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Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Dueling at the drop of a hat was as European as truffles, and as American as mom's apple pie

He was a tall, bony, wild-haired man, and he faced his opponent at eight paces instead of the standard ten. He knew the other’s reputation as a deadly shot, probably the best in all of pistol-packing Tennessee. He himself wasn’t nearly as good, and his eyes, though fierce, were getting weak, but he was here deliberately, even eagerly. He was to rack up a lifetime total of at least 14 duels; in most duels a slight flesh wound would end the matter, but this man he had sworn to kill. Their seconds stood by.

He let Dickinson fire first. The bullet struck him in the chest, where it shattered two ribs and settled in to stay, festering, for the next 39 years. Slowly he lifted his left arm and placed it across his coat front, teeth clenched. “Great God! Have I missed him?” cried Dickinson. Dismayed, he stepped back a pace and was ordered to return to stand on his mark.

Blood ran into our hero’s shoes. He raised his pistol and took aim. The hammer stuck at half cock. Coolly he drew it back, aimed again, and fired. Dickinson fell, the bullet having passed clear through him, and died shortly afterward.

“I should have hit him,” our bleeding hero said, “if he had shot me through the brain.”

A costume melodrama in glorious Technicolor from the archives of MGM? A paperback swashbuckler at the airport newsstand? Well, no. The year was 1806 and the survivor was Andrew Jackson, later our widely beloved seventh President, just doing what any gentleman would do. The spat had begun when Dickinson took the “sacred name” of Jackson’s wife, Rachel, into his “polluted mouth” and escalated in an argument over a horse-racing debt until death was the only answer.

Americans like to think of dueling as antique, elitist and purely European. Not our kind of thing at all. Our historians and biographers ignore gentlemanly dueling as much as possible, though the historic air is blue with accounts of rude Western types plugging each other in places like Dodge City. Only one formal American duel can’t be politely overlooked in our textbooks; such schoolchildren as still learn history learn that Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. When they do, they’re shocked. Accustomed as they are to random murders, the formality of the occasion and the importance of the players seem alarming. How was it possible that after the duel Burr went not to prison but back to Washington, D.C. to resume his presidency of the United States Senate?

Many confuse Burr with the likes of John Wilkes Booth: assassins both. Nobody tells the children that the Burr-Hamilton matter (Smithsonian, November 1976) wasn’t a uniquely gruesome crime but quite an ordinary event. Or that affairs of the kind were faithful to an ancient code of honorable behavior and, by the 19th century, so characteristic of American political and journalistic life that the Rev. Lyman Beecher, father of Henry Ward and Harriet, once cried out, “We are murderers, a nation of murderers.” Nobody mentions that Hamilton, not quite the textbook’s martyred innocent, had been a principal in 11 previous affairs of honor, mostly aborted, including clashes with the abrasive John Adams and the otherwise easygoing James Monroe; or that Hamilton’s son Philip was killed in a duel.

We’d like to forget that only in recent times has American umbrage mutated into highway wars in which rival commuters run each other’s cars off the road, or into lesser rituals like libel suits in which honor is restored by cash instead of blood.

Scholars suppose that dueling took root with the most primitive judicial systems, when disputes insoluble by witness testimony were solved in a trial by combat. The lower classes bashed each other with cudgels and staves in their customary fashion; the gentry used more gentrified weapons. On the hazy theory that God identified the good guy and lent him a hand, the winner, whether he did his own fighting or hired a proxy, was more than just the winner. By the fact of winning he was held to be innocent of the charges brought; he was honest, and the defeated man a liar; the disputed land, or ox, or fair maiden was rightfully his.

The ritual battle moved out of the courts and into the world. Gallant knights in heavy armor challenged fellow knights according to an established code, making the welkin ring with sword blows. In spite of periodic bannings, personal combat spread. It appealed to young aristocrats with too much time on their hands. Landowners laid out and leased special dueling sites, complete with bleachers for onlookers. In France, the judicial trial by combat was officially abolished in 1385—and was occasionally unabolished in the centuries to come. Queen Elizabeth I squashed it in England about 1570. Yet the private duel of honor, which was sometimes graciously attended by the reigning monarch, was just hitting its stride.

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