Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dueling: An Affair of Honor? How 'bout, I'm sorry?

Fortunately, dueling has gone the way of the dinosaur. No longer do men select seconds, choose weapons, pace, turn, and let loose at one another to settle perceived slights and disagreements. But, in the 18th century, and for much of the 19th century, this old practice that dates back to the medieval times, was the ultimate way to redeem your name when it was thrown in the mud.

All of the formalities of the duel were spelled out in the Code Duello, a book of 26 rules, that both parties were bound to respect to resolve their difference. In most duels, each antagonist acted through a friend, called a second. The seconds' role, was ultimately to try to reconcile the parties without a resort to violence. An offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the weapons and the time and place of the encounter. Up until combat began, apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied. Often the men went to the length of pacing the distance and then firing harmlessly in the air just to show that they had the honor to go through the with the duel.

Most duelists chose pistols as their weapons. The large caliber, smoothbore flintlock pistols Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr used in their duel typified the early American dueling weapons. Many American men owned a pair of such pistols, and, from about 1750 to 1850, many were called to use them. Andrew Jackson fought a number of duels, one proved to be fatal, when he killed Charles Dickenson in 1806. Abraham Lincoln can close to a duel when he ridiculed a political rival in a newspaper article. Luckily, this sword duel was called off when Lincoln apologized. Politicians, attorneys, and newspaper editors were the most common participants in duels, largely due to the polemical and partisan nature of their work.

For every man who gloried in the duel, there were many others who feared it. A word or two passed in private company on a Friday night could well mean a challenge on Saturday morning and the possibility of death on Sunday. Avoiding a challenge wasn't easy. Particularly in the South, where men who refused to duel would be "posted." A statement accusing them of cowardice would be hung in public areas or published in a newspaper or pamphlet. It was either go through with the duel, or be shamed in your community.

When Congressman John Randolph of Virginia refused to meet General James Wilkinson in a duel, a furious Wilkinson posted him. The post declared "In justice to my character I denounce to the world John Randolph, a member of Congress, as a prevaricating, base, calumniating scoundrel, poltroon, and coward." Wilkinson, a co-conspirator in Aaron Burr's treason plot, had little character to damage. Randolph lost little by his posting.

By the time of the Civil War, dueling had started on an irreversible decline, even in the South. Not surprisingly, public opinion, not legislation, caused the change. What once had been a formal process designed to avoid violence and amend offences had deteriorated into cold-blooded murder. People at last were shocked by it, and they showed their displeasure.

Those who did duel did so out of respect for their opponent. One had to respect their antagonist enough to demand satisfaction. For example, in an earlier post I discussed the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. Brooks did not offer Sumner the opportunity to duel as Brooks didn't view Sumner to be a equal. Those that are considered to be beneath you are subject to beating, not a chance at manly settlement.

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