Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to work with the Regency Society of Virginia to make a video short called “A Gentleman’s Duel.” This video showed the actions that led up to a fictitious duel between 2 historical personalities from Virginia after the Battle of Craney Island. Working with this subject piqued my interest in the history of dueling and resulted in this post.
In 1712 two members of the House of Parliament in London — the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun — had a disastrous encounter. These individuals had a lawsuit pending for 11 years, and so, were not the best of friends. While discussing their case with a legal court officer, the Duke of Hamilton commented that one of the case witnesses, who was favorable to Lord Mohun, had neither truth nor justice in him. Lord Mohun’s reaction to this insulting comment was to suggest that the witness had as much truth and justice as the Duke of Hamilton. The Duke made no reply to this comment and as he left, he courteously saluted the Lord. No one suspected the how seriously Lord Mohun had taken the remark. That evening a messenger from Lord Mohun twice tried to find the Duke to challenge him to a duel. The messenger finally found him in a tavern and delivered the message. The Duke accepted the challenge, and the principles set the meet for two days later at 7 a.m. in Hyde Park. As was the usual practice, the principals appointed assistants in the duel — called seconds. At the scheduled time the participants met in the part of the park called the Nursery and prepared for combat. When all was ready, the two opponents took up their swords and forcefully fought each other. Lord Mohun died on the spot, and the Duke of Hamilton died while his servants were carrying him away. This settled the argument and the lawsuit. (Roth, 1989)
Throughout the Georgian Era, personal honor, pride, and revenge often took precedence over other principles, including life itself. A careless remark, made without thought of offense, could result in one receiving a challenge to settle what the other person saw as a matter of honor. As Joseph Addison commented in The Spectator: “Death is not sufficient to deter men who make it their glory to despise it” (Addison, no date).
Dueling has a long history, much of which is only slightly relevant to the subject of this post. Dueling began around the turn of the first millennium in the form of the “judicial duel” or “trial by combat.” These duels decided matters of justice with the belief that God would intervene to make sure the righteous won. The loser of such a duel, if not killed, often suffered other consequences, depending on the crime, such as the removal of a hand or hanging.
The other form of dueling in the Middle Ages was the “duel of chivalry” conducted as sport between knights and other nobles. These duels usually took place on horseback and used lances and spears as weapons. The fading of feudalism marked the end of the chivalrous duel, with the last English example in 1492 and the last French example in 1547.
The duel as single combat to resolve questions of honor developed in the sixteenth century in several European countries, arriving in England in the 1570s. The available evidence suggests that their introduction to England in the 1570s, duels apparently peaked in the early 1600s, when their frequency prompted attempts by James I to suppress them. Dueling experienced a decline under Charles I and during the Commonwealth period, only to revive during the Restoration. (Stone, 1965) Throughout the eighteenth century, complaints were made that dueling had become fashionable. According to Antony Simpson’s tally of duels fought in Britain and by Britons overseas between 1785 and 1850, the number fought peaked in the 1790s, and then declined gradually, falling sharply after 1842 (Simpson, 1988).
Pistols did not come into common use until the early 1760s, at which time participants abandoned swords quickly, with few used in the London area after 1785. This change led to a significant reduction in the mortality rate. According to an analysis of recorded duels, reported in footnote 9 of a paper by Robert Shoemaker, more than a fifth of the 105 participants in sampled sword duels were killed, and another quarter were wounded; only half (51 per cent) of the participants escaped without significant injury. In contrast, based on the same evidence, only 6.5 per cent of the 214 participants in pistol duels died, and 71 per cent escaped without any injury. (Shoemaker, 2002)
In America, dueling’s heyday began around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century. Throughout this period, the custom’s true home was the antebellum South. Duels, after all, were fought in defense of what the law would not defend—a gentleman’s sense of personal honor—and nowhere were gentlemen more exquisitely sensitive on that point than in the future Confederacy. As self-styled aristocrats, and often slaveholders, they enjoyed what one might describe as a “habit of command” and an expectation of deference. To the touchiest among them, almost any annoyance could be grounds for a meeting at gunpoint, and though several Southern states passed laws against dueling, the statutes were ineffective. Arrests were infrequent; judges and juries almost never convicted the participants.
Meanwhile, New England viewed dueling as a cultural throwback, with no stigma attached to rejecting it. Despite the furious sectional acrimony that preceded the Civil War, Southern congressmen tended to duel each other, not their Northern antagonists, who could not be relied upon to rise to a challenge. Consequently, when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks was offended by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner’s verbal assault on the congressman’s uncle, he resorted to caning Sumner insensible on the floor of the Senate. Though the North reviled Brooks, much of the South lionized him, and his fellow southerners presented him with a ceremonial cane inscribed “Hit Him Again.”
Despite this bias against dueling, the early eighteenth century notes of Thomas Prince describe an incident on June 18, 1621 when the first duel (with a sword and dagger) was fought in New England’s Plymouth Colony between two of Stephen Hopkins servants, Edward Doty and Edward Leister. The duel ended with one wounded in the hand and one in the thigh. Their punishment was to be tied head and feet together for twenty-four hours without meat or drink. (Stratton, 1986) A unique aspect of this duel was that Doty and Leister were servants. For the most part, only gentlemen dueled.
The most famous American duel was, of course, the match between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, to fight the last skirmish of a long-lived political and personal battle. Hamilton was a Federalist; Burr was a Republican. Over the years, the men had clashed repeatedly in the political arena. It was the New York governor’s race of 1804, however, that pushed the two men to the edge of violence. In that election, Burr turned his back on the Republicans and ran as an independent, believing that if he won, he would regain power and be able to return to national politics. The prospect of Burr as Governor of New York horrified Hamilton, who despised and mistrusted Burr completely. In early 1804, Hamilton tried to convince New York Federalists not to support Burr. Although Hamilton’s campaign was probably not the deciding factor, the Burr failed to win the election.
The battle for New York had been a bruising one, but in the end, a relatively minor slight precipitated the Burr-Hamilton duel. In February 1804, a New York Republican, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, attended a dinner party at which Alexander Hamilton spoke forcefully and eloquently against Burr. Cooper later wrote a letter to Philip Schuyler in which he referred to a particularly “despicable opinion” Hamilton expressed about Burr. The letter was published in a New York newspaper the “Albany Register.”
Hoping that a victory on the dueling ground could revive his flagging political career, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton wanted to avoid the duel, but politics left him no choice. If he admitted to Burr’s charge, which was substantially true, he would lose his honor. If he refused to duel, the result would be the same. Either way, his political career would be over. After Hamilton and Burr’s seconds tried to settle the matter amicably without success, the two political enemies met on the morning of July 11 at the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. Each fired a shot from a .56 caliber dueling pistol. Burr emerged unscathed while Hamilton fell to the ground mortally wounded and died the next day.
There were many other famous Americans who died in duels— congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (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.
The US Navy, where boredom, alcohol, and spirited young men in close quarters on shipboard produced a host of petty affronts, suffered more than the other services from the results of dueling. Between 1798 and the Civil War, the Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea. Many of those killed and maimed were teenage midshipmen and barely older junior officers, casualties of their own reckless judgment and the by-the-book pompousness of some of their shipmates.
Code Duello – rulemaking for dueling
The earliest known law that governed the judicial duel is found in the Burgundian Code, an early East Germanic barbarian code promulgated in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Tradition sets the date of legal establishment of the trial by combat as the year 501. Eventually only in cases of serious crimes, such as murder and treason were suspects allowed to choose trial by combat. The right to choose trial by combat existed in England until the early 19th century, where the last claim for combat occurred in 1817. Although the court granted this claim, circumstances did not allow the encounter, and promptly in 1819, Parliament abolished the right to trial by combat.
The various code duello, or dueling codes, provided rules for engaging and conducting duels of honor. They were drafted to ensure order, fairness, and opportunity for the duel to be averted in honorable fashion. The earliest known code duello was the Renaissance-era Flos Duellatorum in Armis of Fiore dei Liberi (Italy, circa 1410). The most famous code, and the most important for English-speaking countries, was the Irish Code Duello, or “the 26 commandments,” published in 1777. Gentlemen delegates drew the code to regulate—legally—affairs of honor conducted outside the law. To avoid claims of ignorance of the rules, gentlemen were required to keep a copy in their pistol cases. This code covered the use of pistols but also provided for swords. American duelists relied either on the Irish Code Duello or the American version authored in 1838 by lawyer, duelist, and former Governor John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina (Meade, 2005)
The End of Dueling
At almost exactly the same time that dueling was gaining in popularity in the 18th century, opinion was beginning to turn against it. Dueling thrived in England for nearly three centuries. There were many contributing factors to the practice’s end. Criticism of dueling, a growing distaste for violence, legal resistance, religious moralism, and new ideas of manhood and honor all brought about a decrease in the popularity of dueling.
As the nineteenth century drew near, attitudes towards violence changed. Life spans were lengthening, medical treatments were improving, and child mortality rates were declining. Across Europe, violence became less acceptable. The new middle class competed with the traditional gentlemen for power and prestige. The gentleman’s honor, like the gentlemen themselves, had competition.
Ideas instilled by the Renaissance and Enlightenment were re-thought because of the movement towards the Industrial Revolution. The war with France from 1793-1815 was the most publicized ever in England, and the population tired of bloodshed. This war-weariness affected all of England, even those who had once enjoyed the duel. John Chamberlain, in a letter written in the seventeenth century, had advanced the idea that a foreign war’s bloodshed would help abate domestic violence. By the nineteenth century, this idea was widely recognized and clearly influencing the attitudes of Englishmen. The war and other social factors contributed to the decreasing acceptance of violence. In 1852, the last recorded duel was fought in England.
In America, the utter pointlessness of dueling became, in time, an insult to public opinion. In the early Republic, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were among the most prominent Americans to condemn dueling. Franklin called duels a “murderous practice…they decide nothing.”, and Washington, who undoubtedly needed all the good soldiers he could get, congratulated one of his officers for refusing a challenge, noting that “there are few military decisions that are not offensive to one party or another.”
Religious and civic officials worked hard to stop duels but for some time, diatribes such as Reverend Mason Weems’ 1821 illustrated pamphlet “God’s Revenge Against Dueling” did little to change public sentiment. Anti-dueling ordinances also failed to stop the flow of blood. Duelists ignored or evaded such laws. In fact, the most popular dueling ground in America was at Bladensburg, Maryland, near the nation’s capital. Washington DC banned dueling, but it was not illegal in Maryland, which was a short carriage ride away. Irate legislators could simply shuttle out to Bladensburg and fire at will.
However, time was on the side of the critics. By the end of the Civil War, the code of honor had lost much of its force, possibly because the country had seen enough bloodshed to last several lifetimes. Dueling was, after all, an expression of caste—the ruling gentry would only fight its social near equals— and the caste whose arrogance it had served had been fatally injured by the disastrous war it had chosen. Violence thrived; murder was alive and well; but for those who survived to lead the New South, dying for chivalry’s sake no longer held any appeal. Even among old dueling warriors, the ritual came to seem like something antique. Looking back on life’s foolishness, one South Carolina general, seriously wounded in a duel in his youth, when asked to recall the occasion said, “Well I never did clearly understand what it was about, but you know it was a time when all gentlemen fought.” (Drake, 2004)
Addison, J. (no date). The Spectator, Vol II, p. 210.
Drake, R. (2004, March). Duel! Smithsonian Magazine.
Meade, J. C. (2005, Fall). The Duel, A look back at a once legal method of resolving disputes. GW Law School. Retrieved from http://www.gwu.edu/~magazine/archive/2005_law_fall/docs/feat_duel.html
Roth, A. A. (1989). The Dishonor of Dueling. Origins, 16(1), pp. 3-7.
Shoemaker, R. B. (2002). The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honor, and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800. The History Journal, 525-545.
Simpson, A. (1988). Dandelions on the Field of Honor: dueling, the middle class, and the law in nineteenth-century England. Criminal Justice History: An International Annual, 9, 106-7.
Stone, L. (1965). The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Stratton, E. A. (1986). Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620-1691. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing.