderick rapidly became a power broker within the Democratic Party's antislavery wing and set his eyes on a seat in the U.S. Senate. He used his power in the legislature to stall, for nearly two years, a vote on the reelection of Senator William Gwin, a member of his party's proslavery faction. Finally, in 1857, California's other Senate seat opened and Broderick negotiated a deal with Gwin under which Broderick would take that seat's full six-year term, leaving Gwin the four-year balance of the blocked seat. Broderick's price for supporting Gwinn was full control of California's federal patronage appointments.

California's 1859 state election contest deepened the antagonism between Gwin's proslavery and Broderick's antislavery factions. During the campaign, California chief justice David Terry, an ally of Senator Gwin, denounced Broderick as no longer a true Democrat. In Terry's opinion, Broderick was following the "wrong Douglas." He had abandoned Democratic Party leader Stephen Douglas in favor of "black Republican" leader Frederick Douglass. Broderick angrily responded that Terry was a dishonest judge and a "miserable wretch." For these words, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel.

The men met early on the morning of September 13 at Lake Merced, south of San Francisco. After Broderick's pistol discharged prematurely, Terry coolly aimed and fired into Broderick's chest. The senator's death three days later endowed a rough-and-tumble political operator with a martyr's crown and accelerated the downward spiral to civil war. Terry was acquitted of the crime and went on to serve the Confederacy. Years later, in 1889, he too was gunned down after threatening the life of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field.