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By Jennie C. Meade

Duel. The word conjures vivid images of elegant swordsmen in contest, or armor-clad knights astride destriers defending a lady’s honor. Or perhaps a rendezvous at first light, pistols at the ready. Romantic and uncomplicated to the contemporary eye, the reality of duelling was neither so romantic nor so simple. It operated under a complex set of rules and customs, legal and social, which determined why, how, and between whom duels were to be fought. Duelling for hundreds of years was a deep-rooted practice in European and American culture, one which finally died with changing times yet thrives today in sport and pageantry to remind us of days when combat mano a mano resolved individual disputes.

The famous Hamilton-Burr duel of 1804, showing former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s shot into the air, and Vice President Aaron Burr’s fire at Hamilton.

Accounts differ as to whether duelling existed in ancient Greece and Rome, but certainly it was a fixture in the barbarian Germanic tribes, later spreading through Europe and America. The duel is defined as a prearranged combat between two persons, fought with deadly weapons according to an accepted code of procedure to settle a private quarrel. Thus the duel is distinguished from a brawl (which is not prearranged or fought according to rules), a war (a prolonged affair with many combatants), and a tournament (which although it operated by the same rules, was a test of skill that decided no private dispute). The customary duelling weapon was the sword, superseded in the 19th century by the pistol.

The duel evolved from its origins as a legal method of resolving disputes into an extrajudicial avenue for settling private matters that could not be regulated by law: matters of honor and insult. Coincident with the formulation of code, which provided procedural guidance in conducting a duel, were attempts by church and state to curtail the practice. The fascination of duelling may have its roots in the curious dichotomy of a prevalent and culturally accepted yet illegal pursuit, governed by a “code.” Its persistence as a fixture in so many cultures speaks of its universal appeal as the expression of a visceral human response that managed to survive, in assorted manifestations, for many centuries. But the notion of duelling as an atavistic reaction alone falls short of the mark, since it looks past the reality that duels were fought chiefly by one segment of society, its aristocrats. It is this social ingredient that defines the duel as an institution and has fixed its status as a legal conundrum.

The Judicial Duel

The Code of Honor (1858). Former South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson composed a set of “rules for the government of principals and seconds in duelling,” a best-selling document which gentlemen kept close at hand.

Although condemnation by governmental and ecclesiastical authorities progressively increased, duelling originally was a legal means of deciding disputes between two people. The “judicial duel” or combat was based on religious belief: that God would protect the party in the right by allowing him to win. Although many combats were arranged to decide criminal matters, combat also could serve as a means for resolving civil disagreements such as disputes over property. Women, the infirm, very young, and very old men were not required to enter combat but could engage champions on their behalf. The judicial duel was a ceremonial affair presided over by royalty who proclaimed the victor.

The earliest known law that governed the judicial duel is found in the Burgundian Code, an early East Germanic barbarian code promulgated in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The date of legal establishment of the trial by combat traditionally is stated as the year 501. Eventually trial by combat was permitted only in cases of serious crimes, such as murder and treason. The right to choose trial by combat existed in England until the early 19th century, where the last claim for combat occurred in 1817. Although the court granted this claim, circumstances did not permit the encounter, and promptly in 1819 Parliament abolished the right to trial by combat.

The Duel of Chivalry

The duel of chivalry evolved from the judicial duel, and co-existed with it for several hundred years. Scholars generally agree that knighthood originated in the 10th century, and duels of chivalry date from that time. These were events of great ceremony: two knights on horseback with lances engaged in combat to decide questions of law, property, or honor. The duel of chivalry is distinguished from the tournament, a demonstration of a knight’s skill. These could be as bloody as a duel. In fact, the church was opposed to tournaments due to the mortality rate of the participants, and the Council of Reims of 1148 prohibited Christian burial for the casualties of such events.

Duels of chivalry faded around the middle of the 16th century, giving way to the duel of honor.

The Duel of Honor and the Code Duello

Le Combat de Mutio Iustinopolitain (1583). France drew its duelling tradition from Italy and its celebrated masters of the art. Translated from the Italian into French, this early work outlined the “legitimate use of combats” as well as abuse of the practice.

The duel of honor is the duel most familiar to us. Beginning around mid-16th century, it lingered into the 20th century in France, Germany, and the United States. It originated in an era where courtesy and respect between individuals were of supreme moment. An insult—especially to another’s integrity, courage, or to the honor of his lady—could provoke a challenge. Failing an apology, the potential combatants proceeded to the duel, aided by a duelling code, which set the procedural requirements. Duels generally were fought between noblemen, but duellists at least were required to be of equal social status; it was considered improper for persons of differing ranks to fight duels against each other.

Although today this style of extrajudicial personal combat may appear primitive, the duel of honor represents a giant step toward civilizing human behavior by curtailing the proliferation of the lethal surprise attacks common in that era. The duel of honor came to be governed by strict codes of regulations, which multiplied in Europe during the 16th through 19th centuries.

The code duello, or duelling code, provided rules for engaging and conducting duels of honor. It was drafted to ensure order, fairness, and opportunity for the duel to be averted in honorable fashion. The earliest known code duello was the Renaissance-era Flos Duellatorum in Armis of Fiore dei Liberi (Italy, circa 1410). The most famous code, and the most important for English-speaking countries, was the Irish Code Duello, or “the 26 commandments.” Gentlemen delegates drew the code to regulate—legally—affairs of honor conducted outside the law. To avoid claims of ignorance of the rules, gentlemen were required to keep a copy in their pistol cases. This code contemplated the use of pistols but also provided for swords. American duellists relied either on the Irish Code Duello or the American version authored in 1838 by lawyer, duellist, and former Governor John Lyde Wilson of South Carolina (one of the foremost duelling states in the Union).

Participants in Duels of Honor

Duellists in Europe were nobles, or men who carried arms by reason of their profession, usually soldiers. In America where no titled aristocracy existed, duellists mostly came from the ranks of lawyers, government office holders, and sundry gentlemen, groups with much at stake in a duel of honor. Ironically, the first American duel was fought between two servants in New England (Massachusetts, 1621), where duelling was far less common than in the South.

It was not unusual for a nobleman or gentleman to fight a number of duels in his lifetime. Records are scarce and anecdotal, and probably underreport the numbers of duels fought by particular individuals. But reports chronicle scores of men with extraordinary numbers of duels to their credit. In France during the reign of Louis XIII (1610-1643), one ardent duellist was credited with killing 72 men by the age of 30. American President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) purportedly fought more than 100 duels during his life. And even if a man was not prone to duelling, as a gentleman his honor (and in America, often his livelihood) would suffer blemish if he mishandled a challenge.

Legal and Ecclesiastical Opposition to Duelling

There was no dearth of opposition to all forms of duelling by either state or church authorities, beginning as early as the 11th century. The 1041 Truce of God and Louis VII’s 1167 prohibition chipped away at trial by combat, and the 1148 Council of Reims denied Christian burial to tournament casualties. When the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in its 19th canon prohibited princes from providing a closed field for combat on penalty of excommunication, and condemned duellists, accomplices, and spectators to excommunication, a severe blow was dealt to all forms of duelling in France—in theory, that is. France never recognized the council’s decrees, in great part due to the 19th canon. French clergy continued the attack on duelling, building support among ecclesiastics, and Church condemnation of the practice continued vigorously throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

In France, anti-duelling measures were promulgated with increasing frequency. Henri IV (reigned 1589-1610) and Louis XIII (reigned 1610-1643) issued anti-duelling edicts; during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) at least 10 edicts aimed at curtailing duelling were issued, until he found it necessary to issue the Edit des Duels (1679), which ordered death and confiscation of property for duellists and their accomplices. However, the King was inconsistent in his support of his own laws, and the practice of duelling continued much as it had before.

In common law countries duelling always had been illegal, the transgression punished according to the offense committed under the common law. A duellist could be charged with crimes ranging from assault to murder. The common law approach garnered more prosecutions and convictions than the continental European approach, which targeted duelling as a separate offense.

In America, duelling was a tradition of the Southern gentry, which intensified in the early 19th century. Most early anti-duelling legislation sought to deter duelling by barring duellists from public office. Although enactment of anti-duelling legislation lagged, eventually all states and the District of Columbia (1839) passed legislation prohibiting duelling. American duelling did not enjoy the degree of popular favor it did in Europe, perhaps because although Southerners were fond of the institution, the Northern states never internalized it as part of their culture. Many writers have linked the decline of duelling in America to the end of the Civil War, consistent with Confederate defeat and the universal tendency of duelling to ebb in the wake of wartime. Others have cited the efficacy of ever more stringent duelling laws. Sporadic episodes continued into the 20th century, yet duelling had passed its zenith in this country and ceased to be a powerful social custom.

These illustrations are emblematic of widespread attempts by the law and the church to eliminate duelling. Yet duelling continued. Issues of honor over which duels were fought were mostly not justiciable in courts of law. For those issues that were, duellists were unwilling to submit to the courts, preferring private resolution. The system of honor to which duellists subscribed operated outside the civil and criminal justice systems, as well as the church. The dominance of nobility in Europe, and of lawyers, politicians, and gentry in America, was undeniable, since in many cases these very individuals were the transgressors as well as the police. Often, these very individuals intentionally drafted laws to provide avenues for avoidance of penalties.

The Decline of Duelling

It is uncertain to what degree worldwide anti-duelling efforts contributed to the decline of duelling. Yet it is clear that duelling as a robust social phenomenon of the aristocracy mastered most legal attempts to contain it. Indeed, its virtual disappearance by the 20th century as a valid method of deciding disputes suggests a link to the widespread democratization of the world’s societies rather than a sudden or even gradual capitulation to the law. What remains today, apart from isolated encounters in France and Germany, are stylized derivative games such as fencing and jousting. They remind us how disputes often were settled, outside court, before the 20th century.

—Jennie C. Meade is the rare books librarian at the Jacob Burns Law Library. An expanded version of “The Duel,” featuring works on duelling from the Law Library’s collection, is a permanent online exhibition at the library’s Special Collections Web site, viewable at

Dueling Ground at Bladensburg.

Famous Duels

Hamilton-Burr (1804)

The 1804 Hamilton-Burr duel is recognized as the most famous and distressing duel in American history. The “interview at Weehawken” matched Vice President/lawyer Aaron Burr against the popular former Secretary of the Treasury/lawyer Alexander Hamilton. The two men were not congenial personally; combined with political differences of long standing they were led inexorably to duel after an exchange of letters initiated by Burr. Burr took issue with Hamilton’s purported use of the word “despicable” in describing his opinion of Burr. Hamilton’s cocksure yet evasive response vexed Burr even more, and soon a challenge was issued by Burr’s second, Van Ness, and accepted by Hamilton’s second, Pendleton. Hamilton’s last writing before the duel stated his opposition to duelling but his inability to decline this duel, citing reasons of honor and politics.

The popular analysis of the outcome was that Burr was a cold-blooded killer. Public regard for Hamilton was intense; Burr was charged with murder in New Jersey and began a steady political, professional, and personal decline, dying penniless in 1836.

Jackson-Dickinson (1806)

Future President and lawyer Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, a prominent Maryland lawyer and horse breeder, also entertained a longstanding antipathy, sparked by a bet on a horse race. Both were sportsmen and crack shots. When Dickinson slandered Jackson’s wife, a duel was inevitable, and both intended to kill the other. Dickinson fired first at the signal. Jackson took the bullet in the chest, then stood firm and aimed, but his pistol stopped at half-cock. He adjusted his pistol, aimed again, and fired. Dickinson’s wound was mortal. Jackson’s own wound was serious, necessitating a prolonged recovery. This duel, although it did not prevent Jackson from being elected President, damaged his reputation, as he was considered to have murdered Dickinson in cold blood.

Other Famous Duels

The dashing Commodore Stephen Decatur, mortally wounded in a duel at Bladensburg, died at his home across from the White House in 1820. This medallion of Decatur was reproduced courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Of the legion duels fought in America, those with prominent participants included the 1777 Button Gwinnett-Lachlan McIntosh duel in Georgia (Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was mortally wounded), the 1820 James Barron-Stephen Decatur duel (naval hero Commodore Decatur was mortally wounded), and the 1859 David Terry-David Broderick duel in San Francisco. Broderick was a U.S. senator from California, and Terry was the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Their duel was sparked by opposing views on slavery, Broderick as a critic and Terry as a proponent. Broderick was mortally wounded. Terry was indicted for murder and arrested, and ultimately acquitted at trial. The reputations of the victors of all these duels suffered damage from which they never recovered fully.

Our Own Local Duelling Ground.

The Bladensburg Duelling Grounds, just over the District of Columbia line in Prince Georges County, Md., saw many duels, including the fatal Stephen Decatur duel of 1820. The son of Francis Scott Key, Daniel Key, was killed in a Bladensburg duel in 1836. The famous Cilley-Graves duel (1838) between two members of the U.S. House of Representatives took place here. The death of Representative Jonathan Cilley of Maine was the impetus to Congress for enactment of Washington, D.C.’s anti-duelling law (1839). Although this measure assuaged public demand for a ban on duelling, like most duelling laws it proved ineffective, and duellists continued to meet at Bladensburg, mostly in the darkness.

Ghosts of the duelling dead are reputed to haunt the Bladensburg Duelling Grounds, which are designated by a historical marker on Route 450 in Maryland, near Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Only a small section of the grounds remain, development over the years having claimed the greatest part of the land.

And the winner is...

History’s most unusual duel: man versus dog. In 1400, the last trial by combat of note was fought in France. This contest pitted man against dog. The dog’s master, Montdidier, had been murdered by an ill-meaning friend, the Chevalier Maquer. Maquer buried the body and departed. The dog, masterless and hungry, journeyed to Paris and sought out the Chevalier Ardilliers, a friend of his master Montdidier, and led him back to his master’s grave. This loyal dog scratched the dirt covering the grave until Ardilliers dug up the corpse of Montdidier. Later the dog spied Maquer, his master’s killer, and attacked him viciously. The dog renewed his attacks at each encounter with Maquer, soon arousing suspicion since heretofore his nature had been gentle. Friends recalled that Maquer had shown hostility to Montdidier, and reported this to the king. The king ordered trial by combat between Maquer and the dog to uncover Maquer’s guilt or innocence.

At combat, Maquer was unable to contain the frenzied attack of the dog, who focused on Maquer’s throat. Maquer, undone by the dog’s fervor and tenacity, confessed to his crime and was duly hanged. Alas, we have no word on the fate of Montdidier’s faithful greyhound, nor even his name.