To Duel or to Not Duel: That is the Question

I am making my way through the Poldark series, set in the late 1700s, and just finished an episode where Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner) is challenged to a duel – and accepts. (I won’t give any spoilers.) In an earlier season, Poldark’s cousin Francis also fought in a duel to protect his sister’s honor.

There is also a duel scene in Bridgerton, set in the early 1800s, which gives me an excuse to post the photo below of Rege-Jean Page, who plays Simon, the Duke of Hastings.

And of course there are several duels in the musical Hamilton, complete with songs.

Every time I see or read about such a scene, I find myself saying WHY? From today’s vantage point, it truly seems stupid. The men challenging and accepting such duels were very likely to be injured or killed, with a roughly 50% chance of a fatality. It was becoming outlawed around this time in most jurisdictions (although “everything is legal in New Jersey”), with punishment for dueling being the death penalty. Why was the honor of these men more important than their lives?

According to the PBS article Politics And Pistols: Dueling In America:

Dueling started as a less violent way to solve disputes in the European Middle Ages. It was thought that God would pass judgment during a duel and save the “right” person.

Duels evolved in Europe as a way to settle differences, fight over women, restore one’s slighted honor, or prevent one from being called a coward.

By the time dueling made its way across the pond, Americans of course reinvented it: it become a way to settle political differences and exhibit leadership skills. (Though being called a “scoundrel” was also grounds for duels.)

The clincher is that if a duel challenge was ignored – which today seems like the only sane response – one’s career could implode. It apparently was very hard to apologize, which was another way to ward off a duel – perhaps because the apology often was required to be public.

Keeping in character what what we know of him was George Washington. According to Smithsonian Magazine:

The story, as Parson Weems tells it, is that in 1754 a strapping young militia officer named George Washington argued with a smaller man, one William Payne, who made up for the disparity in size by knocking Washington down with a stick. It was the kind of affront that, among a certain class of Virginia gentlemen, almost invariably called for a duel. That must have been what Payne was expecting when Washington summoned him to a tavern the following day. Instead, he found the colonel at a table with a decanter of wine and two glasses. Washington apologized for the quarrel, and the two men shook hands.

Ross Drake

While not strictly so, dueling seems to have generally been the purview of younger men and teens, which given what we know about men’s higher propensity for risk-taking up until about age 30 is not at all surprising. Couple raging testosterone with the fact that the human brain does not fully mature – and thus develop executive functioning and impulse control – until about age 25, and we have a dueling disaster.

Dueling’s nail in the coffin seems to have been the Civil War, when everybody had had enough of senseless bloodshed. As with so many fads, once it was gone, no one seemed to miss it much.

Nowadays, traces of dueling still live on in fistfights on the playground or when two men decide to “take it outside.” Though it still seems even in the modern era to be difficult to apologize.

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