Opposition To Dueling

The impact of dueling was so great on Southern life that officials in some states still have to swear an oath regarding their opposition to and non-involvement in the old practice. Dueling in Kentucky dueling remains a serious matter. In Section 228 of the state’s constitution there remains a link with Kentucky’s violent past. That link is the famous “dueling clause.

” Since 1891, the commonwealth’s officials have had to swear or affirm that “since the adoption of the present Constitution, I being a citizen of the state, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within the State or nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as a Second in carrying a challenge nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God. (Kentucky, 2005)

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Given the strict culture of honor in the South and the very real damage that could be done to a man’s economic and social status by turning down a challenge, legislators found themselves with a complex legal problem: How does one pass a law that protects a man’s honor and allows him to turn down a challenge to duel? For those men who already were serving as government officials, it was easy enough to make laws such as the Kentucky law quoted above to deal with the problem.

“The problem was that the people who engaged in duels thought of themselves as members of an elite; and if a gentleman said, ‘I can’t duel because I’ll go to jail,’ his challenger would accuse him of being a coward. ” So the states in the early 19th century tried an indirect approach: They passed a series of laws that attempted to break the connection between dueling and honor by prohibiting people who dueled from holding public office (Rosen, 2002).

A curious example of dueling, once a symbol of the status of those who had access to power now becoming a barrier to the legal, governmental power structure that would come to replace the old aristocracy of the South. Ostracism and criminalization were frequently used as means to discourage dueling. Another solution, though it seems to brush up hard against the first amendment, was to pass laws prohibiting “fighting words”. Fighting words being those said with the intention of inciting violence, whether they be true or not. By 1942, the Supreme Court had “marginally enshrined” the concept of “fighting words” as constitutional (Rosen, 2002).

Even though the concept had been accepted, by the time 1942 came along the culture of honor that would have led to personal insults resulting in duels to the death had long since passed away. The Old South was forever gone and, with it, the need for gentlemen to settle their disputes, however petty they may seem by modern standards, with a flintlock pistol or shotgun. Another antidote to the culture of honor was ridicule. A New York Times Article from May 19. 1886 betrays a bit of Northern condescension toward the honorable society of the sophisticated Southern gentry:

What would a few years ago have been a difficulty between two eminent Colonels in North Carolina has now shrunk to the proportions of an affair, and now seems likely to dwindled still further to a mere incident. It is well worth noting as an illustration of how far modern ideas have penetrated the fastness to which chivalry has betaken itself (New York Times, 1886). With the end of the Confederacy came the end of the antebellum notions of honor and, with it, the feeling, at least in the Northern states, that its demise was no cause for nostalgia but a sign of progress.