I think Americans have an abbreviated sense of history and time. It is as if nothing of any real consequence happened before 1776, or at the very earliest 1492. We, and especially our kids (though they tend to think more globally than us) are increasingly rooted in the present moment and the very recent past. So when you say “not so long ago” you almost always get an argument to the contrary.
Dueling was popular not so long ago. You know dueling, someone slaps you in the face with a glove claiming a breach of some code of honor or another, the slap becomes a challenge to a weapon wielding fight, you choose the weapon, rules are followed, and just like that it’s on baby. Only an apology by the challenged can restore honor to the challenger, and if none is offered only a fight, a willingness to risk one’s life for his honor, can end the conflict. So if you the challenged do not completely fold, retract whatever you did or said to anger your opponent so, you are formally one half of a two man declared personal war.
Before you know it, at dawn perhaps (usually a foggy dawn in the movies) you’re in some secluded place slamming swords together, or shooting at each other from 20 paces with clumsy single shot pistols. Someone gets hurt, perhaps both of you, and the one who is hurt the least wins. Often someone dies, making the outcome easier to determine, and honor is restored. Life (especially for the winner) goes on, albeit often with bandages, wounds, and eventually cool scars duelists seemed to be proud of because they made for such good stories. But don't forget the funerals. Life ended for many. And it was all sanctioned by society. Or was until we decided dueling was barbaric. But that took a while.
Dueling is way old. It flourished in Europe among the nobility, and Americans took to dueling like ducks to water. Some say it inspired the NFL. Or was that Sumo wrestling? In any case here’s the story on dueling. I’ll make this quick so we can get to the more recent American stuff.
In Western society, the formal concept of a duel developed out of the medieval judicial duel in which combat between individuals or small groups of knights and squires were orchestrated and supervised by a judge to end various disputes and hostilities between two large parties (typically noblemen controlling territory) which could not be resolved in court. Weapons were standardized and of the same quality. The duel lasted until the other party was too weak to fight back. In early cases, the defeated party was subsequently executed. The defeated party whom the then dead combatants represented was then bound to give up his right to further protest and live with the outcome of the contest. I’d say we let a damn good system get away from us. Better to settle the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo with a handful of trained combatants in a duel than suffer through World War I don't you think? I digress.
Dueling morphed during the renaissance from representing group interests to protecting the individual status of respectable gentlemen of the higher class. To say it was an accepted manner to resolve disputes is an understatement. During the reign of Henry IV (1570 to 1610 give or take) over 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels in an eighteen-year period while a twenty-year period of Louis XIII’s reign saw some eight thousand pardons for "murders associated with duels". American record keeping apparently was not as good, but historians believe thousands of men in the United States, particularly in the South, died protecting what they believed to be their “honor." What do you suppose was so damned important?
The French published the first national code of dueling during the Renaissance. In 1777, a code of practice with 26 commandments was drawn up for the regulation of duels in County Tipperary, Ireland of all places. Gentlemen kept the modern Irish code in their weapons case for reference should they need to consult it. Sort of like duffers keeping the rules of golf in their golf bag. I hope duelists consulted the rules more than golfers do now. Dueling was after all often a matter of life and death, and certainly more so after pistols became the popular choice among killing devices.
One important development in this Irish codification of dueling was the concept of “seconds.” Seconds were friends chosen by the aggrieved parties to conduct their honor dispute. These friends would attempt to resolve a dispute upon terms acceptable to both parties and, should this fail, arrange a site and oversee the mechanics of the encounter.
Not that everyone was down with dueling. Judicial duels were deprecated by the Holy Roman Empire at the Lateran Council of 1215 with little or no apparent effect going forward. Dueling was outlawed in France in 1626 and afterwards grew in popularity. French military officers fought 10,000 duels leading to 400 deaths between 1685 and 1716. You wouldn’t exactly call that effective legislation. Sort of like the War on Drugs. Queen Elizabeth I outlawed dueling in 1571 at the beginning of its popularity in England and the Brits ignored her.
Dueling was a hit, especially among rich guys with big egos, and hard to stop.
However, as civilization lumbered along things changed. In the late 18th century values like politeness and civil behavior began to temper attitudes towards violence in Europe. England was industrializing and with the growth of cities and urban planning police forces became more effective and street violence began to wane. Besides that newspapers were discovered as recourse to libel charges. Gentlemen could defend themselves through correspondence in newspapers, air grievances, and resolve conflicts more publicly with less bloodshed. Seemed like a positive trend. Even a new found sense of Christian conscience and social activism, the same bent that was beginning to condemn slavery, took aim. Dueling was labeled by progressive clergy as “ungodly violence in an egocentric culture of honor.” The church may have had some impact after all.
Dueling in the United States was a more deadly problem largely because we took it up later and embraced the pistol wholeheartedly. Wouldn’t you just know it? Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury was killed by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Between 1798 and the Civil War the U.S. Navy lost two-thirds as many officers, many midshipmen or junior officers, to dueling as it did in combat at sea, including naval hero Stephen Decatur, the man for whom that lovely town in Illinois is named. Dueling persisted, particularly in the South, because of contemporary ideals of chivalry and because of the threat of ridicule if a challenge was rejected. Can you give me a quick rundown on the value and importance of chivalry? It’s utility escapes me completely.
Gradually courts began to apply law to the matter, but they were notoriously lax because at its core civil society was sympathetic to the culture of honor. Queen Victoria herself expressed hope that Lord Cardigan, prosecuted no doubt for wounding another in a duel while wearing an ugly button up sweater, would “get off easily." By 1840, dueling declined dramatically in England when yet another vicious nobleman in a sweater, the the 7th Earl of Cardigan, was acquitted on a legal technicality for homicide in connection with a duel with one of his former officers. Outrage was expressed in the media, alleging there was deliberate, high level complicity to leave the loop-hole in the prosecution case and reporting the view that "in England there is one law for the rich and another for the poor."
Clearly sanctioned and technically legal murder among rich guys was on its way out. The last duel between Englishmen in England occurred in 1845 over an altercation between two noblemen concerning the affections of one’s wife. Which one is not without some doubt known. The winner was charged with murder. Dueling dwindled and then died out in Europe.
Dueling also began to be criticized in America in the late 18th century; Ben Franklin denounced dueling as uselessly violent, and then General George Washington (I love the pragmatism) encouraged his officers to refuse challenges during the Revolutionary War because he believed that the deaths caused by dueling officers threatened his war effort. After a spike in popularity in the first half of the nineteenth century in our lawless Western frontier (think quick draw gunfights at noon on dusty streets) dueling began an irreversible decline after the Civil War and finally petered out altogether. Good bye violence of the organized codified variety in defense of personal honor. Hello drive by shootings, road rage, senseless street violence, and terrorism as we now know it. But by God no more duels.*
Not that there weren’t some humdinger American duels. Here’s the one that intrigues me most and may have application yet today. Imagine that! History preceding the 1960’s that we can learn from!
September 22, 1842 found future President Abraham Lincoln, at the time an Illinois state legislator, hurrying toward Alton, Illinois. At Alton, he would cross the Mississippi River to a small island over the Missouri border-Bloody Island. (Do you suppose that island is still available?) There Lincoln would prepare himself to kill or be killed in a saber duel with Illinois State Auditor James Shields. Fortunately their seconds intervened and persuaded them against it. Let’s hear it for the seconds and for the Irish, for inventing seconds.
Before circumstances turned Shields and Lincoln into mortal enemies, the two politicians had enjoyed a peaceable and professional relationship despite being in different parties. At that time Illinois had an enormous debt (surprise) and the legislature had its hands full just keeping the government operating. In 1837, as the state bank teetered on the brink of collapse, Whigs and Democrats fought over what to do. Lincoln and Shields, however, were able to negotiate a compromise that saved the banks. On one key issue of the time–building new infrastructure such as railroads and other public works–the Whig party wanted private corporations to own the facilities. Democrats favored state ownership. Shields, though faced with heavy pressure from his party, often supported private ownership. So, despite party differences on major issues, Shields and Lincoln often managed to land on the same side of the final vote.
When the state bank defaulted in 1842, however, there was no such camaraderie. Shields, now the state auditor, aligned with the state’s governor and treasurer to adopt a policy in which the state would refuse to accept its own paper money as payment of taxes and other debts. Lincoln cleverly assailed this policy in the Sangamo, one of many Springfield newspapers then, by submitting an allegory under a pseudonym critical of Illinois Democrats in general and Shields in particular which they published.
The details of Lincoln’s public rebuke of Shields are tiresome, like stories of petty conflict tend to be to this day. Nonetheless, Shields felt publicly humiliated. Upon determining the identity of the author of his public humiliation, Shields, emotionally wounded and furious, had a menacing note hand-delivered to Lincoln in Tremont (just down the road from Danvers) on September 17. It read:
‘I have become the object of slander, vituperation (when did you last experience vituperation?) and personal abuse. Only a full retraction ‘may prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.’ (Does that sound familiar at all?) Lincoln discussed his predicament with advisors and decided not to retract his pointed words. Shields was not appeased and again demanded ‘absolute retraction.’ Lincoln refused, suggesting that Shields take back his hand-delivered letter and submit one that was more ‘gentlemanly.’ There would be no further negotiation. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.
As the party who had been challenged, Lincoln got to set the fight’s conditions. He did so on September 19 in a letter that demonstrated a personal trait that historian Gary Wills described as ‘letting nonsense work itself out to its own demise.’ First, Lincoln selected ‘cavalry broad sword of the largest size’ rather than pistols, as the dueling weapons. ‘I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ Lincoln later wrote, adding, ‘ and I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I think he would have if we had selected pistols.’
Next, Lincoln prescribed conditions so advantageous to himself that his opponent would be forced to write off the affair as a lost cause. He ordered ‘a plank ten feet long, and from nine to twelve inches abroad, to be firmly fixed on edge, on the ground, as the line between us, which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life.’ Such unusual conditions would allow Lincoln to take advantage of his superior reach; Shields was only five feet, nine inches tall, while Lincoln soared to six feet, four inches.
Fortunately for Shields and Lincoln, shared friends John J. Hardin and Dr. R.W. English sped to the duel scene-as much as anyone could speed in a small boat in 1842-and pleaded with the would-be combatants to let bygones be bygones. It was a desperate attempt to bring peace but it worked. The duel was cancelled. Though the incident ended without violence, Lincoln avoided talking about it, preferring to forget it ever happened. Lincoln never again got tangled up in the makings of a duel.
Shields, on the other hand, found himself involved in such proceedings in 1850, when on behalf of Democratic Congressman William H. Bissell, he presented the acceptance of a challenge to a duel issued by future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. But he immediately set to work settling the matter without violence. He was successful. Maybe he learned something from Abe.
Lincoln and Shields apparently settled their differences, or at least agreed to disagree. During the Civil War, Shields was nominated for the rank of brigadier general in the Union army. Final approval fell to the president-Lincoln. He approved. With that move some 20 years after the duel that was not, Lincoln publicly buried the cavalry broadsword.**
Couldn't have written this one without Wikipedia* and Historynet.com**