Skip to main content
Updated date:

Was a Duel a Code of Honor?

Author:

Always amazing discoveries in the history of mankind. Some good, some not.

Burr vs. Hamilton Duel

Burr vs. Hamilton Duel

Hamilton vs Burr Plaque Duel

Hamilton vs Burr Plaque Duel

Weehawken Dueling Grounds, N.J.

Weehawken Dueling Grounds, N.J.

Was There Honor In Dueling?

From Latin duorum bellum, the word duel is meant 'a war of two.' Dueling has been around for hundreds of years before it was brought to America in the 1600s. Duels were fought to defend one's honor and allow a gentleman to prove his courage. At times duels were brought about to settle personal and land debts. As a result, many famous and prominent gentlemen can be involved in dueling. Congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. senators, U.S. Navy stars, and even a president of the U.S.

The first duel was fought in colonial times in 1621 between two servants who arrived on the Mayflower. Their dispute was over a woman, each challenging the other. At the duel, each inflicted minor wounds from the knives they used when the fight was stopped, and the community ordered they would be bound together by the head and feet for one day without food or drink. Both of them were so distraught and sorry that the community freed them after one hour.

For the next 200 years, many duels were fought even though they were illegal, yet somehow places were found to settle disputes out of the public's eye. The last contest took place on 9/13/1859 near San Francisco between U.S. Senator David Broderick and ex-chief justice of the Supreme Court of California, David S. Terry. Broderick was mortally wounded and died three days later. Though a warrant was issued for Terry, the case was dismissed.

Dueling Pistols

Dueling Pistols

Most Famous Duel: Hamilton vs. Burr

On September 11, 1804, one of the most famous duels was between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Burr was the vice-president of Thomas Jefferson, and Hamilton was the former Secretary of Treasure. There was no love between these two. Hamilton campaigned against Burr, who was running for governor of New York, while Hamilton had been spreading rumors about Burr for years. Hamilton was dead set against dueling, having lost his son in a duel three years earlier.

The challenge was mad, but since it was illegal to duel in New York, it was decided to cross the river to Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton fired the first shot over Burr's head, believing he did his duty. Burr thought it to be a misfire, so he took his shot, hitting Hamilton in the ribs. As Hamilton collapsed, Burr started toward him but his second rushed him away. As the doctor was beside him, Hamilton said, "it is a mortal wound." He was taken to a friend's house in New York and died the following day.


Weehawken Stone of Duel Hamilton vs. Burr

Weehawken Stone of Duel Hamilton vs. Burr

Notable Duels in America

1806 Andrew Jackson vs. Charles Dickinson. Dickinson fired, hitting Jackson in the chest while Jackson misfired. This should have ended the duel, but Jackson displayed a breach of etiquette and fired again, killing Dickinson.

1808 Baron Gardenier vs. George W. Campbell. Campbell went on to be a senator and secretary of treasure.

1820 Stephen Decatur vs. James Barron. Decatur was killed.

1836 Daniel Key vs. John Sherbourne. Key was killed.

1838 Jonathan Cilley vs. William J. Graves, Cilley was a congressman from Maine, and Graves was a congressman from Kentucky. Cilley was mortally wounded.


The End of Dueling

Although dueling was illegal, there were ways around it. Considered among the southern states where plantation owners considered aristocrats, duels were common. If a challenge to a duel was declined, it could be 'posted' with a statement hung in public places or published in newspapers or pamphlets showing them as cowards. It took the Civil War and the aftermath of bloody battles when the public's disdain finally called for the end of duels. Today, they are considered an act of violence and barbaric.

In Tennessee, lawyers admitted to the bar were required to take the oath of abstinence from dueling.

Related Articles