February 20, 1839 — Today, Congress passed legislation barring the practice of dueling in the District of Columbia.
Passage of the law was inspired by a 1838 duel in which Kentucky Rep. William Graves killed Maine Rep. Jonathan Cilley at the Bladensburg Duelling Grounds near the DC-Maryland border. The House, choosing not to censure Graves or the two other congressman present at the duel, instead presented a bill to “prohibit the giving or accepting within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight a duel, and for the punishment thereof.”
The law did little to deter dueling, which was an ancient practice that was originally a legal means to settle disputes in barbarian Germanic tribes. Duels of honor, fought primarily between noblemen, were an extralegal means to defend one’s honor against personal insults. These duels were governed by codes, the most famous of which is the Code Duello, a list of 26 rules drafted in 1777 by Irish duelers.
An American version of the code was drafted in 1838 by South Carolina Gov. John Lyde Wilson. A duel was negotiated through companions of the two duelers, known as “seconds.” The offended party would issue a challenge; the challenger could either apologize or accept a duel using the weapon of his choice (usually pistols, but swords were also allowed).
In America, duels were most prevalent in the South, particularly among upper-class gentlemen. Men who were challenged to a duel were expected to accept; those who refused faced public embarrassment. One South Carolina general, recalling a duel in his youth, remarked, “Well I never did clearly understand what it was about, but you know it was a time when all gentlemen fought.”
Words of Wisdom
Famous duels in America:
Hamilton-Burr — Perhaps the most famous duel in U.S. history was fought between former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, and Vice President Aaron Burr, a Democratic-Republican. The two New Yorkers had been political enemies for more than a decade, and on July 11, 1804, at the dueling grounds in Weehawken, N.J., Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach. Hamilton died the next day. Burr was charged with murder, though he was never tried. His image was forever tainted and his political career was destroyed.
Jackson-Dickinson — Nearly two decades before he became president, Andrew Jackson was nearly killed in a duel with Charles Dickinson, a horse breeder who had insulted him and his wife. Jackson, shot in the chest, killed Dickinson on his second shot after his first shot misfired.
Lincoln’s Near Duel — Abraham Lincoln nearly fought in a saber duel in 1842. After a disagreement regarding the state bank in Illinois, Lincoln humiliated his fellow state legislator, James Shields, in a letter to the editor of a newspaper. When Lincoln refused to retract the letter, Shields challenged him to a duel. The two arrived at the dueling grounds prepared to fight, but their seconds helped settle the dispute before the duel.