By Rae Avery
It is a crisp autumn morning in 1842. You are crossing the Mississippi river in a canoe. You may be cold and wet, but your mind is far away from the current journey. All you can think about is your destination, because you’re about to witness a duel. A duel with swords. These were the actual conditions on September 22, 1842, for Abraham Lincoln and several of his companions the day he was prepared to fight a duel.
Dueling as a formalized method of dispute resolution dates back to pre-agrarian history, 5000 BC, when one might duel to protect the family or the tribe. There was great honor to be had in it and whether you won or lost, you often came home a hero. For much of recorded history, dueling was never supposed to be about killing your opponent. It was mainly about retaining honor. Two men would fight on an island, hilltop, or often a man-made stone circle, and if and when one of the opponents was forced out of the specified area, the duel was over, much like Sumo wrestling. Some rules stated the first one to draw blood won the duel, while in some the first one to give a wound bad enough to cause the person’s hands to shake was the winner.
Around 1000 BC, dueling evolved into a form of single combat. With historical and literary examples including the famous Achilles at Troy and David versus Goliath. Interestingly enough, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a TED talk, the David and Goliath story is better understood as superior weaponry winning in battle, rather than an underdog story. At the historical time the David and Goliath story is said to have occurred, David’s military slingshot was at the height of artillery technology. As formal duels progressed to the middle ages, standardized weapons equal between the two duelers became the norm.
In Medieval Europe, dueling was mainly for those in the nobility. “Honor” in dueling was still an important aspect, however, “honor” referred more to social status or rank, and not necessarily being a good, decent person who didn't bully people into letting you stab them in the stomach with a sword.
It’s worth mentioning that when someone was challenged to a duel, he could not simply say no and walk away. Someone could lose his rank, his family would be shamed, and he could even be sentenced to prison! Medieval Europe was less kind to conscientious objectors.
Women did duel, but very rarely. It was mainly considered a spectacle, or oddity, something “performed” for entertainment purposes and not taken seriously by the viewing public. Their weapons were modified, so the opponents could not harm each other, and everything was stopped before actual blood could be drawn.
The Code Duella, a set of dueling rules written by Irishmen in 1777, set the standard for duels for a long time. Having a reliable “second” was very important and he had a specific job to do, described clearly and precisely in the book. Each party had to have one, a trusted friend who would oversee the weapons, fight if necessary, and most importantly try to talk the parties down and forge a truce if possible.
Duels were popular in early America for a few reasons, not the least of which was the advent of the gun. Pistols were cheaper than swords – almost everyone could afford one, and in the relative wilderness of newly settled colonial America it was usually just plain smart to have one. Around this time, political duels were also common, and they even determined some elections!
By the 1800s, there were many politicians, judges, church officials, and others who disagreed with the violent tradition of dueling, and were very vocal about it, attempting to get the practice banned. Although some states passed laws regarding duels, they were difficult to enforce. By this time, dueling was part of the culture, and many juries refused to find fault with those brought up on dueling charges.
President Andrew Jackson, prior to taking office, was quite the duel aficionado. It’s rumored that he may have participated in up to 100 duels, and is officially known to have been in 13. He is the only United States president known to have actually killed someone in a duel. Jackson challenged a man named Charles Dickinson to a duel after he accused Jackson of reneging on a horse race bet, and then insulted his wife, Rachel. On the day of the duel, the men took pistols and aimed. Dickinson shot Jackson square in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Jackson stopped the blood flow by holding the wound tightly while he took his shot. According to Dickinson’s seconds, Jackson’s first shot misfired, which should’ve rendered the duel over and Dickinson the winner. However, eschewing the proper duel procedures, Jackson shot again and this time killed Dickinson where he stood. At the time, this did little to hinder Jackson’s political career, and he became president 23 years later.
The tide was about to change for dueling though. The Civil War in the United States and World War I in Europe had taken enough sons, brothers and husbands, that dueling to protect one’s honor began to seem like violent nonsense, and had a negative impact on most of society.
Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were notorious personal and political rivals for nearly 15 years when, in 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to perhaps the most famous duel in American History. It is said that Hamilton shot into the air, not actually wanting to harm Burr, and that Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach, inflicting wounds that killed him the next day. The early Americans were shocked (remember, duels rarely resulted in death), and Burr was brought up on actual murder charges. He was later acquitted on a technicality.
Abraham Lincoln and James Shields never did fight that duel. Lincoln never wanted to harm Shields, most scholars agree. Rather than “pistols at dawn,” he chose the broadsword on purpose to try to frighten Shields off before the duel even started. In fact, Lincoln took a few, almost comical, measures to try to scare Shields into conceding, since according to the rules, Lincoln, once challenged, could name all of the terms. He began by selecting an island for the duel to take place on, insisted they duel in a twelve foot deep pit, and stipulated that neither man could cross a large board in the middle (where Lincoln’s much taller stature would give him an edge). To emphasize his height advantage and impressive arm span, Lincoln even began taking some practice swipes with his sword, and lopped off a tall branch from a tree. When it became clear that Lincoln had the upper hand and would likely succeed if the duel continued, the trusty “seconds” stepped in and did their job, talking the men down and negotiating a truce at the last minute.
So while duels began as a formalized way to avoid abject bloodshed and bring some structure to disputes, over time, most of society would come to Lincoln’s way of thinking, eschewing the hot trigger fingers of Old Hickory and our more petulant, violent, founding fathers for the tempered wisdom of political attack ads.