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What Was The Psychology Behind Dueling?

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Dueling works great as a dramatic device, but, legally and morally, it proves nothing. So why did so many people use it to settle scores and right wrongs? Take a look at why people would murder each other, semi-legally, on a regular basis.

The Weird Origins of Dueling

Dueling is and was framed as a way to work out social injustices and personal slights. That is insane. There is no connection between who can wield a sword and who is guilty or innocent. And as for social problems, if calling someone's sister a jade is cause for deep personal animosity, shooting someone's brother with a pistol seems like it would cause even more acrimony. How could a society in which people decide to pointlessly murder each other over card games hold itself together?


Duels, at first, were fairly useful. They put a cap on societal strife. People had problems, and without an over-reaching legal system to work them out, combat wasn't a terrible solution. Relative to a family or societal feud, a fight to the death between two people following pre-arranged rules was a great way to contain damage during a dispute.


There's even a precedent for equating physical superiority with moral superiority. Up until the 9th century, people would commonly go through "trials by ordeal." The two people with the dispute, or their proxies, would undergo some physical challenge. Whoever stood up to it longest was declared the victor. The most common ordeal, and the one that shows how righteous such duels were considered, was the ordeal of the cross. The two people undergoing the challenge would stand next to each other and raise their arms as if they were being crucified. Whoever dropped their arms first lost. That particular ordeal was outlawed in the late 800s, not because physical prowess didn't prove anything, but because religious leaders decided that imitating Christ on the cross was blasphemous.

Things Get More Complicated

As wholesale slaughters and poisonings became less and less common, and the law took over, dueling became more about "honor" than specific rights and wrongs. The requirements of such "honor" varied widely. Multiple official dueling codes sprang up, but they couldn't entirely rein in what was, at its heart, two angry people deciding to hurt each other. Mismatches in ideas about proper etiquette led to a lot of complications, some of which ended in farce and some of which ended in tragedy.

At least one duel sprang from a lawsuit. In 1712, a suit between two noblemen had spent over a decade in the court system, and they were both sick of waiting. One man challenged his opponent to settle the matter with a duel. The two fought it out, and both died. That, at least, ended their lawsuit.


A duelist's choice of second was critical to the outcome of the duel. The right second could go between the two duelists, massaging the feelings of both until both sides professed themselves satisfied and the duel was called off. On the other hand, some seconds would stoke the fires on both sides until someone ended up dead. Seconds could also negotiate terms, like the type of weapon and the extent of the duel. Two duelists could agree to a sword fight during which, at the first sign of blood, the duel was over. They could also negotiate a duel in which two participants stood five feet away from each other and blasted each other with guns until one fell dead.

Duels did not always stop less organized violence. When tempers were flaring, a formal sword fight wasn't enough. Andrew Jackson, America's fightingest president, got involved in a brawl in a hotel because of a duel in which he acted merely as a second. Jackson had been the second and the witness to a duel in which a man named Jesse Benton took a bullet to the buttocks. No one could expect Jesse Benton to be happy about that, but he made the mistake of complaining to his brother, Thomas Benton, who publicly rebuked Jackson. Jackson, and some friends with guns and knives, went tearing over to the hotel where the Benton brothers were staying. The resulting in a brawl that was scandalous, but amazingly not fatal for anyone.


Less lucky was an unhappy man who was asked to deliver a note from an affronted newspaper editor to the congressman that the editor wanted to challenge to a duel. The congressman refused to accept a note from a man he despised, so the bearer of the note felt honor-bound to challenge the congressman to the duel. Fortunately, in this case, no one killed the messenger. Unfortunately, the messenger did kill the congressman.

What Was the Point?

More disturbing than the bureaucratic duels were the ones precipitated by psychopaths, who studied the rules of dueling and used them as a way to murder people. (One man reported finished off seven members of one family by brushing up on his gun play and carefully manipulating the rules of dueling to his advantage.) For quite some time duelists - who were by and large aristocrats - got away with anything. In the 1600s, Ireland saw 23 duels a day. In France, between 1589 and 1610, there were 4,000 known deaths during duels. In the first twenty years of 1600 there were 8,000 pardons issued for murders committed during a duel. (And the French were famous for usually dueling only to first blood.)


So if duels were not ways to contain violence, were not ways to prove right over wrong, what did people get out of it?


They got a culture in which they could never really be wrong. It's now called "honor culture," but at the time it was more of an understanding among gentlemen. There were many ridiculous rules, but, by following those rules, any dispute - no matter how petty, stupid, or dishonorable - could be translated into something during which both participants could be said to have acted "correctly." The issue the duel was fought over didn't matter, and the severity of the fight didn't matter. Nor did little things like facts matter. All that mattered was that two men met each other at a certain time and under certain conditions, and behaved according to their standing in society. If they did that they were both, to all intents and purposes, honorable upper-class gentlemen.

Which might explain why dueling fell out of favor. Duels were not fought with fists or knives. They were fought first with swords - which required extensive training - and then with expensive dueling pistols. Common people fought. Gentlemen dueled. Even on the occasions when a duelist was sent to prison for his part in a duel, he could expect to be housed at a special prison with spacious cells and even servants. Dueling both reinforced and depended on a class system.


As the 1800s wore on, more common people began dueling, and fewer noblemen or gentlemen got the privilege of being spent to luxurious jails for their crimes. Suddenly dueling wasn't a way to cement one's upper-class status. It was a way to be thrown in with the rest of the rabble. Suddenly decade-long lawsuits looked pretty good.

Top Image: Burns Archive via Newsweek

[Via The Deadly History of Dueling, Deul!, The Dishonor of Dueling, Moral Psychology and Human Agency, The Death of Dueling, A Polite Exchange of Bullets.]