Pistols at Dawn: A History of Dueling
Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)
These days getting into a fight because someone got their feelings hurt is considered the height of immaturity. A fight to the death could likely result in criminal charges. However, for centuries, that was the accepted way of dealing with an insult. In fact, defending one’s honor through dueling was one of the many characteristics of a gentleman.
The practice likely evolved from the ancient tradition of single combat during which each army in a battle would select a champion. The champions would then fight until one of them was dead. In some cases, this would end the battle without further loss of life. This style of fighting appears in Greek mythology as well as in the biblical narrative of David and Goliath. Eventually, single combat gave way to other forms of battle; however, the spirit lived on in the custom of dueling.
The duel began in ancient Europe as an alternative to the modern day courtroom proceeding. Rather than a trial by jury, the two involved parties would fight and the loser was deemed to be guilty. During the Middle Ages, duels could be seen in the form of tournaments between knights. However, it was merely a spectator sport at this time. Dueling didn’t become the go-to solution for resolving a conflict until 1526 when King Frances I of France challenged King Charles V of Spain to a duel after the dissolution of the treaty between their respective countries.
Dueling was all the rage in France, resulting in an estimated 10,000 deaths during the reign of Henry IV. Despite the king speaking out against it, the practice continued with an estimated 4,000 deaths under the reign of Louis XIV. While not as prevalent as in France, there were around 172 duels in England during the reign of George III. During the 19th century, fatalities from duels decreased as the practice of ending the duel after first blood was drawn became customary.
The colonization of the New World eventually brought the custom of dueling to America with the first American duel occurring at Plymouth Rock in 1621. It really caught on in the Antebellum society of the South where great importance was placed on the defense of one’s honor. Surprisingly, dueling was not common in the Old West despite the gunfights depicted in Western films and television shows.
Even at the height of its popularity, there were those who spoke out against the violence of the duel. However, defenders of the practice claimed it was a way to prevent violence. Their argument, backed by the ancient practice of single combat, suggested that having only two combatants battling it out prevented the incident from becoming a feud which could go on for years and cost many more lives. Additionally, they claimed that dueling increased civility as the men would be less likely to offend someone if they risked being challenged to a duel.
Around the end of the nineteenth century, the popularity of dueling began to decline. This was due in large part to the passing - and enforcing - of stricter anti-dueling laws. The transformation of the South after the Civil War also diminished the practice in the United States. Additionally, both the Civil War in the United States and World War I in Europe greatly reduced the desire to see more bloodshed.
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