A Historical Success Story: Duels

Posted on March 8, 2016 By

by Rachel MacNair


Within Consistent Life we’ve had long discussions about which issues to include when brevity is needed, and we often expand to related issues when writing at length. But there’s one form of socially-approved killing we’ve never seriously contemplated adding to the list: duels.

This is of course because they aren’t socially approved any more. They haven’t been for a long time. We’d add the issue if there were a move to legalize or otherwise approve them. This is not anticipated.

Yet the practice used to be so prevalent that anyone with access to U.S. currency can see a portrait of a man who was killed in a duel on the $10 bill: Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, was killed by Aaron Burr, the third Vice President. Hamilton participated despite being opposed to duels on moral grounds. This was after they were out of office, and Burr never got into office again, but it shows the grip that “defending honor” had on those with high prestige.

This was in spite of the fact that duels were illegal at that point. And the punishments were harsh. One would think the natural consequences of a duel would be punishment enough, since an individual going into a duel is in more danger of death than an individual going into the average battle.

But in some places there were laws saying the winning party would be hanged and both parties would lose all their property. Legal disapproval couldn’t have been clearer. And undoubtedly there were far fewer duels as a result. But they still happened.

German duel in 1830 (public domain, PD-1923)

German duel in 1830 (public domain, PD-1923)


The 18th-century equivalent of consistent-life advocates did oppose duels. William Wilberforce, best known for his work in helping end slavery in England, but also active on a host of compassion issues, noted that duels were a major sin of the upper class. He said this was a sin of which almost every male in the class was guilty, because even if they never actually engaged in a duel, they always stood ready to.

Duels had quite a grip on the upper class mind. Legislative prohibition didn’t end them, though it probably helped. Growing social disapproval similarly helped, but more was needed.

The very heart of the belief in dueling as a solution to disputes comes from a sense that there is an “honor” that needs defending to the death, and to the death is how to defend the honor. Perhaps there was also a residual idea of the medieval trial-by-ordeal, whereby God would see that the person who was in the right won; in that case, a man who was sure he was in the right thought of the duel as less dangerous than it was.

Both of these ideas dissipated over time, as “honor” became something to defend by writing an irate letter or standing up to make a cogent argument. The idea that God stood behind either of the dueling parties lost its believability.

Besides, the growing norm of freedom of speech made insults easier to simply dismiss on the grounds that people had a right to say foolish things. The idea that honor was defended by killing someone became more bizarre.

So we have a historical success story. Legislative prohibitions and social objections were both quite necessary but also insufficient. Time was needed for them to work.

But perhaps the final necessary condition was that the underlying roots of the ideas driving the problem virtually disappeared. The problem then disappeared with them.

That can serve as a lesson for all the other issues of violence we oppose today. We need to work on all angles, and especially the underlying ideas that drive the violence.


Note added 03.16.17: An even more alarming connection to U.S. currency: on the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson participated in many duels, and actually killed a man in a duel before he was elected president. He was never convicted of murder since, though illegal, duels were still regarded as matters of honor. It didn’t hurt his bid for the presidency.





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