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An Old World ritual with a long history, dueling traveled to the New World with the early colonists. Particularly in the more densely populated northern colonies, aggrieved gentlemen sometimes resorted to duels to settle their disputes; over time, dueling became more prevalent in the South. It first gained popularity during the American Revolution, partly as a result of the militarization of American society, partly because of contact with European officers well versed in the code duello, and partly because of the wartime instability of American society. Dueling was particularly popular among young officers, who performed its scripted rituals and adhered to its rule-bound code of honor to prove themselves members of a privileged class that was superior to the masses.

Although the code duello adapted to various principals and circumstances, and although its precise details varied over time, its core rituals and logic remained constant. If a gentleman felt that his personal character had been insulted, he selected a friend to act as his second and sent his attacker a ritualized letter demanding an explanation. The attacker then selected a second to act as his intermediary, and negotiations began. Responsible for forging a compromise or an apology, a second held his friend's life in his hands. More than one duel was fought because of unskilled seconds who stumbled through the rituals and logic of the code duello. However, in most cases, seconds reached an acceptable compromise. Most honor disputes ended with the exchange of letters and little else.

Seriously aggrieved men (or men with clumsy seconds) sometimes felt compelled to go further, proving their merits by risking their lives on the field of honor. Only the literal demonstration of one's willingness to die for one's honor could dispel dishonor of the deepest kind. In such cases, the aggrieved principal sent his attacker a challenge through the channel of their seconds. Some deeply dishonored men were so desperate to redeem their names that they even provoked duels, using deliberate insults or demands for humiliating apologies. Once a challenge was accepted, the seconds then negotiated the precise terms of the impending duel: how many paces apart the principals would stand, what types of weapons they would use, where and when they would meet. (Contrary to popular belief, American duelists did not usually pace away from each other, turn, and fire; rather, they stood face to face at a prescribed distance and fired at the count of three.) In the unlikely event that one of the principals did not appear at the dueling ground at the fated hour, his second was pledged to stand in his place.

Illogical as it may seem, many duelists did not intend to kill their opponents; duelists needed to prove only their willingness to die for their honor. Often, this could be accomplished with an exchange of letters in which both men expressed their willingness to fight and then negotiated a compromise. Even if two men exchanged fire on a dueling ground, the outcome was not necessarily fatal; many duelists left the field of honor unharmed or with a leg wound. Indeed, the man who killed his opponent often did himself serious damage, opening himself to charges of brutality and murder. In many ways, the survivor of a fatal duel was the loser, failing in his battle for public opinion.

Duels proved a man's superior status and honor in several ways. First and most obviously, they displayed a man's gentlemanly manner: his self-control, his high sense of personal honor, his courage under fire, and his willingness to die in defense of his reputation. Duels also declared a man's precise status, for only equals could duel; a man who was insulted by an inferior redeemed his reputation—and demonstrated the inferiority of his attacker—by caning him, whipping him, or "tweaking" his nose. And although dueling was eventually illegal in most states, elite duelists rarely faced legal prosecution until well into the nineteenth century. Men of questionable status who were caught dueling were usually arrested, proving their inferiority in the process.


The most famous duel in American history, the 1804 duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the climax of a fifteen-year political rivalry. Ambitious, aggressive, and talented New Yorkers acting within the confines of a limited political stage, Burr and Hamilton seemed destined to clash. Hamilton often took the lead in their conflict, repeatedly striving to deny Burr political power. Convinced that Burr was a self-interested demagogue who would destroy the Republic by seizing power, Hamilton considered it a "religious duty" to oppose Burr's career.

Although Burr ultimately raised himself to the vice presidency under Jefferson, the Virginian distrusted him, casting him out of his administration after one term. Turning to New York State for power and prestige, Burr ran for governor but lost, in part because of Hamilton's avid opposition. Humiliated by this second political failure, Burr felt compelled to maintain his political status by challenging one of his antagonists to a duel. When a friend gave him a newspaper clipping containing one of Hamilton's many insulting comments about Burr (at a dinner party, Hamilton had said something "despicable" about Burr), Burr's course became clear. As one of Burr's followers explained after the duel, had Burr failed to redeem his reputation, his supporters would have abandoned him as a man without power and influence.

On 18 June 1804, Burr wrote Hamilton a letter demanding an explanation for Hamilton's comments. Hamilton's response was poorly planned. Eager to avoid a fight and having successfully explained his way out of a duel with Burr at least once before, Hamilton attempted to placate him with a discussion of the precise meaning of the word "despicable." Unwilling to appear cowardly, he concluded the letter with a burst of bravado, declaring himself willing to "abide the consequences" for his actions. Deeply insulted, Burr replied with an accusatory letter that outraged Hamilton in return, making it difficult, if not impossible, for either man to avoid the field of honor. Ultimately, Burr decided that nothing but an actual duel could redeem his reputation. To force Hamilton to fight, he demanded that Hamilton apologize for all of his insulting language from throughout their entire fifteen-year rivalry. When Hamilton predictably rejected Burr's humiliating demand, Burr issued Hamilton a formal challenge.

The duel took place on 11 July on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, a frequently used dueling ground. Each man fired at the other, but their precise intentions remain unknown. According to Hamilton's second, Nathaniel Pendleton, Hamilton had a "religious scruple" about shooting a man in cold blood and had decided not to fire his first shot at Burr, nor perhaps his second shot. Burr's second, William Van Ness, argued the opposite, alleging that Hamilton had fired directly at Burr, who had naturally returned fire. Unfortunately for Burr, Hamilton's vague insult (something "despicable") and his death at Burr's hand left Burr vulnerable to attack, and political opponents of all stripes seized the opportunity. Accusing him of being a vindictive, unprincipled murderer, they savaged his reputation. For the rest of his life, Burr would be known as the man who killed Hamilton.

Joanne B. Freeman

Despite their seemingly privileged status under the law, elite duelists usually covered their tracks. They referred to their seconds as "friends." They avoided the word "challenge." On the dueling

ground, attending physicians faced away from the dueling ground so they could deny witnessing anything if questioned. Often, participants destroyed written challenges and planning documents after the event, making it difficult to trace duels in the historical record. Political duels had an added wrinkle. Fought to redeem a man's reputation not only as a gentleman but as a leader, they required a certain degree of publicity to accomplish their purpose. Thus, after a duel between two well-known political figures, the two seconds often compiled a joint account of the duel's proceedings for newspaper publication, literally advertising the bravery of the participants. Not surprisingly, many such politically useful duels were bloodless. Duels were particularly common after elections, partly because of rampant mudslinging, but also because they allowed the electoral loser to redeem his reputation. By provoking an honor dispute with the winner or one of his friends, the loser or one of his friends could attempt to reclaim his status and eligibility as a political leader and a man of power. In a sense, political duelists used the aristocratic code duello to counterbalance the personal impact of democratic politicking. Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel in 1804 for just this reason.

Although Hamilton's unfortunate fate in that duel provoked an outcry of antidueling sentiment, dueling lingered in the North for years to come, a detested but occasionally unavoidable means of dispelling dishonor among gentlemen. It remained far more entrenched in the less urbanized, more hierarchical South, where habitual violence was more endemic. Not until the 1830s was dueling outlawed in every state, and even then the practice persisted for decades to come.

See alsoCharacter; Firearms (Nonmilitary); Hamilton, Alexander .


Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

——. "Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel." William and Mary Quarterly 53 (April 1996): 289–318.

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

Sabine, Lorenzo. Notes on Duels and Duelling, Alphabetically Arranged, with a Preliminary Historical Essay. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1859.

Steinmetz, Andrew. The Romance of Duelling in all Times and Countries. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1868.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joanne B. Freeman

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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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the discursive battleground

During the nineteenth century, dueling was still practiced widely on the European continent. Although many contemporaries had predicted and called for its abolishment, it survived well into the twentieth century. But the duel changed its face: it embraced different people, it was fought over different issues, and it was fought with different weapons and different consequences. Dueling modernized, so to speak, and adapted to the exigencies and challenges of the modern world.

the discursive battleground

A vital element of noble culture during the ancien régime, dueling was heavily criticized during the Enlightenment. It was supposed to be irrational, since it did not respond to an attack in an appropriate way; it was held to be immoral since it interfered with man's right to live; and it was illegal. In addition, it was seen as a symbol of aristocratic and military privilege that excluded civilians and looked down on middle-class men. But there were also defendants of the dueling principle, among them as enlightened a man as the British physician Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). They praised the civilizing consequences of the point of honor holding back the worst assaults of violence. They cherished dueling not as an instrument of vengeance but as a medium of reconciliation that transformed an enemy into a friend. They even went so far as to suggest that dueling guaranteed personal integrity and individuality, that it strengthened social equality, and that it protected masculinity against feminizing influence.

Those arguments marked the discursive battlefield on which the campaigns for and against dueling were waged throughout the long nineteenth century. They involved a large number of participants, both in theoretical and in practical terms. Every duel that was fought and went public incited fierce debates on its pros and cons. Duelists thus could not help but feel embattled, often torn between contradictory claims. The law clearly forbade what they did; lawyers and judges, though, were among those who tenaciously clung to the habit of defending their honor by standing up to the attacker. Other academics like doctors and professors joined them, as did journalists and higher civil servants. For members of the aristocracy and the military, dueling was a must, in any case. The unwritten rules of their class and profession simply demanded it, regardless of public opinion or legal provisions. To evade a duel would have meant social death; only if the challenger was a person of bad reputation or lower social class could a duel be refused.


What made men of the upper-middle classes and the aristocracy so anxious about their honor? Why did they not sue the offender instead of putting their lives at high risk? Most men actually did use the services of the judiciary system, and the number of lawsuits filed because of insults rose dramatically during the nineteenth century. This was mainly due to the increasing frequency and density of communication, which produced a multitude of

potential conflicts, particularly in the realm of politics, commerce, and journalism. Still, among certain groups of men and for special offenses like adultery, seduction, or physical assault, no other way seemed possible than to challenge the culprit to a deadly fight. In this respect, duelists did not compromise: the weapons that were used—swords or pistols—had to have potentially fatal results. Not every duel ended fatally, though; among those that are known of (because they were reported to the police and followed by a court case), only every third or fourth did.

The possibility of death was thought to be necessary in order to turn the duel into a serious event. Duelists firing into the air or trying to avoid injury were castigated by those who were eager to protect the custom from descending into the realm of ridicule, leniency, and free riding. German duelists reproached their French counterparts with just that, while the French accused the Germans (especially after 1871) of exceptional brutality and ruse. National rivalries and differences notwithstanding, European dueling culture displayed a remarkable degree of conformity. What was perceived as a gentleman's point of honor transcended national borders. Russian, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Austrian-Hungarian, and German duelists basically spoke the same language and observed the same rules of conduct.

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, this language had also been understood by British gentlemen. Since then, they gradually backed down from the code that had compelled them to take up arms in order to defend their honor. The reasons are manifold: the relative social openness of the elites that could do without additional means of integration is one of them. Another is the burgeoning colonial office that procured ample opportunity to prove manly virtues on a larger and more patriotic scale. The invisibility of the military, which in continental Europe served as a stronghold of dueling, further helped to uproot traditional habits. Conversely, the growing importance and size of the German army in the wake of national unification gave a big thrust to dueling. In France, the military defeat of 1870–1871 did just the same, elevating dueling to a republican virtue that counteracted national humiliation and emasculation. Italy, too, witnessed a veritable dueling craze after unification, which can be largely attributed to the insecurities of the emerging political culture.

In most European countries, then, dueling not only shook off the criticism of enlightened discourse but also gained more and more adherents among the rising middle classes. While some men might have just been imitating aristocratic and military habits, others tended to breathe their own values into the practice, praising its fairness, discipline, and restraint. All participants, though, were equally keen on safeguarding its elitist aura. Even in republican France, they set clear limits to further democratization, and neither women nor men of lower social origin were considered fit to give or take satisfaction. The duel thus survived as a class and gender privilege and upheld its prestige by its very exclusiveness.

This lasted until World War I, which dealt a heavy blow to the European dueling culture. Although the practice did not stop altogether thereafter, its spell was definitely broken. As much as the gigantic bloodshed of 1914–1918 had shattered former concepts of wars perceived as honorable duels, the idea of individual combat seemed anachronistic when set against the unforeseen mass killing and destruction. Changing gender relations and class structures further contributed to its final decline and delegitimization.

See alsoClass and Social Relations.


Frevert, Ute. Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Kiernan, Victor G. The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy. Oxford, U.K., 1988.

Nye, Robert A. Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

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

Ute Frevert

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A duel is a prearranged contest between two persons with deadly weapons carried on according to certain conventions with the intent of settling a quarrel or vindicating a point of honor. It is not to be confused with an ordinary fight in self-defense or a sudden quarrel. Neither is it to be identified with a public duel in which, by agreement of authorities, two persons rather than two armies fight to settle a national dispute (as in the case of Hector and Achilles or of David and Goliath).

History. Dueling was unknown in the ancient world. Roman gladiatorial combats were not duels as such but rather forms of public entertainment. Dueling appears to have entered the European tradition by way of Germanic influence. Certain evidence from early Teutonic law indicates that private duels were occasioned by an affront to another's honor, but the real influence in the development of the practice of dueling was the tradition of judicial combat. On the assumption that God would not allow the guilty party to prevail over the innocent, the Teutonic peoples sanctioned a contest between two individuals involved in a dispute as a kind of judicial process. The practice passed into the customary law of the feudal period in many areas and lingered until more sophisticated forms of adjudication were evolved in the high Middle Ages.

However, the custom of privately settling a disagreement by personal combat lingered on, and feudal tournaments were not uncommonly used to satisfy revenge. By the 15th century the duel of honor, dueling in the modern sense, was well established in France and Spain. When dueling became common among the aristocratic classes in the 16th and 17th centuries, civil authorities began to legislate against the practice. In many countries the death sentence was extended to those participating in duels, and heavy penalties were imposed for those who assisted the contestants. In the 19th century, dueling persisted in many parts of Europe among politicians, journalists, and especially military officers. In the early 20th century the German military code still authorized resort to a duel in extreme cases.

Position of the Church. In the medieval period the Church opposed judicial combat and legislated against tournaments. Her teaching regarding private dueling was consistent and clear. As early as 855 the Council of Valence prohibited dueling, and the condemnation was repeated by many medieval popes. As the modern custom became more entrenched, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII, and Pius IV condemned it, and the Council of trent imposed excommunication not only upon duelists and their seconds but also upon civil authorities who permitted dueling within their realms. Similar condemnations and prohibitions were repeated by Gregory XIII (1582), Clement VIII (1592), Alexander VII (1655), Benedict XIV (1752), Pius IX (1869), and Leo XIII (1891).

Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, penalties attached to dueling included ipso facto excommunication simply reserved to the Holy See for duelists themselves, those who challenged or accepted a duel, those who offered help or encouraged them, those who were deliberately present, and those who did not, as far as they were able, prevent them (1917 Codex iuris canonici c.2351.1). Duelists and their seconds ipso facto contracted legal infamy (1917 Codex iuris canonici c.2351.2). Those who were killed in a duel were excluded from ecclesiastical burial and from solemn funeral rites unless some sign of repentance was given before death (1917 Codex iuris canonici cc.1240.1n4, 1241). A duel undertaken on the understanding that it would cease as soon as one party was wounded was also forbidden; and in 1925 the Congregation of the Council likewise condemned the kind of duels then prevalent among German students wherein the danger was assumed to be that of only a slight wound.

The reason for this legislation is obvious. Dueling is directly opposed to natural and divinely revealed law (Leo XIII, Pastoralis officii, Sept. 12, 1891). It deliberately involves the risk of death or serious wounds for oneself and an assault on the life of another without being an act of self-defense against an unjust aggressor. It therefore is an arbitrary attack on God's dominion over human life. Moreover, it is ineffective as a means of satisfying outraged honor. Killing a person who has offered insult prevents the retraction of the insult and one's restoration to proper respect. Allowing oneself to be killed after enduring insult accomplishes nothing.

Canons dealing with dueling were not included in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Bibliography: l. falleti, Dictionnaire du droit canonique, ed. r. naz, 7 v. (Paris 1935-65) 5:340. j. g. millingen, History of Duelling (London 1841). e. cauchey, Du duel, 2 v. (Paris 1846). p. chaignon, Le Duel sous l'Ancien Regime (Doctoral diss. unpub. U. of Rennes 1936). v. cathrein, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 190714) 5: 184187. p. mikat, Staatslexikon, ed. Görres-Gesellschaft, 8 v. (6th new and enl. ed.. Freiburg 195763) 8:100809.

[j. c. willke]

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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 .