Properties of Blood I.7: Dueling For Honor, Part A

Defining the Duel

The word duel is often used loosely to mean a fight between two men or even any competitive conflict between men or beasts.  The historian Victor Kiernan has written an entire book on European dueling without ever, apparently, figuring out what a duel actually was.  Let us begin by setting aside such metaphorical usages as “dueling egos,” “dueling banjos,” and “dueling roosters,” and restrict ourselves to violent encounters between two human antagonists, who may or may not ne accompanied by allies who may simply insure fair play or even take part in the action.

If we are Darwinists, we know that even before men were men, they were knocking each other’s block off for the sake of females, red meat, or a bunch of bananas.  If we reject the Darwinian myth and stick to the Garden of Eden, we not only have to acknowledge that killing is one of the first recorded human acts committed after our expulsion from the Garden but we also cannot ignore the evidence of our closest animal relatives in the scala naturae.  Darwinism and Christianity, in other words, converge on a common view of human violence; the odd men out are the modern myth-makers, or rather fantasists, since myths are rooted in reality but the fantasies of man’s natural goodness concocted by Locke, Rousseau, and the Leakeys have to be written in the subjunctive mood, since they are totally contrary to fact.

Once we accept the universal reality of the libido dominandi and man’s inhumanity to man, we can dispense with another popular fantasy, cherished by multi-culturalists:  the bizarre notion that the temperament of the West—both in the narrow American sense of "cowboys and indians" and in the more inclusive sense of  Christian Europe and its ancient roots—is a particularly bloodthirsty.  The violent encounters that so often have resolved conflicts between European and American men are scarcely unique.  Most societies have permitted men to use deadly force in defending themselves from aggression, and many legal systems have regarded retaliation for a serious injury (murder, rape, seduction) as at least a mitigating factor; however, some societies have imposed limits.  The legal systems of classical antiquity, however, took a dim view of citizens who “took the law into their own hands.”  As intensely as a civilized Greek or Roman felt his honor, he did not typically need to avenge an insult or an injury.  As a citizen of a commonwealth with strong traditions, he was supposed to engage, rather, in the mock-combats for which Athens and Rome both provided legal arenas.

It is not as if Greeks and Romans did not have opportunities to fight and kill.  At Rome, the gates of Mars’ temple were rarely closed, and Athens, that paragon of art, literature, and philosophy, was at war in every generation of its Golden Age: intermittently with Persia from 498 (the Ionian Revolt) until 449 (The Peace of Callias), with Sparta from 431-404, with itself (404-03), with Sparta again in the 390’s,  then with Thebes, and with Philip of Macedon in the 330’s and 320’s.  Only the expansion of Roman power put an end to the incessant warfare among the people to whom we owe a great deal of our civilization.

Greeks and Romans, then, were as fond of fighting and killing as less civilized men, but the custom of individual men fighting for their honor is a contribution of our barbarian Germanic ancestors who had neither civilization nor much of what a Roman would have regarded as law.  When early Goths, Burgundians, or Anglo-Saxons were injured or offended, they had to rely on their own strength and skill or on their kinsmen, and their earliest legal codes are filled with rules on how much has to be paid for the loss of a limb or life—and the scale varies with the social worth of the victim.  Blood revenge could not always be discharged by payment, and this led both to personal combats and to blood-feuds.

Some acts of violence are simply naked aggression; others are done in self-defense; still others are committed by way of revenge.   However, some homicides are neither one-sided attacks of an aggressor upon an unwilling victim nor the intended victim’s defense of himself nor even acts of retaliation for a palpable injury.  On occasion, men will try to kill each other over a mere disagreement.  For whatever reason, two men might agree to settle their differences in a fight.  Such encounters are often referred to generally as duels, but not all fights between consenting adults actually qualify as duels.  To gain a working definition of a duel, we might make use of a sort of via negativa, that is, by eliminating those sorts of violent encounters that are not proper duels.

A duel is not an informal conflict ignited in the heat of the moment, when the antagonists meet by chance.  Some Western gunfights were more or less duels, but not the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral between the Earps and the “Cowboys” as their antagonists were sometimes called.  The classic gunfights of films are a kind of duel, even though they lack the usual rigmarole of formal challenges and seconds.  Liberty Valance was playing by Western rules, when he challenged Ransom Stoddard:

You got a choice, dishwasher.

Either you leave town,

or tonight be on that street alone.

You be there,

and don't make us come and get you.

The fact that the young dude could not shoot made no difference, especially when the dude went into the street with gun.

I don’t know how many classic gun duels were actually fought.  Sensible lawmen like Wyatt Earp preserved the law—and their own skins—by getting the drop on disturbers of the peace.  I don’t believe Earp ever faced a man in the street in the prescribed manner, but no one made the mistake of thinking him a coward.  If a real lawman imitated the fictional Matt Dillon, who week after week on Gunsmoke agreed to face the gunfire of dangerous men, he would have unnecessarily endangered the life of an officer of the law.  The most famous gunman in the West, John Wesley Hardin, shot men all sorts of situations—he once got so exasperated with a man snoring in the hotel room above him that he shot through the floor and killed him—but in his memoirs I cannot find any instance of “I’m calling you out.”  But Wes Hardin was no coward either, and the man who shot him in the back in El Paso was complimented by the judge for his prudence.

In Abilene, Hardin made the acquaintance of the man who did more than any other to create the legendary gun duel: Robert Butler Hickock.  “Wild Bill” was a crack shot, and, however much a self-promoter he was, a man of genuine courage.  His shoot-out with Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, set the pattern for future gun duels in fact and fiction:  The two former friends had multiple grievances against each other, but the turning point was Hickock’s accusation that Tutt had stolen his watch and Tutt’s claim that the watch was collateral for Wild Bill’s gambling debt to him.  Insults and threats were exchanged, but they agreed not to fight.  When Tutt was seen, once again, wearing the watch, Hickock walked down the street, Navy Colt in hand.  When he saw Tutt, he told him “Don’t you come across here with that watch.  Hickock holstered his gun, and the two men stood sideways in the dueling position.  Tutt drew first, and Hickock pulled his gun, steadied it on his other arm, and took careful aim.  The two men fired at the same time, and Tutt fell dead with a bullet in his ribs. While arranged meeting in the street were never the prevailing norm for gunfights in the West, they were far from unknown. A great deal has been written on Wild Bill and the gun duel, but I should be remiss if I did not pay tribute to a friend and fine historian who has shaped my views on the West: Roger McGrath.

American Dueling

It used to be believed that dueling was unknown in America until it was introduced by French and British officers in the War for Independence.  Duels may have become more fashionable, but already in 1778 the most famous SC duel was fought between Christopher Gadsden and Maj Gen Robert Howe of NC.  Famous as it was, the Gadsden-Howe encounter was hardly the first duel in Lowcountry.  In 1761, in the course of the Cherokee War, militia col. Thomas Middleton and British Col James Grant had exchanged insults.  When Middleton slapped Grant, duel became inevitable.

Dueling, with all its punctilio and ceremony, was a recreation for gentlemen.  More representative of the Western Americans of those days was Andrew Jackson, who did not need any lace-cuffed French officers to tell him his duty.  His mother had already supplied him with a code: "Never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own nor sue for slander.  Settle them cases yourself."  And settle them he did, in duels, in brawls, and in street fights.

The conditions of frontier life encouraged a more informal approach to matters of life and death.  Andrew Jackson fought many duels, but his encounter with the Benton brothers in 1813 was something else.  Jackson, who had a grudge against the Benton brothers, caught sight of Thomas Hart Benton in a Nashville tavern and threatened to kill him.  The quarrels dated back to a duel between Jesse Benton and William Carroll, a future governor of Tennessee.  Jackson had served as second.  While both antagonists survived, there was bad blood between Old Hickory and the Bentons.

Jackson and Benton both went for their pistols, but the general drew first and was marching Thomas Hart out the door of the tavern.  The general was, however, shot in the back by Jesse Benton before his own friends John Coffee and Stockley Hays entered the fray.  By the time it was over, the various participants used pistols--for shooting and clubbing--a sword cane, and a dirk in their attempts to kill each other.  Though often called the Jackson-Bentons duel, the proper term for a public brawl involving two more more combatants is affray.  It is not a duel, because duels are planned in advance and fought according to agreed-upon rules.  Thomas Hart Benton was later an eloquent advocate for dueling, and, in his memoirs of his life in Congress, he responded to a Congressional act making dueling within the District a capital crime.  While deploring the loss of good so many good men who had fallen in duels, he defended the custom as both better than brawls fought with knives and guns on the pretext of self-defense and as indispensable to honor: “There is usually equality of terms; and it would not be called an affair of honor if honor was not to prevail all round; and if the satisfying a point of honor, and not vengeance, was not the end to be attained.”

The Bentons wisely decided to abandon Tennessee and move to Missouri. The hard feelings, however, faded away, as they do so often after two boys have fought it out.  In time Thomas Hart Benton became President Jackson's chief lieutenant in the House of Representatives.  When Old Hickory finally did have the bullet removed from his back, he sent it to his former enemy, with a note indicating that he was returning Benton's property.  Benton scribbled on the reverse his own note, saying the bullet belonged to Jackson by right of long possession.  Affrays may involve questions of honor or self-defense, but they can just as easily be ignited by bullying, drunken rages, or simple misunderstanding.

Much ink has been wasted by sensitive historians and editorialists who condemn the irrational violence of war, duels, blood feuds, vigilantee groups, and lynch mobs.  The grim reality is that all these institutions come into being to impose order on the anarchic violence that springs from human nature.  Chickens have their pecking order, baboons their hierarchies, and normal men are forever seeking greater access to better food, more desirable women, and the power to push rather than be pushed.  Civilized men have devised various institutions by which these impulses can be channelled into more productive and less dangerous directions:  marriage and the family, property and contract law, trial by jury and judicial combat,  war and peace≥

That the wrong men are killed is, to say the least, a serious flaw in the institutions, but there is more than a grain of truth in General “Buck” Turgidson’s obtuse response in Doctor Strangelove.  When the President, understandably  upset that a rogue Air Force officer has probably brought on the end of the world,  points out there are supposed to be personnel reliability tests, the gum-chewing general replies in a self-righteous tone.: “I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn an entire program because of a single slip-up.”  In fact, institutionalized violence --as opposed to the utopian hypocrisy of power-seeking pacifists--is far more likely to preserve human life,   Without war, the only peace would be subjugation; without vigilantees, blood feuds, and lynchers, many societies would have no justice; and without duels—occasions on which men faced death to prove their good character and fealty—people less civilized than Greeks, Romans, and Chinese would have no honor.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina