Defenders of honor or shoot-on-sight vigilantes? Even in 19th-century America, it was hard to tell

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The story, as Parson Weems tells it, is that in 1754 a strapping young militia officer named George Washington argued with a smaller man, one William Payne, who made up for the disparity in size by knocking Washington down with a stick. It was the kind of affront that, among a certain class of Virginia gentlemen, almost invariably called for a duel. That must have been what Payne was expecting when Washington summoned him to a tavern the following day. Instead, he found the colonel at a table with a decanter of wine and two glasses. Washington apologized for the quarrel, and the two men shook hands.

Whether or not this actually happened—and some biographers believe that it did—is almost beside the point. Weems’ intention was to reveal Washington as he imagined him: a figure of profound self-assurance capable of keeping an overheated argument from turning into something far worse. At a time in America when the code of the duel was becoming a law unto itself, such restraint was not always apparent. Alexander Hamilton was the most celebrated casualty of the dueling ethic, having lost his life in an 1804 feud with Aaron Burr on the fields ofWeehawken, New Jersey, but there were many more who paid the ultimate price— congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (the otherwise obscure Button Gwinnett, famous largely for being named 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. To his lasting embarrassment, Abraham Lincoln barely escaped being drawn into a duel early in his political career, and President Andrew Jackson carried in his body a bullet from one duel and some shot from a gunfight that followed another. Not that private dueling was a peculiarly American vice. The tradition had taken hold in Europe several centuries earlier, and though it was frequently forbidden by law, social mores dictated otherwise. During the reign of George III (1760-1820), there were 172 known duels in England (and very likely many more kept secret), resulting in 69 recorded fatalities. At one time or another, Edmund Burke, William Pitt the younger and Richard Brinsley Sheridan all took the field, and Samuel Johnson defended the practice, which he found as logical as war between nations: “Aman may shoot the man who invades his character,” he once told biographer James Boswell, “as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.” As late as 1829 the Duke of Wellington, then England’s prime minister, felt compelled to challenge the Earl of Winchelsea, who had accused him of softness toward Catholics.

In France, dueling had an even stronger hold, but by the 19th century, duels there were seldom fatal, since most involved swordplay, and drawing blood usually sufficed to give honor its due. (Perhaps as a way of relieving ennui, the French weren’t averse to pushing the envelope in matters of form. In 1808, two Frenchmen fought in balloons over Paris; one was shot down and killed with his second. Thirty-five years later, two others tried to settle their differences by skulling each other with billiard balls.)

In the United States, dueling’s heyday began at around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century. 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 frequently slaveholders, they enjoyed what one Southern writer describes as a “habit of command” and an expectation of deference. To the touchiest among them, virtually any annoyance could be construed as grounds for a meeting at gunpoint, and though laws against dueling were passed in several Southern states, the statutes were ineffective. Arrests were infrequent; judges and juries were loath to convict.

In New England, on the other hand, dueling was viewed as a cultural throwback, and no stigma was 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. His constituents understood. Though Brooks was reviled in the North, he was lionized in much of the South, where he was presented with a ceremonial cane inscribed “Hit Him Again.” (Brooks said he had used a cane rather than a horsewhip because he was afraid Sumner might wrestle the whip away from him, in which case Brooks would have had to kill him. He didn’t say how.)

Curiously, many who took part in the duel professed to disdain it. Sam Houston opposed it, but as a Tennessee congressman, shot Gen. William White in the groin. Henry Clay opposed it, but put a bullet through Virginia senator John Randolph’s coat (Randolph being in it at the time) after the senator impugned his integrity as secretary of state and called him some colorful names. Hamilton opposed dueling, but met Aaron Burr on the same ground in New Jersey where Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, had died in a duel not long before. (Maintaining philosophical consistency, Hamilton intended to hold his fire, a common breach of strict dueling etiquette that, sadly, Burr didn’t emulate.) Lincoln, too, objected to the practice, but got as far as a dueling ground in Missouri before third parties intervened to keep the Great Emancipator from emancipating a future Civil War general.

So why did such rational men choose combat over apology or simple forbearance? Perhaps because they saw no alternative. Hamilton, at least, was explicit. “The ability to be in future useful,” he wrote, “ . . . in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen . . . imposed on me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call.” And Lincoln, though dismayed to be called to account for pricking the vanity of a political rival, couldn’t bring himself to extend his regrets. Pride obviously had something to do with this, but pride compounded by the imperatives of a dueling society. For a man who wanted a political future, walking away from a challenge may not have seemed a plausible option.

The Lincoln affair, in fact, affords a case study in how these matters were resolved—or were not. The trouble began when Lincoln, then a Whig representative in the Illinois legislature, wrote a series of satirical letters under the pseudonym Rebecca, in which he made scathing fun of State Auditor James Shields, a Democrat. The letters were published in a newspaper, and when Shields sent him a note demanding a retraction, Lincoln objected to both the note’s belligerent tone and its assumption that he had written more of them than he had. (In fact, Mary Todd, not yet Lincoln’s wife, is believed to have written one of the letters with a friend.) Then, when Shields asked for a retraction of the letters he knew Lincoln had written, Lincoln refused to do so unless Shields withdrew his original note. It was a lawyerly response, typical of the verbal fencing that often preceded a duel, with each side seeking the moral high ground. Naturally, it led to a stalemate. By the time Lincoln agreed to a carefully qualified apology provided that first note was withdrawn— in effect asking Shields to apologize for demanding an apology—Shields wasn’t buying. When Lincoln, as the challenged party, wrote out his terms for the duel, hopes for an accommodation seemed ended.

The terms themselves were highly unusual. Shields was a military man; Lincoln was not. Lincoln had the choice of weapons, and instead of pistols chose clumsy cavalry broadswords, which both men were to wield while standing on a narrow plank with limited room for retreat. The advantage would obviously be Lincoln’s; he was the taller man, with memorably long arms. “To tell you the truth,” he told a friend later, “I did not want to kill Shields, and felt sure that I could disarm him . . . ; and, furthermore, I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”

Fortunately, perhaps for both men, and almost certainly for one of them, each had friends who were determined to keep them from killing each other. Before Shields arrived at the dueling spot, their seconds, according to Lincoln biographer Douglas L. Wilson, proposed that the dispute be submitted to a group of fair-minded gentlemen—an arbitration panel of sorts. Though that idea didn’t fly, Shields’ seconds soon agreed not to stick at the sticking point. They withdrew their man’s first note on their own, clearing the way for a settlement. Shields went on to become a United States senator and a brigadier general in the Union Army; Lincoln went on to be Lincoln. Years later, when the matter was brought up to the president, he was adamant. “I do not deny it,” he told an Army officer who had referred to the incident, “but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”


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