Properties of Blood I.7, Dueling for Honor, Part D

The Anglo-Saxon Myth  and American Realities

What that sense of honor still meant to some American men of the last century can be gathered from John Lyde Wilson's The Code of Honor (1838).  Wilson, a former governor of South Carolina, censured "the indiscriminate and frequent appeal to arms, to settle trivial disputes and misunderstandings," but his handbook was written to reform, not extinguish a practice, which, he argued, "will be persisted in as long as a manly independence and a lofty personal pride, in all that dignifies and ennobles the human character, shall continue to exist."  Turning the other cheek might be Christian forbearance, conceded the governor, but it was repugnant to the natural feelings of the human character.  If it were possible to enact and enforce laws against dueling, he predicted, "all that is honorable in the community would quit the country, and inhabit the wilderness with the indians."  Thirty years earlier, one reluctant American duelist, had already gone to live with the indians to escape the restrictions of town life.  A young Sam Houston was apparently convinced that the heroes of Homer's Iliad had returned to earth as Cherokee braves.

Houston would not really have needed either the Achaeans or the Cherokee as role models:  Tennesseans like Crockett and Jackson would have served almost as well.  In one sense Americans were only returning to their roots, both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, when they reasserted their right to defend not only their persons but their honor.  To some extent, the rough customs of the colonials represented a folkish and naive continuity of old British traditions, but among the literate classes, Anglo-Saxon attitudinizing played a key role in preparing the nation for secession from Britain.  The rebels of 1776, as H. Trevor Colbourn has shown (in The Lamp of Experience) adopted the Saxon Myth that had been crafted by the English Whigs in their assertion of parliamentary rights against the crown's prerogatives.  The Saxons, so it was argued, had been a free people ruled over by a king whose power was limited by the elected Witenagemot.  This much, even the skeptical John Adams was willing to accept, though he confessed that little was actually known of Saxon political institutions.

Virginians went further than the Yankee Adams, and Richard Bland pointed out that in leaving the continent, the Anglo-Saxons had also shaken off subjection to their old rulers.  Their descendants, he concluded, in coming to the New World, had freed themselves of allegiance to the crown.  Thomas Jefferson adopted this view with enthusiasm, and he wanted to put Hengist and Horsa (the leaders of the Saxon colonists) on the Great Seal of the United States and recommended the teaching of Anglo-Saxon at the university he founded.

The difference between Whigs and Tories, in Jefferson's simplistic opinion, lay in their differing approaches to history: While Tories based the power of the king on the Norman conquest, the Whigs traced English liberties back to Alfred and beyond.  It was partly his affection for the Saxon myth that inspired Jefferson's aversion to David Hume's History of England.  A better historian than the Whigs, Hume could find no evidence of the peaceful Saxon constitutionalists so dear to Whig historians like Paul Rapin de Thoyras, Mrs. MacCauley, and their American admirers.  What he found was perhaps more essential to the defense of liberties.  The weakness of the Saxon state, buffeted by frequent foreign invasions, meant that Saxon kings did not rely upon standing armies but on the militia of "ceorles or husbandmen...provided with arms and...obliged to take their turn in military duty."  George Mason (another Virginian) concluded that standing armies were the instruments of tyranny and that a revived Saxon militia would be "the natural strength and only stability of a free government."

In the mind of many Americans, then, “Saxon” customs of armed self-defense, resistance to aggression, and the willingness to engage in private fighting were at the root of American liberties.  The Saxon ceorles, so Hume argued,  were willing to defend their own, as well as their king's interest.  "The natural bravery of the people made every man trust to himself and to his particular friends for his defence or vengeance....An insult upon any man was regarded by all his relations an associates as a common injury... They retaliated on the aggressor by like acts of violence."  Under centuries of centralized government, the English had gradually lost their Saxon bloodlust, but many of the families that settled the American frontier came from border areas in Britain and Ireland, where the habits of violent self-reliance had not been extinguished.  It is also clear, from the homicide cases in 17th century England, that Londoners were not entirely subdued.  In any event, the settlers brought the germ of these ancient attitudes with them as they brought the seeds of old world plants.  Both were to get a new life in the new world.

There were many famous duels in American history, and the most famous—between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr-did not involve Southerners.  But even in 1804, this duel between two New Yorkers was greeted rather differently in the two regions.  In the North, Burr—who was the challenger—was commonly denounced, while in South Carolina, it was well understood that Hamilton had deliberately insulted his rival.  Now, it is more than likely that Burr was as great a scoundrel as Hamilton made him out to be, but even a scoundrel has his honor:  He needs to be able to hold up his head among his family and friends.  South Carolinians generally treated Burr as a hero, and not only because his daughter Theodosia had married into the prominent Allston family.

The encounter was held at a dueling ground, already famous, in Weehauken, New Jersey.  Hamilton’s brother-in-law and son were both involved in duels at Weehawken, as were other prominent New Yorkers.  DeWitt Clinton, Hamilton’s political ally and future governor of New York, also faced his man there in 1802, as did naval hero Oliver Hazzard  Perry (of Rhode Island) in 1818.  Duels continued to be fought on these famous grounds with some regularly until the 1830’s,  but at the last meeting (in 1845) the contestants loaded their guns with with corks instead of bullets.

For one reason or another, the custom had begun to languish in the Northeastern states, but the duel continued to flourish in the more luxuriant soil of the South and did not entirely die out as a quasi-legal practice in South Carolina until the end of the 19th century.  Even in the North, military officers—particularly young naval officers—fought many duels, despite all the laws and regulations passed to stop the practice.  The great hero of the war against the barbary pirates, Stephen Decatur, was second in a duel between two senior officers, and in 1820 Commodore Decatur was himself killed in a duel with Commodore Barron.  Decatur was a Marylander and Barron a Virginian, but many of the dueling midshipmen came from North of the line drawn by Mason and Dixon.  Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, but he would preside over the North’s successful crusade to keep the South in the Union, but even Lincoln was  challenged to a duel over insults he put into a newspaper article


Duels have been fought for many reasons, and sometimes on the slightest pretext.  The French were particularly prone to seeking out occasions for dueling for dueling’s sake, and, as improbable as the fictional exploits of D’Artagnan and the Musketeers appear to us, they are nothing in comparison to the reality of French swordsmen.  Even Conrad’s novella The Duelists, in which two of Napoleon’s officers spend their lives fighting duels with each other, does not overstate the reality of honor-obsessed military men:  One fights eagerly out of resentment and pride, while the other fights, albeit grudginly, because he does not know how he can turn down a challenge without losing face

In Western movies—though not in reality—it is common for one gunslinger to challenge another to prove which had the faster gun.  In the old west, such combats are largely the creation of dime novelists, but such encounters were frequent in France, where noted duelists would go looking to start a fight with swordsmen of repute.  The South produced a few men of this stamp, e.g., the morbid Alexander McClung, but even among violence-prone Southern duelists, there was usually a stronger motive for a duel than competitive pride.

Many duels were caused by incautious words that were interpreted as damaging to the reputation. In societies where dueling flourishes, it pays to be careful about what you say about another man, and not only to his face.  Rumors of Alexander Hamilton’s slurs on Aaron Burr’s character led to the duel in which Hamilton was killed, and, as in modern British libel suits, truth is no defense.

In any society whose morals are grounded in honor and shame, lying is condemned and to be called a liar is a grave insult—a wound that needs to be healed, a wrong that must be avenged.  Of course, in every society there are exceptions, as I have explained earlier.  In many traditional societies, men are not bound to tell the truth to children or social inferiors, enemies or even aliens.  Achilles says he hates a lie like the gates of Hell, but Odysseus, especially in the Odyssey, is a master-trickster and consummate liar.  In his defense, we should note that he is forced to travel among strangers disguised as a beggar.  Knowledge is power and to know whether a visitor is a pirate or perhaps an enemy of my people is knowledge I can use against him.  Odysseus’ great sin, in fact, was his arrogant confession to Polyphemus the Cyclops, that his name was not really Outis (No one) but Odysseus, son of Laertes. Armed with this information, Polyphemus was able to invoke the aid of his father Poseidon, who caused most of the  hero’s subsequent misfortunes.

Odysseus and his peculiar situation aside, truth-telling was a great virtue for the Greeks, and lying a vice.  Germanic Barbarians, while they also lied to strangers, told the truth in their own societies and would not brook being called a liar.  This somewhat primitive response lies behind Sir Walter Raleigh’s claim that “To give the lie deserves no less than stabbing.”

Giving the lie, that is, to state or imply that a man has uttered something untrue, is complicated.  Shakespeare’s Touchstone gives seven degrees:  He explains that he had said a courtier’s beard was not well cut.  The courtier sends a message that he was of a mind it was.  The quarrel escalates but anything is pardonable except to give the lie direct. When, in the course of a trial, a lawyer said the account given by Andrew Jackson was not true, Jackson did not ask for an apology but demanded an immediate meeting: “I hope you can do without dinner until the business is done.”

Jackson was a violent frontiersman, who believed in direct action, but the code to which he tried to live up was almost chivalrous in its sensitivity to insult and reverence for a woman’s reputation.  Like many Americans, Jackson was far from the harbinger of the future—as progressive historians have made him out to be—but a relic of the past.  In Europe, the progressives who ran the slaughterhouse known politely as The French Revolution had already wrecked Jackson’s moral universe.

The age of chivalry is dead, sighed Edmund Burke in the early days of the French Revolution.  The occasion of the remark was the rabbling of Marie Antoinette. Burke was aware of the foibles and follies of the French aristocracy, but he also knew that their sense of honor was precious: “They felt a stain as a wound.”  The Revolution that Burke diagnosed so early in its career would damage more than honor.  Within a few years, the Jacobins would murder the King and Queen, smash the aristocracy, and terrorize and subjugate the Church.  In time, the toxins that poisoned France would spread to Europe, Britain, and America.  Before we were all socialists, we were all Jacobins, and as Jacobins we can scarcely grasp the civilization whose fall Burke was lamenting.  In Burke’s Ireland, dueling was a favorite sport, and the only serious opposition came not from British law—much less public disapproval—but from the Catholic Church that has consistently condemned personal vengeance and dueling in defense of honor.

Dueling remained as popular in the American South as it was in Ireland.  Many Southern duels were fought over “mere words,” uttered privately or published in newspapers or included in legal documents, as in the Cash-Shannon duel.  In the various dueling codes, certain mildly offensive slurs could be pardoned, if pardon was asked, but it was harder—if not impossible—to get out of a meeting, if you had slandered a man’s wife or daughter or some other woman closely connected to him.  Many of Andrew Jackson’s duels had to do with insults, real or imagined, on his wife Rachel’s character.  Since Rachel had married Andrew some time before getting a divorce from her first husband, Old Hickory was naturally sensitive.

Newspapers, because they were so widely circulated, were often the cause of duel.  Our precious freedom of the press was then and is now often invoked as the freedom to libel.  One of the earliest newspaper duels in America took place in 1804, when William Coleman, editor of the New York Post, killed New York’s harbormaster in a duel that resulted from a dispute with James Cheetham, editor of the New York Citizen, who claimed that Coleman had fathered mulatto child.  That duel was stopped by third parties, but the harbormaster, who was a friend of Cheetham, claimed Coleman was a coward and had leaked out information in order to prevent the encounter from taking place.

Along with Louisiana and Mississippi, South Carolina offered a luxurious climate for the duel.  At least six editors are known to have been involved in duels in ante-bellum South Carolina.  The most famous was fought in 1856 between Edmund ward Magrath and William Taber, editor of Charleston Mercury.  Magrath had been incensed by three letters, published pseudonymously in the Mercury, that attacked his brother, a federal judge and congressional candidate.  McGrath felt himself morally compelled to defend his brother’s honor. The letters, signed “Nullifier,” were actually written by Edmund Rhett who stepped forward and claimed the privilege of fighting, but the 28 year old Taber insisted that he was defending the freedom of the press to tell the truth.  After the combatants exchanged two rounds of fire to no effect, the seconds attempted to arrange a suitable formula to preserve the honor of both parties, but the young newspaperman quibbled with the wording and fell dead at the next exchange.  Taber was a brave young man—the handsomest in the state, according to Mary Boykin Chesnutt, who got “the blues,” seeing his monument—a broken column—in the graveyard.  He died for his misplaced devotion to freedom of the press and for the libels his newspaper published.

The Mercury was pro-nullification, anti-abolition, and anti-Union, while Judge Gordon Magrath was a prudent man and known for his willingness to cooperate with Northern Democrats.  Robert Barnwell Rhett, the fire-eating owner of the Mercury, treated Judge Magrath as a traitor to his state.  Neither the letter-writer nor William Taber—a close relatives of Barnwell Rhett and his younger brother Edmund—could concede that a South Carolinian might be loyal to his state without rushing into a ruinous war.  In 1860, Judge Magrath resigned his judgeship rather than serve under President Lincoln.  He participated actively in the state’s secession convention, and served as last Confederate Governor of the State.  As unfortunate as Taber’s death was, perhaps the editors of the Mercury should have been more careful about choice of epithets.

Editors in Mississippi and Louisiana were, if anything, more prone to dueling than South Carolina newspapermen, and as Southern writers moved West, they brought their prickly tempers with them.  As a young editor, even the ironic turncoat, Samuel Clemmons, was not immune.  In Nevada in the 1860’s, Mark Twaine challenged a timorous rival editor to a duel. Twaine’s friend scared off the rival by boasting of Marks’ shooting prowess.  He recounts the episode in a humorous article, “How I escaped being killed in a duel,” which he concluded by saying:

I have written this true incident of my personal history for one purpose, and one purpose only—to warn the youth of the day against the pernicious practice of duelling, and to plead with them to war against it. If the remarks and suggestions I am making can be of any service to Sunday-school teachers, and newspapers interested in the moral progress of society, they are at liberty to use them, and I shall even be grateful to have them widely disseminated, so that they may do as much good as possible. I was young and foolish when I challenged that gentleman, and I thought it was very fine and very grand to be a duellist, and stand upon the "field of honor." But I am older and more experienced now, and am inflexibly opposed to the dreadful custom. I am glad, indeed, to be enabled to lift up my voice against it. I think it is a bad, immoral thing. I think it is even, man's duty to do everything he can to discourage duelling. I always do now; I discourage it upon every occasion.

“If a man were to challenge me now—now that I can fully appreciate the iniquity of that practice—I would go to that man, and take him by the hand, and lead him to a quiet, retired room—and kill him.”

Twaine’s conclusion is not perhaps so frivolous as it sounds:  The criminalization of dueling did not immediately put an end to homicidal encounters.  On the contrary:  Dispensing with the formalities of the code, men still felt compelled to shoot each other.  In 1903 South Carolina Lieutenant Governor James Tillman, nephew of Senator “Pitchfork” Ben, killed editor Narciso Gonzalez, founder of the Columbia State newspaper.  Several decades earlier, Tillman would have challenged Gonzalez, but the prosecutions and legislation that followed the Cash-Shannon duel made murder seem the more practical solution of the problem.  Still, Tillman successfully justified his act of coldblooded premeditated murder, by claiming that he had challenged Gonzalez to a duel, but the newspaperman had accepted.

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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