August 10th, 2007

the one with your name on it

Dueling: the Fascinating Facts

So I'm reading this book on the history of dueling. It's called Gentlemen's Blood and is written in an amusing high-whoopsie style by historian Barbara Holland, who seems scarcely to believe that the things she is writing about actually happened. Which, the further in you get, becomes more and more understandable as a reaction.

Dueling doesn't really get covered very much in standard history surveys, which is odd, because it was nearly universal in Western history for hundreds and hundreds of years. It outlasted slavery, child labor and the male-only franchise. It cost tens of thousands of lives -- perhaps even hundreds of thousands -- and with the birth of democracy in the United States it was not limited to the aristocracy. For over a thousand years, it was perfectly legal* to murder another person for pretty much any reason at all as long as he consented to the duel.

Here are some interesting things about dueling:

- Some experts believe that in places and times where dueling is legal and/or acceptable, domestic violence rates are very low.

- John Boswell's son died in a duel. So did Lord Byron's uncle and Strom Thurmond's father. The painter Caravaggio killed one of his best friends in a duel. The Hamilton family were legendary duelists -- Alexander Hamilton lost an infamous duel with Aaron Burr** when the former was a newly released Secretary of the Treasury and the latter was Vice-President, but Hamilton's son had been killed in a duel years earlier, and Hamiltons show up as seconds in a staggering number of duels in the U.S. and Great Britain.

- Dueling is still legal in at least three South American countries, sometimes with the qualifier that one must be a registered blood donor to fight a duel. The vice-president of Peru fought a duel with a congressman as recently as 2002.

- Until the late 18th century, it was perfectly acceptable to sever the head of someone you'd killed in a duel and bring it to dinner with you that night. Up until the early 20th century, people fighting duels were expected to throw a big party the night before.

- Iceland was the only European country to outlaw dueling early on. Sweden banned it briefly in the 17th century because there were so many people dying in duels that the officer ranks of its military were being decimated. It was a matter of national security.

- For many years, the word "gentle" meant "nobly born" -- and, often, therefore dangerous and hotheaded, or at least accustomed to violent dueling. Shakespeare used it often in this sense.

- In many countries, it was a crime punishable by forfeiture, imprisonment, or even death to refuse to fight a duel. And in a few countries, most notably Russia, you were required to initiate a duel if you were properly insulted. (For a while, this was amended to demand that you initiate a duel if someone else heard you being insulted, but this was discontinued when it became obvious that enlisted men were simply setting disliked officers against one another by hearsay in order to get rid of one or both.

- One memorable duel was fought by two French noblemen taking potshots at each other with blunderbusses from hot air balloons. In one American duel, the challenged -- one of the few people who didn't seem to take the whole ridiculous process seriously -- suggested that he and his challenger both leap off a tall building at the same time and whoever hit the ground last was the winner. (Ultimately, he agreed to the ludicrous method of shotguns at five paces, and ended up being literally blown to pieces. His opponent was a U.S. senator.)

- Monarchs often challenged one another to duels, though they never actually fought them. So did American presidents. Andrew Jackson was a notorious duelist who may have killed as many as eighteen people in duels***; he also encouraged other people to fight duels, even when they had forgotten their quarrels or forgiven them. (He goaded John Quincy Adams into a duel on general principles.)

- Dueling was so widely accepted and even encouraged in various military organizations that it was practically a tradition. For almost a century, the standard handbook issued to American sailors upon enlistment in the Navy contained a copy of the standard rules of dueling.

*: In some countries and in some situations, a victorious duelist could be tried for manslaughter, but successful convictions were so rare as to be statistically nonexistent.

**: Though history books make it out as if Burr was some kind of monster and the Burr-Hamilton duel was an aberration, quite the opposite is true. Hamilton was the offending party, and despite his loudly stated objection to dueling, he had fought at least five up to that point. The guns chosen for the duel belonged to him (they were the ones with which his son had been killed) and were said to have claimed eleven lives before his own. James Monroe, having been insulted by John Adams, nearly challenged him to a duel but was convinced not to by James Madison, who pointed out that killing the president wouldn't help a fledgling democracy get off the ground. Even so, between them, the Founding Fathers fought nearly two dozen duels, and two signatories to the Constitution -- Hamilton and Button Gwinnette -- were killed in duels.

***: If true -- the particulars of duels were often vague, and misreported by partisan newspapers and biased witnesses -- this means that the man on the $20 bill personally murdered twice as many people as the Manson Family.

Dueling: the Boring LiveJournal Poll

"To bring your controversies for adjustment..."

Poll #1036788 I demand satisfaction!

What weapon would you choose for a duel?

other (see Comments)

Why would you fight a duel?

being insulted
being passed over for a job
property values
being called a poltroon
strenuous objection to/agreement with a newspaper editorial
gambling debts
to prove my 'courage'
because someone mocked my favorite sports team
I wouldn't
any reason, really

Which of the following actual historical reasons for fighting a duel is the dumbest?

you disagreed with someone over the pronunciation of a word
your pets didn't get along
someone’s dog tried to bite you, which was interpreted as an accusation of murder
argument over who had more rabbits on his property
someone made fun of your hat
argument over whether or not Dante was a better poet than Ariosto, when you have not read either
you lost a tennis match
stranger in a carriage goaded you into duel with third party he didn't even know
someone jostled your arm at the theatre
you were drunk

What nationality do you think engaged in the highest per-capita amount of dueling?

the English
the Germans
the Russians
the Italians
the French
the Irish
the Spanish
the Americans
the Swedish
the Norwegians
the Greeks
the Turks
the Swiss
the Poles
the Dutch

If I challenged you to a duel, what would you choose as the time, place and weapons for our meeting?

on a steel horse I ride

Dueling: The Interminable Continuation

More nuggets:

- Abraham Lincoln almost fought a duel once. He wrote an anonymous letter protesting Illinois tax policy, and the law's sponsor found out it was him and demanded satisfaction. Abe didn't take the thing very seriously, choosing globs of cow dung as his weapon, but eventually went through with it with sabers as the weapon of choice. Just before the showdown, though, his second and that of his opponent talked them out of it. (Jefferson and Washington were two notable exceptions to the rule of the duel by early presidents: George was too much respected and feared, and Jefferson simply ignored all challenges -- of which he received plenty -- because he found the whole thing rather silly.)

- Denver, Colorado was named after a territorial governor who first came to prominence after killing a newspaper editor in a duel over whether or not aid should be send to the trapped Donner Party. Mr. Denver, for the record, was agin' it, but the principals eventually took matters into their own hands.

- For many years, the U.S. capitol of dueling was New Orleans, Louisiana. One of its most famous cemeteries, St. Vincent De Paul, was founded to house the losers of the many duels fought there. Duels to the death were recorded over such issues as whether or not an opera singer should be allowed an encore, whether or not a tax assessor smelled bad, and how best to wear a scarf. Two doctors came to blows over the corpse of a patient whose treatment while living they had disagreed upon, and in the subsequent duel, both were killed; this set off a wave of duels between doctors, the the degree that medical care became hard to come by in the city for several months. (The governor considered outlawing duels for this reason, but was convinced not to be so rash.) During the first half of the 19th century, The Oaks -- NOLA's premier dueling ground -- would often see as many as ten duels on a Saturday.

- Combatants had the option of declaring the matter settled if they or their opponents were wounded, but sometimes they would wait until everyone was healed up and immediately demand another duel until one or the other was dead.

- I have thus far encountered only one story (besides those of Jefferson and Lincoln) of someone acting sensibly in a duel. A certain Judge Dooly was drawn in, first as a messenger and then as a second, between a Georgia congressman named Crawford and his rival, Congressman Clark. Eventually the seconds and friends of the two principals began fighting duels, and Dooly found himself challenged by a one-legged acquaintance of Crawford's. On the day of the duel, Dooly began to make all sorts of bizarre conditions on the contest, to which Crawford -- there as the one-legged man's second -- responded that it didn't sound like Dooly wanted to fight at all. Dooly said that yes, that was right, he didn't want to.

Crawford replied, "Well, sir, you shall fill a column in the newspapers in no enviable light." (It was common practice to post a newspaper ad calling someone a coward if they refused to duel.)

"Mr. Crawford," Judge Dooly said, "I assure you I would rather fill two newspapers than one coffin."