Duels have a deep history in American History. Alexander Hamilton was the most celebrated casualty of the dueling ethic, having lost his life in an 1804 feud with Aaron Burr on the fields of Weehawken, New Jersey, but there were many more who paid the ultimate price— congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (the otherwise obscure Button Gwinnett, famous largely for being named Button Gwinnett), two U.S. senators (Armistead T. Mason of Virginia and David C. Broderick of California) and, in 1820, the rising naval star Stephen Decatur. To his lasting embarrassment, Abraham Lincoln barely escaped being drawn into a duel early in his political career, and President Andrew Jackson carried in his body a bullet from a duel fought with one of MY ancestors (John Sevier).
Not that private dueling was a peculiarly American vice. The tradition had taken hold in Europe several centuries earlier, and though it was frequently forbidden by law, social mores dictated otherwise. During the reign of George III (1760-1820), there were 172 known duels in England (and very likely many more kept secret), resulting in 69 recorded fatalities. At one time or another, Edmund Burke, William Pitt the younger and Richard Brinsley Sheridan all took the field, and Samuel Johnson defended the practice, which he found as logical as war between nations: “A man may shoot the man who invades his character,” he once told biographer James Boswell, “as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.”
By and large, duels there were seldom fatal, since most involved swordplay, and drawing blood usually sufficed to give honor its due. This may have been why the practice persisted so long in the United States, dueling’s heyday began at around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century. Duels, after all, were fought in defense of what the law would not defend—a gentleman’s sense of personal honor, and unless someone died (Arron Burr had to flee to avoid murder charges), these fights were considered largely to be outside the purview of the law.
Curiously, many who took part in the duel professed to disdain it. Sam Houston opposed it, but as a Tennessee congressman, shot Gen. William White in the groin. Henry Clay opposed it, but put a bullet through Virginia senator John Randolph’s coat (Randolph being in it at the time) after the senator impugned his integrity as secretary of state and called him some colorful names. Hamilton opposed dueling, but met Aaron Burr on the same ground in New Jersey where Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, had died in a duel not long before. (Maintaining philosophical consistency, Hamilton intended to hold his fire, a common breach of strict dueling etiquette that, sadly, Burr didn’t emulate.) Even Abraham Lincoln, objected to the practice, but got as far as a dueling ground in Missouri before third parties intervened.
These are the rules:
- A morally acceptable duel must start with the challenger issuing a public, personal grievance, based on an insult, directly to the single person who offended the challenger. Slapping him with your gloves in the French manner is optional but adds a nice touch.
- The challenged person has the choice of issuing a public apology, or choosing the weapons for the duel. The challenger will then propose a place for the “field of honor”. The sword is the customary dueling weapon of honorable men and dueling with pistols is not only ungentlemanly but cowardly as the battle takes place at a distance.
- At the field of honor, each side would bring a doctor and seconds. The seconds should try to reconcile the parties by acting as go-betweens to attempt to settle the dispute with an apology or restitution.
- If one party failed to appear (guess who that is likely to be?), he was considered to be a coward. The seconds (and sometimes the doctor) would bear public witness to the cowardice. The resulting reputation for cowardice is extended to individual’s their family also. After all, a MAN would be there to defend the honor of his family.
- The opponents agreed to duel to an agreed condition. This might be “first blood”, the safest defeat for a dishonorable and unmanly opponent, until either one party was physically unable to fight, or in extreme cases “to the death.”
- When the condition was achieved, the matter was considered settled with the winner proving his point and the loser keeping his reputation for courage.
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