many early American customs, dueling was imported. Starting in the Middle
Ages, European nobles had defended their honor in man-to-man battles. An
early version of dueling was known as "judicial combat," so called because
God allegedly judged the man in the right and let him win. In an era known
for its bloody encounters, judicial combats probably prevented men from
killing in the heat of passion. Still, numerous authorities, including
heads of state and the Catholic Church, banned dueling -- with little effect.
In 1777, a group of Irishmen codified dueling practices in a document
called the Code Duello. The Code contained 26 specific rules outlining
all aspects of the duel, from the time of day during which challenges could
be received to the number of shots or wounds required for satisfaction
of honor. An Americanized version of the Code, written by South Carolina
Governor John Lyde Wilson, appeared in 1838. Prior to that, Americans made
do with European rules.
In a typical duel, each party acted through a second. The seconds' duty,
above all, was to try to reconcile the parties without violence. An offended
party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized,
the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the
weapons and the time and place of the encounter. Up until combat began,
apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could
be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied
In America, duels were fought by men from all walks of life. But many
of America's most important citizens defended their honor on the dueling
grounds. Button Gwinnet, who had signed the Declaration of Independence,
was shot down by General Lachlan McIntosh in a duel. Commodore Stephen
Decatur of the United States Navy, an experienced duelist, died at the
hands of another commodore, James Barron. And Abraham Lincoln narrowly
averted a battle with swords by apologizing to an Illinois state official
he had ridiculed in a local newspaper.
Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were among the most prominent
Americans to condemn dueling. Franklin called duels a "murderous practice…they
decide nothing." And Washington, who undoubtedly needed all the good soldiers
he could get, congratulated one of his officers for refusing a challenge,
noting that "there are few military decisions that are not offensive to
one party or another."
For every man who gloried in the duel, there were many others who feared
it. A word or two passed in private company on a Friday night could well
mean a challenge on Saturday morning and death on Sunday. Avoiding a challenge
wasn't easy. Particularly in the South, where men who refused to duel would
be "posted." A statement accusing them of cowardice would be hung in public
areas or published in a newspaper or pamphlet.