You know how sometimes you’re out at, I don’t know, a company picnic, and two men just break out into fisticuffs over you? Suddenly they just begin pummeling one another for your love? And they call one another rapscallions? And roustabouts?


I’ve never been to a company picnic. It seems like the kind of thing that might happen. With the right crudites, anything can happen.

Anyhow, wouldn’t it be great if, instead of just using their tiny primitive fists, those men drew swords, or, hell, pearl handled revolvers and just began… oh. Then they’d die, probably.

Okay, we started this fun new column in a dark place, apparently.

So, it might be a good thing that duels are not something we really do anymore, but there’s still something undeniably hot about men being willing to die to defend their honor. Or a lady’s honor. Or just the concept of honor in general, I guess, if they were gentlemen philosophers.

Samuel Johnson said that “A man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.”

This is… not something we do anymore, at all.

So, how did duels work, exactly?

Well, they had their roots, not as you might expect if all you grew up reading was The Mists of Avalon in the middle ages, but in Ancient Greek literature. Remember single combat? Like with Hector and Achilles, squaring off? It was more of a “war thing” then and less of a “petty insult” thing, but it looked good. Here is a picture from the movie Troy!

troy duel

None of this is really accurate except that men did square off in single hand to hand combat.

However, its basis in classical tradition made it very popular in renaissance Europe (just as the statues look exactly the same from that period as they did in ancient Greece, so the traditions became popular again). But this time, with more rules and rituals! And more delicate swords! In fact, they became so popular that under the reign of Henry IV approximately 10,000 men a year died in duels. Henry IV finally had to set up a system where they could address their differences without killing each other.

But let’s say you hated settling differences peacefully – how did you duel? Well, first someone had to issue a challenge. You then could either decline, and be branded honor-less (bad) or direct matters to your second. Your second was supposed to try to try to defuse the situation, or, if that was impossible, insure that the rules of the duel were being followed. The challenged was then allowed to choose a weapon.

Just a note: begin studying an obscure weapon right now, so that if you are challenged to a duel, you are the only one who knows how to use it.

During the actual duel, you actually did have to attack one another. According to The Code Duello (a real document):

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.

So, this was hugely popular in Europe since around 1500. So much so that you could barely get married unless you’d dueled. This document from Ireland in the 19th century states:

“A duel was indeed considered a necessary part of a young man’s education…When men had a glowing ambition to excel in all manner of feats and exercises they naturally conceived that manslaughter, in an honest way (that is, not knowing which would be slaughtered), was the most chivalrous and gentlemanly of all their accomplishments. No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances. The first two qualifications always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of? And ‘Did he ever blaze?”

And it went on to become incredibly popular in America. The first duel took place at Plymouth Rock. However, it was always viewed as somewhat outmoded, and wasn’t really seen as romantic as it was in Europe. Reasonably, because it had been around for approximately forever by then. Want to hear a fun story about George Washington?

George Washington once got into a fight with a younger man named William Payne. William knocked him down with a stick. Among gentleman, this was the kind of insult that demanded a duel. So, Washington told Payne to meet him at a tavern, and William Payne showed up terrified, expecting to die. Instead, Washington met him with a glass of wine, and they discussed their misunderstanding, shook hands, and emerged as friends.

George Washington was really like the Barack Obama of the 18th century. He challenged that guy to be sensible.

This was also seen as a huge testament to how level-headed and calm George Washington was, which, I honestly feel like all of us could keep our tempers if the test of that was “not actually killing anyone.” Well, most of us. Not murderers, obviously.

You know who wasn’t really feeling that whole “restraint” thing? Alexander Hamilton. He died in a duel against Aaron Burr. It was not because someone used a stick to trip someone else! It was because in 1800, Alexander Hamilton wrote a treatise called “The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States.,” which was very critical of Adams (though Adams was the head of his political party, and was running against Jefferson). Hamilton never intended to circulate it among more than a few people, and really, probably should not have written it to begin with. Burr got a hold of it and published it in the newspaper. Jefferson won the election. Hamilton was mortified.

However, they didn’t duel! Which is shocking because insulting honor was seen as on par as breaking into someone’s house, and Burr LITERALLY broke into Hamilton’s house.

Then in 1804, Burr ran for governor of New York. Hamilton organized a smear campaign against him, and honestly “this guy will break into your house and steal your private letters and publish them in a newspaper” seems like a pretty good basis for someone not being an elected official. Burr lost, in part because of Hamilton’s campaign.

They still did not duel.

Then Alexander Hamilton made a very offhand comment at a party about thing being despicable, and Burr was just like “fuck it. Now we duel.”

They dueled

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and Hamilton, fearing his political career would be over if he declined, accepted. Hamilton died. Burr emerged from the duel unscathed, but was charged with two counts of murder, and, thus, his political career was effectively ended.

This marked a downswing in dueling’s popularity, though it took a long time for them to die out entirely. When someone suggested to President Andrew Jackson that no true gentleman could relish a duel as it meant that he either had to be killed or become a killer, Andrew Jackson replied “I’ve fought at least 14 duels.” And then I imagine he shrugged his shoulder like a petulant child, before twirling around and exclaiming “I’m dueling right now!” Seriously, that is the most petulant, insane response in the entire world, and Andrew Jackson is our most crazy President.

It took the Civil War to really wipe out dueling in America. With so many young men dead over the course of fighting, the prospect of killing other young men you had minor disputes with became a lot less appealing. However, it did linger for a while longer in Europe.

But, to hell with all of that. If a man proposes to you, at a company picnic or otherwise, I want you to ask “have you ever… blazed?” If they are confused, just reply “I’ve fought at least 14 duels.”


Important update: Andrew Jackson’s campagin slogan was “Andy Jackson who can fight.” He was our most hilarious president, except for the Trail of Tears.

Additional Reading

Dueling History: An Affair of Honor

PBS: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s duel

How Stuff Works: Dueling

Code Duello

Pics via Mask of Zorro, Troy, Wikipedia