Dueling and America's History of Political Disputes

Sarah Palin said, in response to attacks accusing her of verbal violence, that America's past political disputes were more violent than present ones, using dueling as an example. But what does history say about it?

Since the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Gifford in Arizona people have disagreed about the present political climate. Some say politics has always been violent and confrontational, whereas others argue the present political atmosphere is particularly toxic.

Palin was accused of fostering violence by having a map on her Facebook page with crosshairs targeting political opponents. She countered this accusation by saying, "There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those "calm days" when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?"

History tells us that harsh language and dueling were common in the 18th century and that it was the ultimate outcome of political debates that could not be reconciled by discussion or apology. It was, however, frowned upon by key figures in America's early period of independence.

Dueling was one of the methods used to resolve political differences in the 18th century. This method was imported from Europe, where nobles fought with swords or guns to defend their honor. Men from various backgrounds dueled in America, with guns most often the chosen weapons used. For example, Button Gwinnet who was one of those who signed the Declaration of Independence was shot by General Lachlan in a duel. In addition history records the fact that Abraham Lincoln narrowly escaped a duel with swords but prevented it by issuing an apology to a state official.

Dueling had its formal rules, codified in 1777 and known as the Code Duello. An individual would issue a challenge; and if that challenge was accepted, both parties would select a second. A second was to try to settle the dispute between the two opponents. If they were unable to do that, a time and place was selected for the duel. Death was not necessarily the desired outcome. A shot fired and blood drawn could be sufficient.

Experts tell us that death from dueling was infrequent and that it was the last resort of an unreconciled argument. It was considered harsh, and the expectation was the opponents would work out their differences before this occurred. Although dueling was common enough, many members of the clergy and key government officials such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington opposed it.

One of the most famous duels took place between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Hamilton and Burr were both personal and political enemies.

The duel between Burr and Hamilton was politically motivated, unlike the Arizona shooting where experts debate what provoked Jared Loughner to shoot Representative Gabrielle Gifford.

Alexander Hamilton was an advocate of strong central government, wrote the Federalist Papers and was America's first Secretary of the Treasury. His opponent, Aaron Burr, was a Republican who was elected and served as Vice President of the United States with President Thomas Jefferson.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel following Hamilton's interference with Burr's re-nomination for Vice President in 1804 and attempt to become New York's governor.

The duel commenced, and Burr's shot mortally wounded Hamilton. The physician on the scene recorded the following of Hamilton's words and behavior before he died: "Soon after recovering his sight, he happened to cast his eye upon the case of pistols, and observing the one that he had had in his hand lying on the outside, he said, "Take care of that pistol; it is undischarged, and still cocked; it may go off and do harm. Pendleton knows " (attempting to turn his head towards him) 'that I did not intend to fire at him.'

Hamilton was then taken to his home and was said to have died in agony the following day with the pistol's ball lodged next to his spine.
Burr may have won the duel, but he was indicted by both New York and New Jersey. The trial, however, never took place. He ended up wandering the country and died in poverty and disgrace in 1836. The duel may have settled the score, but the way it was done was not embraced by the laws of the times, just as it would not be today. By the time of the Civil War it had declined because of negative public opinion.


Sarah Palin's Arizona Shooting Statement Blasts Journalists and Pundits 'Blood Libel' (Video)
The Huffington Post

United States History

The History of Dueling in America
PBS Home/Louisiana

Duel at Dawn, 1804
EyeWitness to

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