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The fighting of two persons, one against the other, at an appointed time and place, due to an earlier quarrel. If death results, the crime is murder. It differs from an affray in this, that the latter occurs on a sudden quarrel, while the former is always the result of design.

In dueling, the use of guns, swords (rapiers), or other harmful weapons resolves quarrels through trial by combat. Duels used to occur commonly between opposing individuals seeking restitution or satisfaction outside the court system. In early U.S. history, some members of law enforcement attempted to treat dueling as a crime, but the practice went mostly unpunished. However, with the results of one duel especially—between aaron burr and alexander hamilton—the practice lost prestige in the northern states. Along with growing public sentiment against dueling, new laws in the mid-1800s finally treated the form of confrontation as outright or attempted homicide. In states that have not incorporated dueling into their homicide statutes, dueling is now a crime punishable by a fine or imprisonment, or both. It is also an offense in some states merely to give or accept a challenge to engage in a duel.

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, dueling occurred in every state of the nation—in some areas, regularly—for even relatively slight offenses, such as insults, or to resolve gambling disputes. Few laws prohibited this tradition inherited from the Old World, which continued to evolve, even in Europe. Although no binding set of rules governed the proceedings of a duel in the United States—largely, no doubt, because dueling was outside the law—U.S. citizens adopted the European rules from their ancestors.

U.S. citizens based their dueling codes on the Code Duello of Ireland. This Irish code of 1777 contained twenty-six commandments covering all aspects of a duel. It included ways to avert a duel, such as the manner in which to apologize when one had committed a duel-provoking

offense. If a duel could not be avoided, the scenario was a familiar one: usually, opponents would stand back-to-back, then pace a set number of steps away from each other, turn, and shoot. The Code Duello declared, "The aggressor must either beg pardon in expressed terms … or fire on until a severe hit is received by one party or the other." In the United States, less strict variations of the Code Duello allowed the contest to end without bodily injury, providing for some form of public mockery for the contestant who sought to end the duel.

Sometimes, U.S. politicians made dueling a sensational event. Critics, such as thomas jefferson and thomas paine, wanted to make the practice punishable by law with the death penalty. But others insisted on resorting to duels in order to uphold their political reputation.

Perhaps the most famous duel in U.S. history was fought in 1804 between the Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton and New England politician Aaron Burr. The two had confronted and spoken harshly to each other for several years, beginning in 1791. Hamilton became furious with Burr during Burr's unsuccessful campaign for a New York senate seat in 1792. He claimed that Burr had used dirty politics, and ridiculed Burr as "unprincipled and dangerous," casting him as a power-hungry "embryo Caesar." When Burr aspired to become president in the 1800 election, Hamilton voted for Thomas Jefferson—an opponent of his own Federalist party—just for the principle of voting against Burr. Burr settled for the vice presidency, and held a grudge for Hamilton's disparaging treatment.

After serving as vice president, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton knew that Burr was a much better sharpshooter than himself, but because of unwritten codes of honor that pressured him not to back out of a duel, he accepted Burr's challenge. On July 11, the two and their seconds (seconds who would take the place of their principal if he could not show) met at the predetermined site of Weehawken, New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson River. (Though both men lived in New York, New Jersey had fewer legal restrictions on dueling than did New York.) Major Nathaniel Pendleton, one of Hamilton's friends, recited the accepted rules of dueling before the firing of shots. After both parties said they were ready for the duel, by declaring themselves present, their final confrontation began. When Pendleton shouted, "Fire," Burr pulled his trigger first. The bullet hit Hamilton in his side and pierced his liver. Burr was unharmed. About thirty-six hours later, Hamilton died from his wound.

Even though Burr had killed an elder and respected political leader, neither New Jersey nor New York issued a warrant for his arrest. New York, ignoring the case of murder, pressed misdemeanor charges for breaking the state's minor restrictions on duels. New Jersey charged Burr with murder, but the case never went to trial. Thus, the only punishment Burr received was a public outcry against him, which was enough to end his political career.

Some, especially those in the North who were upset with the loss of Hamilton, began to cast the practice of dueling as barbaric and absurd. Drastic legislation in Pennsylvania and several New England states, including New York, followed. Farther west, the new state of Illinois, in 1819, hung a man for killing a neighbor in a rifle duel at the range of twenty-five paces. Most states, however, still did not have laws against dueling.

Dueling continued, especially in the South, where notions of individual honor remained deep. In 1838, Governor John Lyde Wilson, of South Carolina, wrote the first official U.S. adaptation of the Irish Code Duello. As an innovation on the Irish code, Wilson's Code Duello formalized the U.S. principle that required satisfaction to follow a confrontation: if a person challenged to a duel, or that person's second, refused to raise arms, public insults would follow, such as postings on walls declaring the individual a coward, a poltroon, a puppy, or worse. Although Wilson did not proclaim enthusiastic support of duels, he did believe that in certain instances, they were necessary and proper; dueling, he felt, served as a logical recourse for any individual seeking satisfaction in a case where the law could not provide it. Wilson's sixteen-page pamphlet remained popular and was reprinted until 1858.

After a fatal duel between two legislators, Jonathan Cilley and William J. Graves, Congress passed an anti-dueling law. henry clay, of Kentucky, an opponent of duels, made his support of the bill known by explaining, "When public opinion is renovated and chastened by reason, religion and humanity, the practice of dueling will be discountenanced." The bill banned dueling in the District of Columbia beginning on February 20, 1839. In the next decades, various states followed Congress's lead. Members of the clergy and concerned politicians continued to give impassioned speeches further criticizing the "peculiar practice."

Although dueling persisted into the early 1800s, and reached its height during that period, by the middle of the century it had largely disappeared. Historians attribute the decline to an increase in the number of laws banning it, and in the penalties for dueling. These laws reflected a change in attitude toward the practice, which came to be viewed as barbarous, rather than honorable. The Code Duello's unyielding, Old World conception of honor was discredited by younger generations. Outlawed and outmoded, dueling remains an interesting chapter in the history of dispute resolution in the United States.

further readings

Baldick, Robert. 1965. The Duel. London: Chapman & Hall.

Billacois, Francois. 1990. The Duel. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Burr, Samuel Engle, Jr. 1971. The Burr-Hamilton Duel. San Antonio: Naylor.

Cochran, Hamilton. 1963. Noted American Duels and Hostile Encounters. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Books.

Hussey, Jeannette. 1980. The Code Duello in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kiernan, V.G. 1988. The Duel in European History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

McAleer, Kevin. 1994. Dueling. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press.

Parker, David S. 2001. "Law, Honor, and Impunity in Spanish America: The Debate Over Dueling, 1870–1920." Law and History Review 19 (summer): 311–41.

Rush, Philip. 1964. The Book of Duels. London: Harrp.

Spierenburg, Pieter, ed. 1998. Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

Yarn, Douglas H. 2000. "The Attorney as Duelist's Friend: Lessons from the Code Duello." Case Western Reserve Law Review 51 (fall): 69–113.

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DUELING. The practice of dueling dates back to the Middle Ages as a method of settling a point of honor between two men or families. Dueling in the United States fell out of favor by the 1880s but remains a popular and romanticized act of American culture. It arrived in the United States with the first settlers, and the earliest recorded duel in the colonies took place in Plymouth in 1621. Dueling was never very popular in the North and lost favor and legal status there after the American Revolution. In the South, the aristocracy that developed within the planter class embraced dueling as a method of settling disputes of honor. Duels in the South continued through the Civil War, with recorded duels as late as 1901.

Life in the Deep South was isolated and rural, with definitive class and racial distinctions. The solitary life demanded a code of conduct that centered on one's personal honor, as well as family honor, in order to protect the female members of the family. The southern man was raised to defend his community, his state, and his honor, with his life. Early settlers brought the act of dueling from England, Ireland, and Scotland, and American dueling rules were based on English and Irish codes of conduct. Dueling and honor in some parts of the Deep South were influenced by French and Spanish culture as well. Various geographic regions spurred their own codes, and the most popular printed codes were those of South Carolina, New Orleans, and the English code.

For a man to have grounds for challenging an opponent to a duel, he would have to have incurred some form of insult. The code of honor among Southerners strictly prohibited questioning a man's word. To charge him with "giving a lie" was to question his reputation. Without truth in his word, a man had nothing in society and could not be trusted as a business partner or friend. Calling a man a liar was the most common way to bring on a dueling challenge. Other grounds included disputes over gambling, debts, or drunkenness. Contrary to common belief, women were rarely the cause of duels.

After the challenge, the process of dueling required each opponent to choose a second, normally a relative or close friend, and all arrangements for the duel were handled by the seconds. The man challenged had the choice of weapons, normally pistols. Once the arrangements were made, the opponents met on an arranged dueling ground, where the rules were reviewed and the weapons provided. The duel took place at ten to thirty paces, and if no one was hurt on the first shot, the seconds would meet and decide if an additional shot would be taken. Unlike Europeans, Americans gradually developed a preference for dueling to the death as opposed to simply satisfying honor.

A number of duels are known to history, most famously that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Others include Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson in 1817 and John Randolph and Henry Clay in 1826. Though most states had laws against dueling by 1820, the practice continued, usually late at night or at dawn, in open spaces such as fields, racetracks, or small islands near shore. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other political icons supported laws prohibiting dueling, but the practice would not die until the planter class of the antebellum South passed into history at the turn of the twentieth century.


Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor and Slavery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Stowe, Steven M. Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Karen RaeMehaffey

See alsoBurr-Hamilton Duel ; South, the: The Antebellum South .

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