Age Old Practice
There was a time not so long ago that conflicts between two people were often settled with a consensual fight known as a duel. Generally during a duel, the two people had matched deadly weapons, followed rules that were agreed upon in advance and were battling over a specific point of honor.
Dueling actually started in the Middle Ages among the European nobles. At the time, it was known as judicial combat, due to the belief that God was judging the men and determined who would win. Even in those days, the Catholic Church and other heads of state banned dueling, though most who desired to engage in duels paid no attention.
In the late 1700’s in Ireland, the Code Duello was formed, documenting nearly 30 specific rules detailing the proper way for a duel to be conducted. The governor of South Carolina rewrote the code for Americans in the early 1800’s. One of the rules was that an attempt should first be made to resolve a conflict between two individuals without resorting to violence. Sometimes this worked out and sometimes it didn’t. One thing is for sure; duels, whether they resulted in injury, death, or simply bruised egos, were always dramatic.
Abraham Lincoln is famous for many things including leading his country through the American Civil War, preserving the Union and ending slavery. But one thing that many do not know about his life is that James Shields, an attorney for the State of Illinois, once challenged him to a duel.
The conflict between the two began when anonymous letters were published in a Springfield, Illinois newspaper criticizing Shields for signing a number of proclamations about which the general public disagreed. One letter poked fun at his Irish ancestry and essentially demanded that he go back to his home country. Another letter ridiculed him for having no courage. Many, including Shields, believed that Lincoln was responsible for the letters. As a result, he challenged Lincoln to a duel. By this time in the mid 1800’s dueling was illegal in the state, but the men proceeded anyway.
On the day of the duel, both parties met in an attempt to negotiate a non-violent settlement of their differences. But Shield’s famous temper was on full display that day and he refused to any compromise. As the duel was about to begin, utilizing broad swords, tall and long-limbed Lincoln reached high up with his sword and chopped a limb off a willow tree. Fearing that Lincoln far outmatched him, Shields backed down from the duel and Lincoln won by default. The two men made peace that same day and are said to have been friendly with each other thereafter.
While the Lincoln/Shields duel thankfully ended without any bloodshed, other duelers in history have not fared so well.
The Fighting Irish
In the early 1800’s, Irish attorney Daniel O’Connell had developed a reputation as a coward. He once challenged another attorney to duel, but no shots were ever fired and O’Connell walked away from the conflict.
A few years later, in a speech he gave as part of his Catholic Emancipation movement, he called the city government of Dublin “beggarly.” A local politician, John D’Esterre, took the remark to be a personal insult and challenged O’Connell to a duel. Knowing that his already poor reputation was on the line, O’Connell accepted the challenge stating that he would not be the aggressor, but would defend his honor if he had to. Meeting at the dueling grounds in Kildare for a good old-fashioned gun battle, the two men fired their first shots. D’Esterre missed O’Connell, but O’Connell hit D’Esterre in what he thought was the hip. He was carried away to his house and upon examination, doctors realized he had actually been hit in the abdomen. He died 2 days later.
O’Connell was deeply shaken by having taken another man’s life. The darkness of the act stayed with him for the rest of his life. However, his bravery in facing down D’Esterre greatly improved his image and he went on to become a high-level political figure within the country.
Decline of the Duel
Long before dueling ended as a way to resolve conflicts between individuals, prominent figures in society condemned the practice. Benjamin Franklin once called duels a “murderous practice that decides nothing.” And George Washington congratulated one of his soldiers for not accepting a duel.
Eventually, towards the latter part of the 1800’s, dueling was on the decline. Calls by prominent officials to end the practice, including those from the church, helped to stem the flow of blood. The Reverend Mason Weems even created an illustrated pamphlet called “God’s Revenge Against Dueling.” Anti-dueling ordinances made it difficult to get away with carrying out battles. Legislatures of many U.S. states set up laws to make the practice illegal. Many prominent politicians who received challenges to duel refused in order to make a point that dueling was barbaric and immoral.
Most importantly, it was negative public opinion about dueling that helped to create lasting change. However today, there seems to be at least one or two people who wouldn’t mind bringing the practice of dueling back.
Most of us are aware of the gladiatorial nature of cable news network programming, where political “experts” are pitted against each other for a war of words that usually results in absolutely nothing. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, Georgia Senator Zell Miller, a conservative democrat, got into a war of words with Hardball’s Chris Matthews over a political point. Miller was so mad that he stated to the MSNBC commentator that he wished they lived in a time where he could challenge him to a duel.
Though we live in a time where dueling is considered uncivilized and illegal, at least we know that the wild and zealous spirit that once fueled the art of dueling is as alive now as it has ever been.