“Sir, I challenge you to a duel!” While these words today are a joke, and at most would give you the opportunity to slap someone with a glove, not so long ago these words meant serious business. Since the dawn of time, men have always had the urge to show their male dominance. And what better way to accomplish this than by a potential deadly duel? But dueling could not be over a quibbling matter, no, dueling was reserved as a way to restore honor to one’s name.
I just started reading Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph E. Ellis, and the first chapter tells of the most famous duel in American history. In reading, I ran across a passage which informed the reader of the probability of injury. “But the inherent inaccuracy of a projectile emerging from a smoothbore barrel, plus the potent jerk required to release the cocked hammer, ignite the powder, and then send the ball toward its target, meant that in this duel, as in most duels of that time, neither party was likely to be hurt badly, if at all.” (1) I also found numerous other sources that indicated the same notion. “The chance of dying in a pistol duel was relatively slim. Flintlocks often misfired. And even in the hands of an experienced shooter, accuracy was difficult.” (2)
While trying (unsuccessfully, I might add) to find a .gif of Inigo Montoya’s famous duel, from Princess Bride, I ran across this .gif which portrays how inaccurate pistol duels were.
On a side note, if you haven’t seen the movie Princess Bride, here is the epic fight from the movie.
But back to pistol dueling. If this was such an ineffective way to duel, why even take part? I realize that the chance of dying is possible, but like all sources state, not likely. It almost amounts to dueling with billiard balls, which two Frenchmen did in 1843. (3) I am guessing that neither of these gentlemen died—well, not from billiards dueling anyway.
The Burr-Hamilton shootout, which would become the most famous duel in America’s history, took place on July 11, 1804. This duel, which took the life of Alexander Hamilton, would forever change the country’s opinion on dueling. Dueling, just as slavery, was a nasty, customary element of the era. The custom of dueling started in medieval times and came to America, with the Pilgrims, on the Mayflower. Only one year after establishing a colony in Massachusetts, in 1621, Edward Doty and Edward Lester had a sword duel. The punishment for this “crime”?—the two men spent one hour with their ankles tied to their necks. I would say the punishment hardly fits the severity of the crime.
In researching this topic, I ran across several stories about the duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson. This 1806 duel led to the death of Charles Dickinson and an injury resulting in a lifetime of pain for Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson—yes, Old Hickory himself—fought in many a duel, and was known to leave a few lifeless bodies in his wake. In the earlier referenced PBS.org source (2), there was a quote, “In the eyes of many, Jackson’s behavior amounted to little more than murder.” Not only had he killed a man in this duel but he also broke a rule, which by today’s definition would label him as a cheater. This leads me to a question. Let’s say that Republican Nominee for President, Mitt Romney, participated in a duel in his younger years. Would he be elected president? Would the press not make this issue the issue? I think so!
Interestingly enough, somehow this history of dueling turned into a political survey and not so much a history lesson. But I digress. As America became a civilized country dueling, like slavery, would be seen for what it truly was and like slavery be abolished.
1. Ellis, Joseph J. (2003-12-16). Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Vintage) (p. 24). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
3. Smithsonian Magazine http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/duel.html