Dueling, Or: Men Are Stupid

I am a pretty deep Hamilfan, y’know? I saw Hamilton in 2015 (still bragging), I watched the PBS Hamilton documentary twice, I’m currently reading the annotated Hamilton: The Revolution book on my Phone’s Kindle app.

My nieces have recently gotten into Hamilton, but not because of me. Niece #1, aged 10, got to see Hamilton on Broadway with her aunt for her birthday. When the nieces went to visit friends this summer, said friends’ children listened obsessively to the Hamilton cast album in their car. They came back knowing the songs and being excited about Hamilton’s story, like so many others.

Their parents even took them to Weehawken, a New Jersey town across the Hudson from Manhattan, where Hamilton and Burr’s fateful duel happened in 1804.

And I’m up to the “Ten Duel Commandments” chapter in the Hamilton book. And it’s been a while since I’ve ranted about something historical.

It’s long been my estimation that dueling is incredibly stupid. I know it had its own code–first there was the offense or insult, then the challenge, then the appointing of seconds, then those seconds negotiating for a retraction or apology or whatever so that these men wouldn’t have to stand ten paces apart and shoot at each other, etc. etc.

If an apology was not forthcoming, the men and their seconds arranged to meet at the crack of dawn in their apppointed dueling grounds (the Bois de Boulogne, if in Paris, for example. Or Weehawken).

Duels were supposed to restore one’s honor (or was it supposed to satisfy testosterone and unnaturally ruffled feathers?). There is something romantic about a man defending a woman’s honor by dueling another dude who may have insulted her reputation. You know where this kind of thing is romantic?

In fiction.

Duels began in medieval times with swords. (Swords are far cooler than pistols, methinks) Noblemen with disputes would do combat with each other because they didn’t have the communication skills to talk it out like rational human beings. Louis XIII of France outlawed dueling and his son Louis XIV also tried to wipe out dueling in France, but the tradition continued.

By the eighteenth into the turn of the nineteenth century, dueling was firmly a gun thing. Men of a certain class owned dueling pistols.

The Hamilton-Burr dueling pistols, owned by JP MorganChase

Dueling was popular in the United States, which is how Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr ended up in a field in New Jersey shooting at each other. Mind you, Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip had died because of a duel three years earlier–on the same dueling grounds, by the way–even though dueling was illegal in New York and New Jersey. But New Jersey was lax in enforcing their anti-dueling laws.

Burr shot Hamilton. Hamilton died the next day.

Hamilton monument in Weehawken, NJ. The boulder is where Hamilton
supposedly laid his head down after he was shot.

You’d think the Vice President shooting the former Treasury Secretary would’ve put dueling in the kibosh, but nope. Dueling became popular in the South and in the Wild West.

Notably, it was usually aristocratic men participating in duello, though in the United States, men of all classes dueled. The duello code was well known, the protocol known. I don’t know what the general public’s attitude toward dueling was–some of them seemed to think it was barbaric, stupid, wasteful, and against religious teachings over time.

The practice died out by the end of the nineteenth century–the American Civil War and the toll it cast on the country did dueling in here and by World War One, dueling was done in Europe.

Also: women did duel, but it was rare. Apparently, Catherine the Great got into a duel with a cousin when she was a teenager and was a second for female duelists in Russia several times.

No matter how much dueling was about defending one’s honor–and a person’a honor meant a lot in the olden days–women probably saw it for the violent, ridiculous ritual it was: a ritual that often resulted in death and for what? A dispute that could either be swept under the rug or discussed by human beings with analytical communication skills who were emotionally mature enough to acknowledge that you can’t solve everything every little slight with your pistols?

As a historical fiction reader, a duel in a book is a dramatic, tense incident. There is a flair to it. In real life? In real life, it seems needless. And frankly, I’m not surprised that dueling was mostly the provenance of wealthy men.

Duels Between Women
How Duels Work

4 thoughts on “Dueling, Or: Men Are Stupid

  1. I read a historical fiction with a vampire who would duel people and freak everyone out when he survived time and time again. Rumors spread. The fun bookish kind. 🙂 And then there was a duel in Valmont – the movie version with Colin Firth. I think that's how he died. It really highlighted how stupid the whole concept was for me. That whole story is a mess, to be honest. But did they really think their \”honor\” was worth their life or someone else's? Guess so, but it's still so dumb.


  2. Oh, that vampire thing is a nice twist on a duel!I *think* there was probably a lot of peer pressure in terms of dueling–that you'd lose face if you didn't face up to a duel or maybe lose status or something. \”Honor\” seems vague to us, though, and the act of dueling just seems utterly ridiculous. I guess it seemed stupid to people back then, too, eventually–dueling fell out of favor after two modern brutal wars.


  3. Great post! Dueling never made much sense to me either. Although it does come across well in fiction. But then, men (and women) did many stupid things in history. Lol! And I'm sure we still do today.


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