Jonathan Cilley

Photo added by Bobb Edwards

Jonathan Cilley

Nottingham, Rockingham County, New Hampshire, USA
Death 24 Feb 1838 (aged 35)
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, USA
Cenotaph Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, USA
Plot Range 30, Site 60
Memorial ID 23303799 · View Source
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US Congressman. Elected as a Democrat to represent Maine's 3rd District in the Twenty-Fifth Congress, he served from March 1837 until his death in office. He was killed in a duel with a fellow Congressman. Cilley was born in Nottingham, New Hampshire, the grandson of Revolutionary War officer Joseph Cilley and nephew of US Representative Bradbury Cilley. In 1825 he graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where his friends included future President Franklin Pierce and authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; choosing to remain in that state, he settled in the town of Thomaston. He was admitted to the bar there in 1828 and laid the groundwork for his political career as editor of the Thomaston Register (1829 to 1831). From 1831 to 1836 he was a member of the State House of Representatives, serving as Speaker for his last two terms. He relinquished this office after election to the US House. Cilley was known as a forceful and popular Democrat who loved the "sport" of politics, but in Washington the game proved more dangerous than he anticipated. In February 1838 he was challenged to a duel by Kentucky Whig Representative William J. Graves, acting on behalf of New York newspaper editor William Webb, whom Cilley had accused of corruption during a House debate. (Graves had delivered a letter from Webb demanding a retraction, and interpreted Cilley's refusal to accept it as implying he was dishonorable by association). Although he had no dueling experience and was in fact opposed to the practice, he took the challenge so as not to appear bullied by the rival political party. Rifles at 80 yards was the chosen method and the opponents met at the notorious Blandensburg dueling grounds on the Marlboro Pike outside Washington, DC. Two rounds were exchanged without injury, but on the third Graves shot Cilley in the leg; the bullet struck an artery and he bled to death in less than two minutes. He was placed in a temporary vault at Congressional Cemetery (where a cenotaph stands in his memory) before his remains were returned to Thomaston in April 1838. The incident rocked Capitol Hill, inflamed by Hawthorne's scathing editorial in which he wrote that the duel was fought "on a shadowy pretext" and had "overstepped the imaginary distinction which...separates manslaughter from murder". A House investigation committee voted 4 to 3 to expel Graves, but in the end he was only censured and allowed to complete his term. The Cilley-Graves affair led to the passage of an 1839 Congressional act prohibiting the giving or accepting of challenges to a duel in the District of Columbia; more importantly, it deepened the antagonism between northern and southern factions in Congress that eventually helped bring about the Civil War. Cilley's brother Joseph went on to serve in the US Senate.

Bio by: Bobb Edwards


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Bobb Edwards
  • Added: 9 Dec 2007
  • Find A Grave Memorial 23303799
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Jonathan Cilley (2 Jul 1802–24 Feb 1838), Find A Grave Memorial no. 23303799, citing Congressional Cemetery, Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .