Like the vast majority of the men who engaged in then, duels had their roots in Europe. Like many early American customs, dueling was imported. Starting in the Middle Ages, European nobles had defended their honor in man-to-man battles. An early version of dueling was known as “judicial combat,” so called because God allegedly judged the man in the right and let him win (Public Broadcasting Service, 2000). Above all other things, duels are a highly regulated, ritualized form of violence.
They are not a spontaneous brawl nor are they an organized military battle where commanders endeavor to keep their tactics and intentions secret from their opponents. In a duel, both parties know the rules from the start and make their intentions clear. If there is a source document for the accepted rules of dueling, it would have to be the 1777 Code Duello, written by a group of Irishmen (Public Broadcasting Service, 2000). The code was finalized at Clonmel Summer Assizes and intended to be adopted throughout Ireland.
It was followed in adoption in England and in America with some variations in the latter (Public Broadcasting Service, 2000). The rules are quite exacting. The first rule, in fact, specifies that in a case where a man was insulted, it is the obligation of he who insulted him to apologize first, even if the insulted offered a much harsher retort than the original insult. Much of the document has to do less with the rules of the actual duel and more to do with mending the wounds to the insulted party’s honor, or ego.
The Code Duello applies to combat undertaken with sword and gun but does mention the most condescending form of punishment, being beaten or caned, usually reserved for lower classes, in the context of offering oneself to be caned as a way of apologizing and taking responsibility for the instigating insult. Rule 5. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult.
The alternatives, therefore — the offender handing a cane to the injured party, to be used on his own back, at the same time begging pardon; firing on until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon without proffer of the cane (Public Broadcasting Service, 2000). The rules are predictably chauvinistic, as well, insults to a lady being regarded as particularly heinous and requiring their own extreme form of apology. Two of the rules are particularly interesting in the way they act to control the violence.
Rule 13 states that there shall be no “dumb shooting” or firing into the air as a means of preventing frivolous disputes from escalating to the level of a duel. Though the rule stipulates that “The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offence” and that the challenged should have apologized before he reached the place of the duel. Jackson and Avery, in a duel where they both forewent taking a fatal shot at their opponent, clearly both violated this rule. Depending on one’s perspective, this could be taken to both of their credits or detriments where honor is concerned.
Seconds, through whom the duelists communicated and who were responsible for arranging the terms and rules of the duel, are regulated heavily in behavior and station in the Code Duello. Seconds were to be the duelist’s equal in social rank. The Second’s job, aside from facilitating and arranging the duel, was to try to reach reconciliation between the parties. According to Rule 21 of the Code, “Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified. ”
What is particularly telling about The Code Duello is the specificity of the rules. Dueling was clearly a sport, though a deadly one, by which men could redeem whatever honor had been taken from them by an insult, deed or implication. As gentlemen, the strictly-regulated nature of their conflicts separated them from the brawlers of the lower classes. In America, there were conventions not specified in the Code Duello. Duelists, though their Seconds could draw up contracts detailing the specifics of the duel and weapons other than pistols or swords could be used at the duelist’s preference (Williams, p.
50). Particularly deadly as a dueling weapon was the shotgun. Where the high degree of inaccuracy associated with smooth-bore, flintlock weapons may well have saved the lives of more than one duelist (see the Clingman vs. Yancey duel described below) a shotgun requires little skill to ensure a hit. However, even among the elite classes, dueling was not automatically thought of as manly or honorable and was even viewed with scorn by some of America’s most famous men.
George Washington congratulated one of his officers on refusing a challenge to duel (Public Broadcasting Service, 2000), quite different from what would have been expected by a Southern military man who had declined such a challenge. Benjamin Franklin, for his part, failed to see the point of dueling at all. “For him , the duels seemed a pointless activity because it could not determine whether a man had really lied… (Greenberg, p. 14). ” From Franklin’s perspective, all the emphasis on honor was rather silly.
For the Northerner, a duel over a debt failed to get the money back and was, therefore, essentially useless. For the Southern gentleman, the debt itself was pointless, the duel was about honor and tradition (Greenberg, p. 15). It would be difficult to find a modern American equivalent to the honor dueling that took place in the antebellum South. One could argue that sports such as boxing, wrestling and the “cage fighting” events such as the Ultimate Fighting Challenge are similar, but they are typically arranged fights based on factors such as weight class and fighting record, not on personal slights.
While a fist-fight may erupt over an insult to a woman’s honor or a man’s, these are not the regulated, proscribed duels of the past. In short, a duel existed as a means of controlling and regulating violence as much as it was a means of fostering it. Where the modern world is concerned, the heavily-regulated and ritualized world of the Southern gentleman duelist is conspicuously absent.