Properties of Blood I.7: Dueling for Honor, Part E (Finis!)

Having serious second thoughts about even including this chapter in the volume. I am bringing it to a rather hasty conclusion. 


Like other reformers, opponents of dueling had a simple-minded faith in their remedy:  Eliminate they evil cause, and the problem—in this case, violence—is eliminated.  They had not reckoned with human reality. (Reformers never do.)  If men seek property and status, they will continue to seek them, albeit by perverse means, in a communist state, and in unsettled times, where young men are used to fighting, a prohibition on formal dueling merely encourages (at least for the time being) more informal means of homicide.

Christian Opposition to Dueling

Not all opposition to dueling is based on pacifism or on a naive optimism about the effects of progress on human nature.  Dueling per se is a barbarian custom, countenance neither in the laws of Rome nor in the moral and legal codes of the institution that succeeded to the Roman Empire: the Christian Church. Since dueling was unknown in the ancient world, nothing in Scripture expressly forbids it.  Of course, nothing in Scripture expressly forbids dropping atomic weapons on civilian populations or marrying a member of the same sex, but there can be no doubt what Christian teaching is on both abominations.

The Catholic Church has been the most outspoken in condemning the duel, but Protestant divines have been, for the most part, strongly opposed.  To pick on example from a multitude, the Anglican Jeremy Taylor, in The Art of Holy Dying, strongly condemns dueling.  While it is true, he argues that we have a duty to “to preserve our own lives, the lives of our relatives, and all with whom we converse (or who can need us, and we assist)…” and “to preserve our health and the integrity of our bodies and minds, and of others;” nonetheless,  they sin who kill or harm another and also who “fight duels or commence unjust wars.”

Since dueling came into Protestant countries later than it entered Italy and France, the attack on dueling also arrived a bit later.  Nonetheless, “By 1600, English preachers had included dueling among the vices to be warned against in sermons, while French anti-dueling books were translated into English.”  Dutch preachers also attacked this aristocratic vice among so many others, though there was a disagreement among Protestants over whether the fight between David and Goliath constituted a duel.

From the beginning, dueling—though not the sense of honor—was alien to the traditions of Roman law and the Roman Church.  Early forms of judicial combat, as I pointed out earlier, were condemned, and, while Otto the Great did push the Church into acquiescing in judicial duels, the dominant tendency was always in opposition to barbarian trials by ordeal and by combat. The Church never sanctioned any form of private dueling, but the Church has always had to deal with men in the world as it is, even as it was teaching them to adhere to higher standards.  Clergymen, because they were not required to take part in judicial combat, could chose a replacement to serve as champion, but all too many clerical aristocrats were perfectly capable of defending themselves.

Popes and Councils condemned dueling repeatedly, and it is sometimes argued that the Council of Trent’s condemnation caused the disappearance of the practice.  The Council declared that“The abominable practice of dueling, introduced by the contrivance of the devil, that by the cruel death of the body he may bring about also the destruction of the soul, should be utterly eradicated from the Christian world.”  Not only were duelists themselves excommunicated but also “Emperor, kings, dukes, princes, marquises, counts, and temporal rulers by whatever other name known, who shall within their territories grant a place for dueling between Christians.”

Catholic rulers in Europe were not slow to follow a ruling that was so congenial to strengthening their own growing authority.  Philip II outlawed dueling in his province of Brabant, and French kings began passing laws by the end of the 16th century.  The Parlement de Paris (1599) condemned it as a form of lese-majesté, and some members of the French nobility—though by no means a majority—followed the Church and the royal fashion.  Nonetheless, far from disappearing, dueling underwent an upsurge. Kings would condemn dueling and threaten duelists with death, but pardons were far more frequent than executions.  Early on the Church rejected the argument that a gentleman, if challenged, could rightly accept if he ran the risk of being accounted a coward, and Benedict XIV (in 1752) repeated this condemnation and added that soldiers might not engage in duels for military honor nor priests in defense of their religion.  To the argument that a man of honor has a right to kill someone to prevent calumniation or insult, Innocent XI went so far as to say that if a man were struck a blow, he should try to make his escape.

In defiance of Church anathemas and royal threats, Catholic aristocrats went on killing each other over points of honor well into the 20th century.  In Liberal Italy, the practice, which had been monopolized by the nobility, was taken up by the Middle Class, as Steven Hughes has shown, and the young Mussolini fought five duels, though like most strong rulers, Il Duce would eventually suppress a custom that encouraged too much individual initiative.

Since dueling did not disappear even in the enlightened days of 19th century liberalism, the Church has had to repeat its condemnation.  Leo XIII summed up the case in a pastoral epistle in which he declares that both divine wisdom and natural reason teach that one may not kill or wound a man extra causam publicam, except when it is a case of self-defense, which is not the case of those who provoke a duel or undertake a challenge, even if one accepts a challenge from fear of public opinion.


Humane and enlightened men--and women, particularly--have always objected to the barbarity of dueling, but more compelling than any argument drawn from the shedding of innocent blood was the steady erosion of the moral sentiment that inspired the duel: the sense of personal honor.  William Godwin, a philosopher who could scarcely imagine what the word meant, thought it enough to say to the offended party:

“Sir, I will not accept your challenge.  Have I injured you?  I will readily and without compulsion repair my injustice repair my injustice to the uttermost mite.  Have you misconstrued me? State to me the particulars, and doubt not that what is true I will make appear to be true.  I should be a notorious criminal were I to attempt your life, or assist you in an attempt upon mine" etcetera etcetera.”

By this time the challenger would have decided that he was wasting his time appealing to a non-existent sense of honor and would either horsewhip the philosopher or have the law of him.  Godwin found the very idea of honor preposterous. He was an enlightened individualist, liberated from religion and convention, and free to live in what used to be known as sin with a woman who bore his child, and he did not scruple to beg money from Percy Shelley, a married man who had seduced his daughter.

Dueling depends on a sense of honor, and for men to feel a sense of honor, they cannot be detached individualist but members of a community that shares their values.  Dueling fell out of favor in Britain and the American Northeast, not because Englishmen and Americans were becoming more civilized: That popular hypothesis is refuted by the barbarism of the American War Between the States, the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, and the two World Wars.  No one with any knowledge of history could conclude anything but that we have entered a dark age, darker than the centuries when the Roman Empire was parceled out among Germanic chieftains.  Ours is an age when the rape of women, molestation of children, suicide, drug, addiction, and insanity are commonplace, when city-dwellers are exposed to the rudeness and depravity of their fellow-citizens and are not protected from armed invaders of an alien race.  No post-apocalypse film has begun to do justice to the evils of our own time, because no film-maker understands the past well enough to know what civilization was like.  It took the psychotic genius of Philip K. Dick to imagine the demented world that we take for granted.

Dueling was an undoubtedly barbaric means of defending honor.  It did not disappear because we found more peaceful means of settling disputes but, rather, because the social conditions in which honor flourishes were already in decay in urban America and England.  Most people in most ages are blind to the realities of their time, and there is hardly a textbook or general history in the late 19th century that did not celebrate The Promise of American Life—the title of one of the stupidest books of the 20th century.  Politicians and journalists on both right and left continue to repeat, “Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better,” as they watch their children grow up watching fornicating vampires on television to the accompaniment of Death Metal rock and rap.

This is what Mark Twain thought he believed, when he wrote Life on the Mississippi (1883) as part of his futile effort to prove he was not a Southerner.  But by 1889, when he published his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he seems not so sure.  Although he had earlier ridiculed the “Sir Walter disease” of Medieval honor and spends most of Connecticut Yankee ridiculing chivalry and attacking Christianity, the self-invented Yankee author had come to deplore the material and social devastation caused by his progressive notions.  As the novel ends, Camelot has been swallowed up in the filth of 19th century industrialism and engulfed in a nightmare of technological warfare that looks forward to World War I but might well have been inspired by the Glorious Union’s conquest of the South.

In a letter to J.H. Twotchell in 1905, the embittered ex-Southerner admits that the 19th century had made progress but only in “materialities.”

“In Europe and America there is a vast change (due to them) in ideals…All Europe and all America are feverishly scrambling for money…Money-lust has always existed, but not in the history of the world was it ever a craze, a madness,until your time and mine.  This lust has rotted these nations; it has made them hard, sordid, ungentle, dishonest, and oppressive.”

Twain was a man in conflict: He lamented the passing of a kindler and more courteous era but repudiated the principles of honor and chivalry on which that defended the old society.

Dueling was not a sport practiced by Medieval Germans; it was one of the arts invented by Renaissance Italians, who shared it with the French.  England, being a cultural backwater, took it up a bit later.  In the early 17th century, Francis Markham, who prized all things honorable, defended the custom as indispensable to the defense of honor,  “a thing so precious, that many old Laws for the defense and tuition of the same, have admitted Duels, unlawful (otherwise) altogether; and it is so neare a neighbour unto a man’s life, that hee is ever accounted cruell to himself, that is carelesse of his Reputation.”

A Renaissance humanist (that is, a classical scholar) might have responded to Markham by pointing out that Greeks and Romans were able to maintain their honor without ever adopting so crude and irrational a custom.  Unfortunately, 1500 years after the fall of the Western Empire and 500 years after the Islamic-terrorist capture of Constantinople, we are still the true heirs of our barbarian ancestors—Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic.  We cannot, apparently, defend our honor—indeed, our lives, our families, and our property—from street thugs and alien invaders, unless we are willing to reassume the duties we once carried out in a savage state.

Greeks, Romans, learned to adjudicate matters without recourse to violence, but what could be done today, when the media and public officials routinely slander not just opponents but anyone who gets in their way or whose point of view conflicts with their own—even if they have adopted their view of same sex marriage or transgenderism or global warming only recently.


The American Declaration of Independence concludes with a pledge that should suggest, even today, that republican government rests upon not only the virtue of the citizens but on their honor: “With a firm reliance on divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

One of the signer, Button Gwinett was killed in a duel in which he defended his honor against a rival who had called him a scoundrel.  Washington’s officers fought several duels to defend the commander’s honor, and one of his staff officers, Alexander Hamilton, died in a duel, as did Stephen Decatur, the hero of the War with the Barbary Pirates.  Perhaps the South’s refusal to repudiate the defense of honor rests, like States Rights and moral integrity, on a collective hallucination.  If so, the delusions began to fade after the South’s loss shook the foundations of Southern life to the core.  There was a rash of duels fought in the 1870’s, but the young men prone to violence went West, where they could still kill each other with impunity.

The Cash-Shannon duel of 1880 spelled the end of dueling in SC, but it did not eliminate the sense of honor among men who had been brought up to it.  Francis Dawson, the English-born editor of the News and Courier had led the fight against dueling.  He was no coward-had come to America as a youth to fight for the Confederacy and there was no braver officer in the South.  When in 1889 he discovered that a neighbor had seduced his children’s French governess, Dawson went in a rage and confronted the seducer.  What happened exactly in the course of the argument will never be known, but the result was Dawson lay dead of a bullet wound.  Tried for murder, the seducer, who claimed that Dawson had attacked him, was acquitted.  If a formal duel had been fought, there is little doubt that it would have been Frank Dawson who killed his man.

When American states outlawed dueling, they did not bring an end to violent encounters between armed men.  J. Grahame Long points out that in South Carolina, ten years after the ban on dueling, the homicide rate “skyrocketed, tripling that of all the New England states combined.”  Long, no apologist for dueling, wryly concludes:  “Unlike coldblooded murder, dueling’s rituals deserve a little credit.”

Social revolutions have consequences that are hard to anticipate.  Dueling was—as I have reluctantly had to conclude—a bad business, but the sense of honor that gave rise to the practice was and is essential to civilization.  That young men no longer go to what is now Hampton Park to kill each other, is a good thing.  That young South Carolinians grow up with so little honor and so slight a sense of family and community that they murder strangers in a church, it seems to me, is far worse.

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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

11 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    With two sections called Conclusion(s), it will need some serious editing if you decide to keep it Dr. Fleming.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, indeed. In the course of rewriting the chapters on violence, before posting them, I chopped, rearranged, redivided, and inserted. The muddle is easily fixed. What is not so easy to settle is the logical connection of dueling with the rest of the volume. Of course, it is relevant, but is it necessary?

  3. Dot says:

    The idea of a duel is so preposterous to me that only a man would do something like that. To place honor above the inherent worth and dignity of an individual is the most irrational thing I ever heard of. To be willing to duel over that is worse.

    For two males to be willing to plan to meet for a duel and be willing to die for their honor is a disrespect for God the creator. It is the planning of it that is awful.

    All wars are duels – whether between 2 men or between allies vs. adversaries of nations. In that sense, duels will never be eradicated.

    Peace is an illusion.

    From the beginning of time there has been a “duel” between good and evil. I sometimes think that evil is willing out.

    Every December we take a break and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Then the duel commences again. I guess it’s in our nature as rational beings?

  4. Dot says:

    Excuse me. In the second to last sentence I meant “I sometimes think that evil is winning out”.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    One way to determine if it is necessary is to take it out. Then see if its omission leaves any unanswered questions. If so, answer those questions.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    If only it were that easy!

  7. Vince Cornell says:

    May I offer my own meager vote that the section on dueling should stay? I vote this way for several reasons. First, it’s valuable information and directly related to the topic. Perhaps there are ways to shape it to make it fit more seamlessly, but to understand the history of dueling and the world it supported is not insignificant. Second, in a world that grows more barbaric every day and in which justice is getting harder and harder to find through official channels (law enforcement, the legal system . . .etc.), dueling may become more topical than it has in a long run.

    If there was a way to instill the ideas of honor and cowardice into the barbarian hordes that currently roam city streets in packs to loot, riot, and pummel innocents at ratios of 20, 30, or 40 to 1, that could go a long way in starting the process of civilizing the world all over again (and it will be a long process at that). I’ve often pondered over a business venture that provided a fighting ring (ala UFC), a medical staff, and cards. Let the issuing of cards take the place of formal challenges, and let men, one-on-one, fight in the ring to defend honor. Perhaps we need not go to the death in order to make the point? Sadly, one would need to win over a Clovis or two so that more influential gang leaders could make this take hold among the masses of ill-bred savages, but I’d welcome an increase in broken limbs, concussions, and/or contusions earned in single combat if it meant a decrease in mob beatings, drive by shootings, and sucker punch heroes.

    Given the direction the world is going, lessons will soon have to be taught primarily through physical means. You can already see the appeal of this to many misguided youths in the popularity given to movies like Fight Club and the MMA competitions (heck, even in professional wrestling which appears to never lose its appeal). Physical prowess is certainly a critical component in the thug lifestyle’s vision of itself. Tying honor to one of the physical instruments that made the concept live and thrive in the hearts of young men from ages past is not just important to remember, it may provide the necessary path through this valley of beasts to a time when men understand again what actually separates them from the brute animals.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Cornell, thanks for the lone vote in support of the chapter. It inspired me–if inspire is really an appropriate word for anything in this chapter–to cut off the opening pages of Chapter 6–all the dueling material–and put it at the beginning of 7. I need to expand 6 slightly, perhaps by going back to the encounter between Agamemnon and Achilles in Iliad I, but some of the duels in 7 can be eliminated, especially the Charleston material, which I borrowed from a lecture I gave on Southern dueling last year. By eliminating some examples, I can make the outline of the argument clearer.

    Dot, much of this chapter is an exercise in definition. By definition, a war is not a duel, nor is a fight in the street. If dueling is an affront to our maker–because we are misusing His gifts, the same can be said of most of our pursuits, such as selling real estate, watching television, planning for the future, and reading things on this website. Well, you could retort, those vain pursuits may be necessary in this sublunar world. Men and women have to work to get food and shelter and plan for their children’s futures. They also have to inform themselves to the point that they can be good citizens and neighbors. (But consider the lilies in the field! ) In other words, in this life–if we are not saints and probably even then–good and bad are often mixed up. The sense of honor, as I think I showed in the previous chapter, is inherent in the cultures that formed Christianity and was never repudiated but rather affirmed (though reinterpreted) by the Church. Many fine young men, foolishly or not, have taken part in duels. Surely, they could not all of them have been mockers and blasphemers. The object of this chapter, which I have plainly failed to achieve, was to disentangle the decent impulses that made dueling popular from mere fashion and homicidal mania. Let us suppose we have only two choices: A) A society in which brave men defend their families and their property from bullies and aggressors and volunteer to fight to defend their country, or B) A society of cowards who laugh at honor and at risking their lives for anyone. It is the choice between, say, Robert E.Lee and Schweik. Although we have never met, I think I can predict that Dot would choose A every time.

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming, it appears you are doing what I suggested, but in one fell swoop instead of two steps. In addition, you could include an expanded discussion of dueling, with or without recommended additional reading, in an appendix.

  10. Bagby says:

    I love your work on duelling, Dr. Fleming. You ought to include this chapter in your book. I am willing to admit it is a male folly, Madam Dot, but it is one I would bring back into practice if I was a lawmaker.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks, it is definitely going in. I am editing volume 1 now.