Feature Politics And Pistols: Dueling In America

Find out more about dueling in the U.S.

Politics And Pistols: Dueling In America

Dueling started as a less violent way to solve disputes in the European Middle Ages. It was thought that God would pass judgment during a duel and save the "right" person.

Dueling continued as a popular means of establishing honor and settling differences for hundreds of years. It quickly established itself in the New Worldwhere, like many things, it reinvented itself.

While duels had long been fought over a woman's hand, or to defend a man's honor, in America, dueling took on a new importance: It was used to settle political differences. The duel that took place between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is perhaps the most well-known, but it was not uncommon in politics.

Freedom of speech and politics were cornerstones of the new country. To besmirch a man because of his beliefs was not taken lightly. Political rivals such as senators, governors, mayors were challenged.

Principally duels were held to defend one's honor, but the duelists were also trying to prove themselves as leaders—brave, determined and single-minded. A challenge could not be ignored, or a career would be destroyed.

Dueling was very much a public matter. Insults, and the challenges to duel that followed, traveled via newspaper editorials, word of mouth and plain old gossip. They also reached a widespread public with "postings" at street corners and taverns.

Few men could resist such a public challenge. Even Abraham Lincoln was called to duel: he had referred to one man as a "smelly, foolish liar" in a newspaper editorial. Lincoln chose swords over pistols, in the hope that his long arms would offer an advantage. He eventually apologized and avoided the duel altogether.

Newspapers at the time were factionalized and expressed very distinct viewpoints. Editors were constantly being challenged and were known to carry sidearms at all times—even in the office—in case an irate reader should wish to dispute an editorial.

By the time of the Broderick-Terry duel of 1859, slavery had become the new reason for dueling. Dueling had lost favor in the early 1800s in the North, but still remained the dispute-solving method of choice in the South, where social standing was a touchier subject.

Although 18 states had outlawed dueling by 1859, it was still often practiced in the South and the West. Dueling became less common in the years following the Civil War, with the collective public opinion perhaps soured by the amount of bloodshed during the conflict.

By the start of the 20th century, dueling laws were enforced and it became a thing of the past.