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Joanne Freeman on
the ritual of the duel

Joanne Freeman Q: Describe how the ritual works.

A: A duel is really a sort of game of dare and counter dare. It really was a case in which one man would step forward and say I'm willing to die to defend my name, and the other man would have to step forward and say, I will meet you. And that, as a matter of fact, that was a phrase that they would use. Ritualistic phrase. I will meet you as a gentleman. And you were thus on a par. You were saying you were both willing to die. We are thus both equals. And that's how duels become used politically.

Q: Describe how a political loser might use this.

A: The really striking thing about duels in this period is that they don't happen for the reasons that we might expect them to happen. Our image of the duel is that someone says a hasty word, and someone slaps someone else, and instantly they run off to the field of honor. But the fact of the matter is that they were very deliberately provoked, and very often in this period, they were provoked after elections by either the person who lost the election or one of his friends as a way of making up for the damage to their reputation is having lost. So the loser would provoke a duel somehow with someone on the winning team. And in that way would be sort of counteracting democratic politics by using honor and saying, well see, I can use the honor code to say that even though democratically I'm defeated, I'm equal to you. My reputation is equal to yours.

The really important part of any affair of honor was proving that you were in control throughout. That you could remain detached and cold literally in the face of death. For this reason the rules were very important. Because the rules, to a large extent, allowed duelists to stand back. And their seconds were the ones negotiating and conducting details. They were so conscious of the rules as they were conducting these affairs of honor.

Q: Describe how often people died in duels.

A:Because people so often assume that duels are about killing, the assumption is that a duel is fought and someone dies. The fact of the matter is, in most duels, nobody is shot. In cases where people are shot, the leg wound is a really popular place to be wounded. And, and there's a newspaper of the time that actually makes fun of that, and talks about that fashionable place, the shin. ... Very few people are killed. And if you are unfortunate enough to kill your opponent, very often that means you're a failed duelist. You're no longer just a man defending his honor. You're potentially going to be depicted as someone who's blood thirsty, and who has just killed a man in very immoral unchristianlike behavior.

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