The History of Dueling
The origins of dueling can be traced back to the Roman Coliseum, where gladiators participated in bouts of glory to win over the crowd. Roman authorities sanctioned these matches for the entertainment of the aristocrats and the masses alike. Following the fall of Rome, post-gladiator combat transitioned into what was later known as the feud — usually two adversarial families with opposing views committing long-standing acts of violence towards each other in the name of honor. Feuding became so prevalent amongst the nobility throughout Europe that many kings sought ways to counter the epidemic. As a result, permits were granted to the parties involved in the feud to participate in fighting exhibitions for the entertainment of the king and his nobles. This system worked well for a few centuries, as knights would square off with swords to defend their family’s honor.
Over time, King sanctioned bouts of glory began to dissipate as parties involved did not find it necessary to settle private matters in the public eye. By the 17th century, gentlemen began conducting their own private duels without the King’s permission. At first, all private duels were conducted with swords. Institutions were implemented to teach the noble class the artistry of mastering the sword. Lighter weapons eventually came into existence, including the French epee and rapier. These weapons leveled the playing field for smaller men, so they could compete more fairly with men of larger stature.
Towards the mid-18th Century, pistols began replacing swords in dueling bouts. The reasoning behind this was two-fold: First, in order to become a great swordsman, one needed many years of training and was not readily available to all. Second, the pistol had an element of randomness due to their inherent inaccuracy. Regardless of who was actually right or wrong, it was believed that the pistol would always pick the victor.
By the mid to late 18th Century, pistols were fully accepted as the main weapon . In an attempt to regulate and ritualize the institution of dueling, Irish duelists in 1777 drafted Code Duello, a document which laid out the proper guidelines of a duel. Code Duello became the dueling doctrine for the contemporary gentleman. The document’s sole purpose was to promote fairness in conflict and eliminate personal vendettas among the participants’ families. As a result, dueling pistols were created so that both parties had an equal chance of victory. Code Duello easily spread throughout the British Empire, Western Europe and into the United States as well. It was translated into French, Italian and German for continental European aristocrats. Code Duello attempted to institutionalize dueling as a gentlemanly bout of honor as opposed to an informal skirmish between two adversaries.
Note that only the aristocracy was given the privilege to duel. Members of lower classes were forbidden by law to partake in such affairs of honor. Aristocratic gentlemen believed that the common man was incapable of conducting an honorable duel because common folk, in their opinion, did not possess appropriate ethics. As such, if two commoners were to participate in a duel, and their duel was uncovered by authorities, there would be legal repurcussions. On the other hand, if two gentlemen were to participate in a fatal duel, the defending party would be exonerated of all crimes, because the judges and juries shared the sentiment that it was a gentleman's birthright to duel.
Around the same time that Code Duello was printed and distributed throughout Europe and the Americas, organizations arose that frowned upon dueling, believing it to be an outdated and inhuman way to settle one’s differences. The event that sparked a divide between pro-duelists and anti-duelists in the United States was the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Following Hamilton’s death, anti-duelists gained greater support from the north, as one of their own succumbed to the consequences of dueling. On the contrary, in the south, Aaron Burr was revered as someone who successfully fought and defended his honor against the slanderous Alexander Hamilton. As a result, the south witnessed a resurgence of dueling throughout the first half of the 19th Century. Many prominent southern politicians, including President Andrew Jackson and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, participated in their fair share of duels. Jackson challenged and killed Charles Dickinson in a duel after Dickinson accused him of cheating in a horse race and insulted Jackson’s wife Rachel. Southerners believed that honor and dignity were best restored through a duel and not subject to law. Dueling became so prevalent in the south, that newspapers began recording statistics of local duels and even promoted certain dueling bouts!
The tradition of dueling continued in the south until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Following the Confederate loss, anti-dueling laws were strictly enforced. Dueling continued to exist in France and Germany well into the 20th century. By the end of World War I, communal ideas such as nationalism and socialism slowly replaced affairs of personal honor in the eyes of gentlemen and common men alike.
Dueling was a way of life, as it promoted honor, courage and bravery among its proponents. Today, the legacy of dueling remains as an institution that sought to correct personal slander and injustice. Although dueling may seem cruel and unreasonable in today’s society, there is a lesson to be learned. Be careful how you conduct your personal affairs, or someone might challenge you to a duel.
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