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Personal Honor and Dueling in the Early United States


Early on the morning of July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton boarded a boat with his Second and a physician and set sail from Manhattan to the New Jersey shore. The party reached their destination shortly before 7:00 AM to find Arron Burr and his Second awaiting them. The two had cleared away some underbrush to form a dueling field.

Colonel Burr arrived first on the ground, as had been previously agreed. When General Hamilton arrived, the parties exchanged salutations, while the Seconds made their arrangements. They measured the distance, ten full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position, and to decide by whom the word should be given, both of which fell to the Second of General Hamilton. They then went ahead and loaded the pistols in each other's presence, after which the parties took their stations. The gentleman who was to give the word then explained to the parties the rules which were to govern them in firing:

“The parties being placed at their stations, the second who gives the word shall ask them whether they are ready; being answered in the affirmative, he shall say - present! After this, the parties shall present and fire when they please. If one fires before the other, the opposite second shall say one, two, three, fire, and he shall then fire or lose his fire.”

He then asked if they were prepared; being answered in the affirmative, he gave the word present, as had been agreed on, and both parties presented and fired in succession. The fire of Colonel Burr took effect, and General Hamilton instantly fell. Colonel Burr advanced toward General Hamilton with a manner and gesture that appeared to General Hamilton's Second to be expressive of regret; but, without speaking, turned about and withdrew, being urged from the field by his Second with a view to prevent his being recognized by the surgeon and bargemen who were then approaching. No further communication took place between the principals, and the boat that carried Colonel Burr at once returned to the city.

Plaque Commemorating the Hamilton-Burr Duel
Plaque Commemorating the Hamilton-Burr Duel

Most Americans have at least heard of this famous duel and the resulting death of Alexander Hamilton. This article is concerned with the “duel of honor” such as the one described above. This type of duel began ca.1500, peaked in the 1600s and 1700s, and declined as the 19th century wore on, lasting in some places until the First World War. In looking at the duel of honor through the lens of society today, it exhibited several characteristics:

  1. The causes of the duel were often trivial.

  2. The “guilty” party was not necessarily the loser of the duel.

  3. The outcome was irrelevant in terms of social standing.

  4. After a duel, reconciliation was common.

  5. Duels were regulated by strict sets of rules.

  6. Duels were held in private and were almost always nominally illegal and

  7. Duel lethalness fell over time.

Most Americans in today’s world find it difficult to understand why someone would risk their life over an insult or a slight. However, to understand the reasons our ancestors valued their “honor” so highly that they would be willing to risk their life, we need to understand something about how society and the business world functioned in Early America.

Personal Honor

Dueling in our era of concern was reserved only for matters of honor and only between “Gentlemen.” However, the theory of honor to which gentlemen were bound was complex. Honor did not always appear to be the obvious cause of dispute. The romantic image of dueling for a lady’s favor, for example, is mostly a false one. Duels involving women were not fought to gain a woman’s love, but because men took responsibility for the honor of certain women in their lives, including the women they were courting, their wives and daughters, and other “women of quality” under their protection who had no adult male to stand up for them (widows, orphans, etc.).

Personal integrity, bravery, and the importance of one’s reputation dominated the psyche of the gentleman of Early America. Gentleman of honor had an obligation to keep their word without compromise. Consequently, when a gentleman pledged to fulfill a specific duty, he was bound to that duty. Another core value associated with honor during the early Republic was bravery. Keeping one’s word or obeying one’s duty often placed peopled in tricky situations, so the true test of a gentleman was his bravery – his ability to stand up for his duties, to back up his opinion, or to defend his honor when it was called into question. Thus, “honor" was not a meaningless term or catchall but rather a reference to reputation for fair dealing, for honoring commitments, and therefore for paying debts.

Dueling thrived in early modern Europe, colonial America, the early United States, and the antebellum South when and where credit markets were poorly organized and highly personal in nature. Southern planters often relied on personal credit markets and just as often they were highly leveraged, even technically bankrupt. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a lifelong bankrupt who stayed one step ahead of the jailer by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Like Jefferson, most Southern planters owned tremendous assets but also owed tremendous liabilities.

Unlike today’s formal lending sector, the personal credit market would make loans to men like Jefferson so long as they remained honorable men of character. A man who lost his honor, however, was no longer worthy of credit. His fortune was jeopardized as he might be forced to sell assets at unfavorable times to meet the demands of liability holders. Unable to obtain new loans to pay pressing demands, he stared bankruptcy and destitution in the face. An attack upon a man's honor, therefore, was not a trivial affair but a dire threat to his business and to his family's and his own well-being.

A gentleman’s personal honor could be easily infringed by a wide variety of offences. Usual causes of duels were perceived slanders, libels, disrespectful language, or simply careless words delivered in a public venue. Alcohol was often a factor as heavy drinking was common among gentlemen. A slight might be ignored if the offender were falling-down drunk; “in wine” was the contemporary term. Call a gentleman a coward, a cheat, a liar, or a scoundrel to his face or in print and that individual would have no recourse but to issue a challenge. The same would apply if those insults were directed toward a man’s family, a good friend, or woman of quality. Even subtlety implying the honor of a gentleman, or his in-laws, was tarnished in any way would most likely result in the speaker being called out.

Duels were not barroom brawls or spontaneous gunfights, however. They were carefully planned events. In a typical scenario, one man would insult another by striking him, accusing him of being a liar, thief, or some other term that threatened to sour the personal credit market's assessment of his creditworthiness. If the accused thought the accusation potentially damaging, which he was likely to do if the accuser was of a similar social rank and hence presumably qualified to make the accusation, “negotiations" began. Working through an agent called a “Second," the accused sought to persuade the accuser to withdraw, change, or explain away the damaging comment or action. If the accuser refused, the accused had to decide whether the potential damage was sufficient to merit challenging him to a duel.

If a challenge was issued, the accused faced a decision: risk his life or admit that he had lied. If an individual both refused to apologize/retract his accusation and refused to duel, the offended party could “post the coward” by publishing a notice in the local newspaper of the individual’s refusal to provide satisfaction. This would result in what had been a private, or at least semi-private matter, becoming public knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the public scorned men who refused to accept a challenge, or were posted a coward; and thus, the credit rating implications of refusing a justified duel were also negative.

Following the conclusion of the duel, the honor and creditworthiness of the surviving duelists was upheld and even enhanced. Accusations against character were erased; the participants had signaled the credit market that they were manly, courageous leaders capable of defending their property and interests. Even if one lost one’s life, many thought that outcome was preferable to living life dishonored. Once accused, it was often, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson, better to have dueled and lost than not to have dueled at all.

A Brief History of Dueling

Much of the history of dueling is peripheral to the subject of our discussion. Dueling began around the turn of the first millennium and took the form of the “judicial duel” or “trial by combat.” The last trial by combat, under the authority of an English monarch, is thought to have taken place during the reign of Elizabeth I in the inner courtyard of Dublin Castle in Ireland on 7 September 1583.

Renaissance Era Rapier and Dagger Duel
Renaissance Era Rapier and Dagger Duel

Renaissance era duels were fought with a rapier and dagger. The rapier was a heavy inflexible straight sword used for stabbing, while the dagger was used to parry thrusts from the opponent. Shortly after the beginning of dueling, all defensive weapons such as shields, helmets, and armor were ruled out, and even the dagger was dropped as an allowable weapon. Beginning in the late Renaissance, the rapier was replaced with a lighter more flexible sword called the small sword, and duels became much quicker affairs. In various regions, the small sword continued to be the weapon of choice well into the 19th century. Sometime in the 1700s, the saber was introduced as a dueling choice. This was a slashing weapon, and although it could cause much damage, it was generally not as lethal as the small sword. Finally, dueling with pistols was introduced in the late eighteenth century.

Data on the chances of dying in a duel is hard to come by since dueling was illegal in most jurisdictions, and thus duels were usually conducted in secret. However, an analysis of recorded duels, reported more than one fifth of the 105 participants in sampled sword duels were killed, and another quarter were wounded; only half (51 per cent) of the participants escaped without significant injury. In contrast, based on the same analysis, only 6.5 per cent of the 214 participants in pistol duels died, and 71 per cent escaped without any injury. Legal sanctions were extremely rare because juries sympathetically entertained claims of “self-defense" and surviving witnesses, often just one of the principals and the two Seconds, regularly swore that the shooting had been an “accident".

Rules of Dueling – The Code Duello

A code duello is a set of rules for conducting a duel. Code duello regulated the dueling process to help prevent vendettas between families and other social factions. They ensured that non-violent means of reaching agreement were exhausted, that the duel was carried out in “cool” or “cold” temper, and that harm be reduced, both by limiting the terms of engagement and by supplying medical care. Finally, they ensured that the proceedings had several witnesses. The witnesses could assure grieving members of families or factions of the fairness of the duel and could help supply testimony if legal authorities become involved.

The earliest published code duello, or "code of dueling", appeared in Renaissance Italy, and the first formalized national code is attributed to Renaissance France. For our purposes, the code that most concerns us here in our discussion is the Irish Code Duello.

The Irish Code Duello was a set of rules drawn up by gentlemen delegates at Clonmel Summer Assizes, in 1777. Although the code was prescribed for general use in Ireland, it was also followed in England, the Continent, and America throughout the 19th century with only small variations. These 25 rules laid out the proper conditions for gentlemanly combat, the wording of challenges, and the right of the challenged to choose the place and weapons, grounds for ending the duel, rules for conducting the duel, and the rights and obligations of the Seconds.

First Page of the 1777 Code Duello
First Page of the 1777 Code Duello

Rules of the Code Duello

  • Rule 1. The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology because he gave the first offense, and then (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by a subsequent apology.

  • Rule 2. But if the parties would rather fight on, then after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first, and A apologize afterward. N.B. The above rules apply to all cases of offenses in retort not of stronger class than the example.

  • Rule 3. If a doubt exist who gave the first offense, the decision rests with the seconds; if they won't decide, or can't agree, the matter must proceed to two shots, or to a hit, if the challenger require it.

  • Rule 4. When the lie direct is the first offense, the aggressor must either beg pardon in express terms; exchange two shots previous to apology; or three shots followed up by explanation; or fire on till a severe hit be received by one party or the other.

  • Rule 5. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore -- the offender handing a cane to the injured party, to be used on his own back, at the same time begging pardon; firing on until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon without proffer of the cane.

  • If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon. N.B. A disarm is considered the same as a disable. The disarmer may (strictly) break his adversary's sword; but if it be the challenger who is disarmed, it is considered as ungenerous to do so.

  • In the case the challenged be disarmed and refuses to ask pardon or atone, he must not be killed, as formerly; but the challenger may lay his own sword on the aggressor's shoulder, then break the aggressor's sword and say, "I spare your life!" The challenged can never revive the quarrel -- the challenger may.

  • Rule 6. If A gives B the lie, and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offenses), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each, or a severe hit; after which B may beg A's pardon humbly for the blow and then A may explain simply for the lie; because a blow is never allowable, and the offense of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rules.) N.B. Challenges for undivulged causes may be reconciled on the ground, after one shot. An explanation or the slightest hit should be sufficient in such cases, because no personal offense transpired.

  • Rule 7. But no apology can be received, in any case, after the parties have actually taken ground, without exchange of fires.

  • Rule 8. In the above case, no challenger is obliged to divulge his cause of challenge (if private) unless required by the challenged so to do before their meeting.

  • Rule 9. All imputations of cheating at play, races, etc., to be considered equivalent to a blow; but may be reconciled after one shot, on admitting their falsehood and begging pardon publicly.

  • Rule 10. Any insult to a lady under a gentleman's care or protection to be considered as, by one degree, a greater offense than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regulated accordingly.

  • Rule 11. Offenses originating or accruing from the support of ladies' reputations, to be considered as less unjustifiable than any others of the same class, and as admitting of slighter apologies by the aggressor: this to be determined by the circumstances of the case, but always favorable to the lady.

  • Rule 12. In simple, unpremeditated recontres with the smallsword, or couteau de chasse, the rule is -- first draw, first sheath, unless blood is drawn; then both sheath, and proceed to investigation.

  • Rule 13. No dumb shooting or firing in the air is admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offense; and the challenged ought, if he gave offense, to have made an apology before he came on the ground; therefore, children's play must be dishonorable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited.

  • Rule 14. Seconds to be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, inasmuch as a second may either choose or chance to become a principal, and equality is indispensable.

  • Rule 15. Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intend leaving the place of offense before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings.

  • Rule 16. The challenged has the right to choose his own weapon, unless the challenger gives his honor he is no swordsman; after which, however, he can decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenged.

  • Rule 17. The challenged chooses his ground; the challenger chooses his distance; the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.

  • Rule 18. The seconds load in presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honors they have charged smooth and single, which should be held sufficient.

  • Rule 19. Firing may be regulated -- first by signal; secondly, by word of command; or thirdly, at pleasure -- as may be agreeable to the parties. In the latter case, the parties may fire at their reasonable leisure, but second presents and rests are strictly prohibited.

  • Rule 20. In all cases a miss-fire is equivalent to a shot, and a snap or non-cock is to be considered as a miss-fire.

  • Rule 21. Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified.

  • Rule 22. Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake, must end the business for that day.

  • Rule 23. If the cause of the meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground, and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses; in such cases, firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement.

  • Rule 24. In slight cases, the second hands his principal but one pistol; but in gross cases, two, holding another case ready charged in reserve.

  • Rule 25. Where seconds disagree, and resolve to exchange shots themselves, it must be at the same time and at right angles with their principals, thus:

  • If with swords, side by side, with five paces interval. N.B. All matters and doubts not herein mentioned will be explained and cleared up by application to the committee, who meet alternately at Clonmel and Galway, at the quarter sessions, for that purpose.

18th Century Small Sword Duel
18th Century Small Sword Duel

In the Early United States

In the United States, dueling’s heyday began at around the time of the Revolution and lasted the better part of a century. The early eighteenth-century notes of Thomas Prince describe an incident of June 18, 1621, when the first duel (with a sword and dagger) in the American Colonies was fought in Plymouth Colony between two of Stephen Hopkins servants, Edward Doty and Edward Leister. The duel ended with one wounded in the hand and one in the thigh. A unique aspect of this duel was that Doty and Leister were servants. Generally, only gentlemen dueled.

Dueling’s true home, however, was the antebellum South. Duels, after all, were fought in defense of what the law would not defend—a gentleman’s sense of personal honor—and nowhere were gentlemen more exquisitely sensitive on that point than in the southern states. As self-styled aristocrats, and often slaveholders, they enjoyed what one Southern writer describes as a “habit of command” and an expectation of deference.

Rep. Brooks beating Senator Sumner with His Walking Stick
Rep. Brooks beating Senator Sumner with His Walking Stick

In New England, on the other hand, dueling was viewed as a cultural throwback, and no stigma was attached to rejecting it. Thus, Southerners tended to duel each other, not their Northern antagonists, who could not be relied upon to rise to a challenge. Consequently, when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks was offended by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner’s verbal assault on the congressman’s uncle, he resorted to beating Sumner insensible on the floor of the Senate with his walking stick. New Englanders may have prided themselves on treating an insult as only an insult, but to the South’s dueling gentry, such indifference betrayed a lack of good breeding.

The most famous American duel was, of course, the match between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, which we have already described at the beginning of this article. Hamilton was a Federalist; Burr was a Republican. Over the years, the men had clashed repeatedly in the political arena. It was the New York governor's race of 1804, however, that pushed the two men to violence. In that election, Burr turned his back on the Republicans and ran as an independent, believing that if he won, he could regain power and return to national politics. The thought of Burr as Governor of New York horrified Hamilton, who despised and mistrusted Burr completely. In early 1804, Hamilton tried to convince New York Federalists not to support Burr. Although Hamilton's efforts were probably not the deciding factor, Burr did not win the election.

The battle for New York had been a bruising one, but in the end, a relatively minor slight precipitated the Burr-Hamilton duel. In February 1804, a New York Republican, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, attended a dinner party at which Alexander Hamilton spoke forcefully and eloquently against Burr. Cooper later wrote a letter to Philip Schuyler in which he referred to a particularly "despicable opinion" Hamilton expressed about Burr. The letter was published in a New York newspaper the Albany Register.

Hoping that a victory on the dueling ground could revive his flagging political career, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton wanted to avoid the duel, but politics left him no choice. If he admitted to Burr's charge, which was substantially true, he would lose his honor. If he refused to duel, the result would be the same. Either way, his political career would be over. After Hamilton and Burr's Seconds tried to settle the matter amicably without success, the two political enemies met on the morning of July 11 at the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. Each fired a shot from a .56 caliber dueling pistol. Burr was unscathed; Hamilton fell to the ground mortally wounded and died the next day.

Set of Smoothbore Dueling Pistols.  Rifled Pistols Were Considered a Murderer's Weapon
Set of Smoothbore Dueling Pistols. Rifled Pistols Were Considered a Murderer's Weapon

Government officials were not immune to the challenge of the duel. The Hartford Courant of 17 September 1771 reported on a duel occurring in Charlestown, South Carolina between Dr. John Haly and Peter Delancy, Esq, the Post-Master General for the Southern District of North America.

Aug 19 – On Thursday Evening last, a Duel was fought with pistols in a Room in Mr. Holliday’s Tavern on the Bay, between Dr. John Haly and Peter Delancy, Esq, Post-Master General of the Southern District of North America, which unhappily ended in the immediate Death of Mr. Delancy. The Distress of the Families of both Parties may be more easily imagined than described.

His Honour the Lieutenant Governor has been pleased to appoint William-Henry Drayton, Esq; to be Deputy Post-Master General of the Southern District of North America, in the Room of Peter Delancy, Esq; deceas’d.”

Dueling was especially a problem for the young, and small, American Navy, where boredom, alcohol, and a mix of spirited young men in close quarters on shipboard produced a host of petty irritations ending in gunfire. Between 1798 and the Civil War, the US Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea. Many of those killed and maimed were teenage midshipmen and barely older junior officers, casualties of their own reckless judgment and, on at least one occasion, the by-the-book priggishness of some of their shipmates.

Stephen Decatur
Stephen Decatur

In 1820, the rising naval star Commodore Stephen Decatur was killed in a duel with Commodore James Barron, related in part to comments Decatur had made over Barron's conduct in the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair of 1807. Because of Barron's loss of Chesapeake to the British he faced a court-martial and was barred from command for a term of five years. Decatur had served on the court-martial that had found Barron guilty of "unpreparedness". Barron was suspended from the Navy, without pay, for five years.

Barron had just returned to the United States from Copenhagen (where he was stranded during the War of 1812) after being away for six years and was seeking reinstatement. He was met with much criticism among fellow naval officers, among whom Decatur was one of the most outspoken. Decatur, who was now on the board of naval commissioners, strongly opposed Barron's reinstatement. As a result, Barron became embittered towards Decatur and challenged him to a duel. Barron's challenge to Decatur occurred during a period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who tried to pursue the practice.

James Barron
James Barron

Barron's Second was Captain Jesse Elliott, known for his jaunty mannerisms and antagonism toward Decatur. Decatur had first asked his friend Thomas Macdonough to be his Second, but Macdonough, who had always opposed dueling, declined his request. Decatur then turned to his supposed friend Commodore William Bainbridge to act as his Second, and Bainbridge consented. However, according to naval historian Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Decatur made a poor choice: Bainbridge, who was five years his senior, was jealous of the younger and more famous Decatur.

The Seconds met on March 8 to set up the time and place for the duel and the rules to be followed. The arrangements were exact. The duel was to take place at nine o'clock in the morning on March 22, at Bladensburg, Maryland, near Washington, at a distance of eight paces. Decatur, an expert pistol shot, planned only to wound Barron in the hip.

Jesse Elliott
Jesse Elliott

On the morning of the 22nd the dueling party assembled. The conference between the two Seconds lasted three-quarters of an hour. Just before the duel, Barron spoke to Decatur of conciliation; however, the men's Seconds did not try to halt the proceedings.

Bainbridge and Elliott arranged the duel a way that made the wounding or death of both duelists highly likely. The shooters would be standing close to each other, face to face; there would be no back-to-back pacing away and turning to fire, a procedure that often resulted in the missing of one's opponent. Upon taking their places, Bainbridge instructed the duelists:

"I shall give the word quickly – 'Present, one, two, three' – You are neither to fire before the word 'one', nor after the word 'three'.”

Now in their positions, each duelist raised his pistol, cocked the flintlock and while taking aim stood in silence. Bainbridge called out, 'One', Decatur and Barron both firing before the count of 'two'. Decatur's shot hit Barron in the lower abdomen and ricocheted into his thigh. Barron's shot hit Decatur in the pelvic area, severing arteries. Both duelists fell almost at the same instant. Decatur, mortally wounded and clutching his side, exclaimed, "Oh, Lord, I am a dead man." Lying wounded, Commodore Barron (who ultimately survived) declared that the duel was carried out properly and honorably and told Decatur that he forgave him “from the bottom of my heart.”

William Bainbridge
William Bainbridge

There were many other famous Americans who died in duels— congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Button Gwinnett), and two U.S. senators (Armistead T. Mason of Virginia and David C. Broderick of California) Andrew Jackson, our 7th President, engaged in 14 duels in his lifetime and even carried a bullet from an 1806 dual in his chest until his death in 1845.

Newspapers editors, fanning the flames between political parties, or between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, were always in the thick of the dueling scene. Virginia editors had a particularly short shelf life. The two brothers who edited the Richmond Examiner in the early 19th century both died in duels. Edgar Allan Poe challenged one of the paper’s later editors but showed up too drunk to shoot. Before the Civil War, O. Jennings Wise, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, fought eight duels in only two years. John Daniel of the Examiner disagreed with Edward Johnston of the Whig over the esthetic merits of a statue. In the inevitable duel that followed, they both missed.

Newspaper Account of Wise-Aylett Duel
Newspaper Account of Wise-Aylett Duel

Even US Presidents were not immune to the challenge of the duel. Although well past our period, future President Abraham Lincoln was at one point in his political career challenged to duel by a local politician, James Shields. In early August 1842, a letter appeared in a local newspaper. Although written by his future wife, Mary Todd, it was signed by “Rebecca,” and it poked fun at Shields, who was then the Illinois State Auditor. Lincoln soon wrote a second such letter, blasting Shields as a “fool as well as a liar.”

Unfortunately, Mary and a friend decided to follow suit. They stuck with the “Rebecca” or “Aunt Becca” pseudonym, but they carried the joke even further than Lincoln had. And they didn’t stop with just one letter. Shields, the young women mused, was nothing but:

“a ballroom dandy, floatin’ about on the earth without heft or substance, just like a lot of cat fur where cats had been fightin.” They offered a response to Shields’s public agitation about the “Rebecca” letters: “Let him only come here, and he may squeeze my hand. . .. If that ain’t personal satisfaction, I can only say that he is the fust man that was not satisfied with squeezin my hand.”

One letter even imagined a fake marriage between Aunt Rebecca and Shields.

Prankster and Future First Lady, Mary Todd
Prankster and Future First Lady, Mary Todd

Shields didn’t think it was at all funny! He confronted the newspaper editor and demanded to know the names of his tormentors. Lincoln, to protect Mary Todd’s reputation, took responsibility for what had happened—and the thin-skinned Shields promptly challenged him to a duel.

As the party who had been challenged, Lincoln got to set the fight’s conditions. He did so on September 19 in a letter to Shields. First, Lincoln selected “cavalry broad sword of the largest size” rather than pistols as the dueling weapons. Next, Lincoln prescribed conditions so helpful to himself that he felt sure his opponent would be forced to write off the duel as a lost cause. He ordered,

“a plank ten feet long, and from nine to twelve inches abroad, to be firmly fixed on edge, on the ground, as the line between us, which neither is to pass his foot over upon forfeit of his life.”

Such unusual conditions would allow Lincoln to take advantage of his superior reach; Shields was only five feet, nine inches tall, while Lincoln soared to six feet, four inches.

Lincoln, as the challenged participant also had the choice of weapons for the duel, and he chose swords. Speaking later about the incident Lincoln said:

“I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure that I could disarm him, having had about a month to learn the broadsword exercise: and furthermore, I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”

Fortunately for Shields and Lincoln, shared friends John J. Hardin, a relative of Mary Todd, and Dr. R.W. English arrived at the dueling field and pleaded with the would-be combatants to let bygones be bygones. It was a truly desperate attempt to bring peace, but it worked, possibly aided by Lincoln suddenly reaching up and casually lopping off a branch from high up in a tree with his sword – reminding his opponent of his superior reach and strength. The duel was cancelled.

Illustration of the Preparation for the Lincoln-Shields Duel
Illustration of the Preparation for the Lincoln-Shields Duel

Although the incident ended without violence, Lincoln avoided talking about it, preferring to forget it ever happened. During the Civil War, an army officer visiting the White House asked her husband, “Is it true…that you once went out, to fight a duel and all for the sake of the lady by your side?” Lincoln replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”

We hope you found today’s article on Personal Honor and Dueling in the Early United States to be interesting and informative. Hopefully, you learned something you did not previously know about the whys and processes of the duel in early America. Please join us again in two-weeks as we look at “Christmas Carols in late-18th and early-19th century America”.

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Drake, R. (2004, March). Duel! Smithsonian Magazine.

Holland, B. (1997, October). Bang! Bang! You're Dead. Smithsonian Magazine, p. 122.

Johnston, K. (2014, January 17). Abraham Lincoln's Duel; Broadswords and Banks. Retrieved from American Battlefield Trust:

NCC Staff. (2017, July 11). 12 Famous Americans killed, involved in duels. Retrieved from National Constitution Center:

Shoemaker, R. B. (2002). The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honor, and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800. The History Journal, 525-545.

Stratton, E. A. (1986). Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620-1691. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing.


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