The phenomenal success of the rap musical Hamilton has acquainted many theater goers with the custom of dueling. Three duels take place in the story. To ensure the accuracy of their depiction, Lin-Manuel Miranda consulted Joanne Freeman, whose book Affairs of Honor he deemed “indispensable.” Dueling did not lead to a happy ending for the show’s namesake, or for his son Philip. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be said for the custom. A respectable – and not entirely facetious – argument can be made for its revival.
Dueling began in ancient Europe as an unscientific device for determining guilt or innocence. A Divine Providence was expected to ensure that right triumphed. But the institution did not become fashionable until the 16th century, when King Frances I of France challenged Emperor Charles V of Spain to a duel. Fortunately for at least one of them, cooler heads prevailed. The King’s mother reached an agreement with Margaret of Austria, the Emperor’s aunt, allowing the two monarchs to call the whole thing off. But a new fashion trend had been launched, one that quickly took on a life of its own.
Or, more precisely, a death of its own. And plenty of them. During the reign of Henry IV of France, an estimated ten thousand noblemen lost their lives in duels, leading the King to issue an edict banning the custom. It had little effect. Another four thousand gentlemen died during the reign of Henry XIV.
The European custom followed the colonists across the Atlantic. The first recorded duel in America took place in 1621 at Plymouth Rock. In the Old World, dueling was restricted to the nobility. Edward Doty and Edward Lester, the first American combatants, were both servants, thus demonstrating the democratizing influence of the New World. The pair sustained sword cuts but survived. For their transgression, they were sentenced to be bound hand and foot for 24 hours without meat or drink, but the governor waived the penalty after their master assured him that his servants would behave better in the future.
The American establishment staunchly opposed dueling. Benjamin Franklin received more than a dozen challenges during his long and eventful life, and never accepted a single one. He called duels “a murderous practice … they decide nothing.” George Washington feared that dueling would thin the ranks of qualified officers. He discouraged the practice, and congratulated officers for refusing to accept a challenge.
Clergymen sermonized against it, and many states outlawed it. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had to row across the Hudson to New Jersey to shoot at one another because dueling was illegal in New York, and as leading members of the bar, neither wanted to risk besmirching his professional reputation by breaking the law. The District of Columbia, the new seat of government, also outlawed dueling, forcing politicians to take carriage rides to Maryland to settle their disputes.
European dueling was restricted to the nobility. In the absence of an American aristocracy, domestic dueling was prevalent among politicians and lawyers. The ranks of duelists included some of the most prominent citizens of the young country. Aaron Burr was the sitting Vice President when he shot Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury.
President Andrew Jackson took office with at least 14 duels on his record and several bullets in his body as mementoes. The most interesting bullet arrived courtesy of Charles Dickinson, reputed to be one of the best shots in the country. Jackson had accused him of cheating on a horse race, and Dickinson in turn had insulted Jackson’s wife, so a duel was inevitable. Jackson was aware of Dickinson’s reputation for marksmanship; he had already killed 26 men in duels. So Jackson decided his best chance was to let his opponent shoot first and then take his time with his own shot. Dickinson shot first and put a bullet in Jackson’s chest. Jackson took careful aim, pulled the trigger, and the hammer stopped at the half-cocked position. Under the code, that should have ended the matter, but Jackson was determined. He calmly re-cocked, fired, and killed Dickinson. The wound to his chest was too close to his heart for removal. It remained there for the rest of his life. Jackson later said: “If he had shot me through the brain, sir, I should still have killed him.”
Notwithstanding the experiences of Andrew Jackson and Alexander Hamilton, most American duels were not fatal. Secretary of State Henry Clay and Senator John Randolph dueled after Randolph accused Clay of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards.” Clay immediately issued a challenge, although over which accusation is unclear.
On the morning of the duel, as both men were preparing themselves, Randolph accidentally fired his gun, which was pointed at the ground. Clay conceded that the shot was inadvertent and gallantly granted Randolph a do-over. The duel proceeded, and both men shot and missed, although Clay’s shot was so close it tore Randolph’s coat. Both men reloaded and shot again. Clay missed again. This gave Randolph an opportunity to repay Clay for his generous treatment of his earlier misfire. Rather than firing at his opponent, Randolph intentionally fired high. At that point, the two shook hands and called it a draw. Randolph told Clay that he owed him a new coat, and the Secretary of State replied: “I am glad the debt is no greater.”
Dueling was so common among politicians that even a good natured fellow like Abraham Lincoln was affected. As a state senator, Lincoln published several anonymous letters criticizing the state auditor James Shields. His tone was satirical, but then his future wife Mary Todd got involved and wrote letters of a more caustic nature. When Shields discovered that Lincoln was involved in the letters, he challenged him to a duel. Lincoln could not afford to back down, since that would make an unfavorable impression on his girlfriend. So Lincoln accepted, but as the recipient of the challenge, he exercised his right to set the conditions. Lincoln insisted that the combatants fight with cavalry broadswords in a pit divided by a board which neither man could cross over. Lincoln evidently hoped that the absurdity of the conditions would induce Shields to withdraw his challenge. But Shields was adamant – at least he was until the appointed time for the duel. When he arrived and saw Lincoln slashing away at tree branches far above his reach, Shields realized that Lincoln’s height advantage left him no chance. He agreed to negotiate. Lincoln’s second convinced Shields that Lincoln had not written Mary Todd’s letters, and Lincoln apologized for any misunderstanding. Shields accepted, and the duel was off.
That was a good thing for the country because both men went on to do great things. Lincoln’s subsequent political career is well known. James Shields became the only man to be elected to the U.S. Senate by three different states (Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota). He was appointed a brigadier general – by President Lincoln – and served courageously in the Civil War.
In 1859, David Broderick became the only sitting U.S. Senator to die in a duel when he was shot in San Francisco by David Terry, who resigned his post as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court for the very purpose of participating in the duel. Terry was replaced on the court by Stephen Field. Ironically, Terry himself would die 30 years later, killed by a federal marshal after he physically threatened Field, who by then had been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The massive blood-letting in America during the Civil War, and in Europe during World War I, dampened the popularity of dueling. With death so ubiquitous, risking one’s life over matters of honor no longer made sense. For many, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is their first acquaintance with this once pervasive custom. Since it takes the life of both the musical’s hero and his son, it is an acquaintance they are not likely to appreciate.
And yet the question remains. Did dueling have any redeeming features? Perhaps.
Dueling exposed men (and dueling nearly always involved men) to the risk of death, but at least it was an entirely voluntary risk. The participants were free to issue challenges, and to accept or reject them. The only penalty for abstention was shame. As one philosopher has recently noted: “The libertarian point in favor of dueling is that two adults should not be prohibited by law from doing whatever they please to and with their bodies.”
Dueling has also been justified as consistent with man’s inherent nature. Beneath the veneer of civilization, humans are still a part of the animal kingdom, a domain that includes elephant seals lunging and slamming probosces, and rams butting skulls. Some would say that two men facing each other in a duel – however elegant and sophisticated the circumstances – are simply complying with the commands of some fundamental genetic code. In fact, even the risk of death is comparable. Fights among animal competitors establish dominance, but are rarely lethal. Similarly, only about 15% of American duels are believed to have resulted in death or serious injury.
Dueling also had the beneficial effect of encouraging comity. A gentleman realized that if he crossed a line of offensiveness, he might be called upon to answer with his life. The geography of that line might vary with the individual, but certain boundaries were well known. Andrew Jackson, for example, was extremely sensitive about his wife — he had married Rachel before her divorce from her first husband became final. No question as to the legitimacy of their union, or slur upon his wife’s character, would go unchallenged.
During the 2016 Republican primaries, Donald Trump issued unflattering statements about the relative pulchritudinous qualities of Carly Fiorina (“Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”) and of the wife of Ted Cruz. On the other side of the ledger, a New York Times reporter impugned the virtue of the First Lady (calling her a “hooker”). In a different age, such statements would have obligated the offended party to demand satisfaction. If a contemporary speaker knew in advance that by issuing such insults, he might be called upon to choose between laying his life on the line or displaying cowardice, the result might be a wholesome check on such rude comments.
Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, dueling had the salutary effect of reducing violence. Dueling did not prevent violence, but it channeled it. While duels existed to address insults, there was no need for gang fights. There were no innocent bystanders of drive-by shootings. The violence was limited to the affected individuals.
Dueling also set termination points. However a duel ended, whether by death or, far more commonly, by missed shots, when it was over, it was over. There were no blood feuds that might continue for years and draw in other family members. In fact, duelists sometimes became friends and allies after their honor had been satisfied. Andrew Jackson almost died in a brawl with Thomas Hart Benton and his brother while they all lived on the frontier, but during Jackson’s presidency then Senator Benton proved one of his most stalwart allies.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton encourages us to look back at the nation’s early history, to see how differences were settled. We watch the duelists and their seconds and their weapons and their rituals, we see the lives cut short, and we recoil at the barbarity of it all. But Chicago, where the musical is currently playing, recorded 760 homicides last year. Last weekend alone, in about the time required to stage a single performance of the show, seven people were killed in one neighborhood. If the duelists of the past could see the future, who would recoil more is an open question.