March 1, 2017 | Posted in ASH Online
By Lobke van Meijel.
Those up to speed on their knowledge of Broadway musicals likely already know about the most famous duel in American history: the duel that led to the death of Founding Father and first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
In 1804, Alexander Hamilton was challenged to a duel by then-Vice President Aaron Burr. Both men almost despised one another, as Hamilton was actually working to prevent the (in his eyes) opportunist Burr from becoming President, and as Burr saw his political reputation and ambition being damaged by a meddling Hamilton. They took their personal issues to the ‘field of honor,’ a field in New Jersey where Hamilton had lost his son to a duel just two years earlier. Both men fired their guns, and one fell. Hamilton’s first bullet had missed Burr, and Burr had shot Hamilton in the torso. The Founding Father, who had written in a letter the night before the duel that he meant to miss Burr to end their conflict without bloodshed, died the next morning.
Arguably, Hamilton and Burr’s fatal duel is the most famous duel in American history. Yet it was remarkable in several aspects. For one, continued meddling in one’s career actually made for a somewhat understandable reason to demand justice. Additionally, duels seldom ended with fatalities.
American duels were practices of honor, often reserved for upper-class men in the South; politicians and lawyers. As a European ‘trial by combat,’ early colonists brought the ‘form of justice’ to American lands. Yet Americans stretched the historical basis of dueling, and transformed it almost into a sport to prove masculinity and honor. The Art of Manliness described dueling as “a way for men to publicly prove their courage and manliness. In such a society, the courts could offer a gentleman no real justice; the matter had to be resolved with the shedding of blood.”
These ‘matters’ could mean all kinds of things. Conflicts of all sorts and kinds had to be resolved with duels. Reputable duelist Charles Dickinson, for example, apparently cheated in a horse racing bet between Dickinson’s father-in-law and Andrew Jackson, who would go on to become a President with so much lead in his body that people described him as ‘rattling like a bag of marbles.’ The apparent cheating led to an insult-heaped conflict, which resulted in Dickinson insulting Jackson’s wife. As it turned out, Jackson had a special “angry place” reserved in his heart for all who insulted his wife, and could not let the insult go unpunished.
The men met in Kentucky and Dickinson took the first shot, which fired in between Jackson’s ribs. Jackson, who had survived many battles already, gave no kick and pulled his trigger as well. His gun did not fire, and an angry Jackson stroke again and fired a fatal bullet into Dickinson.
Despite his win, this duel led to great dishonorable shame for Jackson, who should not have fired the second shot and could have ended the duel with both men’s honor and lives in tact. In eighty percent of cases, duels were fights ‘to first blood,’ not to death. Moreover, duels were comprised of elaborate and cool processes. First, (public) letters were exchanged to try to solve a conflict peacefully. Only when a peaceful resolution was out of order, a duel would be instigated. The challenged party could pick weapons. Guns took over the popular choice of weapon from swords in the 18th century as they were deemed more ‘democratic’ (after all, everybody could pull a trigger), but duels were even fought with weapons such as billiard balls. After weapons were chosen, the “seconds” (referee-type gentlemen chosen by the duelers) had to locate a dueling ground and possibly step in if either dueler stepped off their marks during the fight. Only one shot could be fired, and duelers could choose to deliberately miss their target if they did not wish the battle to end fatally. However, etiquette and frames of masculinity made it dishonorable to refuse a duel, and honor became the number one reason for men to accept and obey the rules of the game.
American men continued to duel throughout the 19th century, but the Civil War and industrialization brought an end to the level of popularity that the practice enjoyed. As a man’s prestige and position in society became attributed to his amount of cash more so than his reputation and honor, disputes were increasingly taken to the courts instead of the fields. And as Southerners were occupied with fighting for and against the Reconstruction and the rebuilding of their society after a damaging loss, less attention was devoted to violent resolutions for petty conflicts.