Dueling in United States


Dueling has been known in the United States from the very beginning of their settlement, the first duel taking place in 1621, at Plymouth, between two serving men. In 1728 a young man named Woodbridge was killed in a duel on Boston Common by another young man named Phillips. They fought without seconds, in the night time, and with swords. Aided by some of his friends, Phillips got on board a man-of-war and escaped to France, where he died a year afterward. There were few duels in the Revolution, the most noted being those between Gen. C. Lee and Col. John Laurens, in which the former was wounded, and between Generals Cadwallader and Conway, in 1778, in which the latter received a shot in the head from which be recovered. Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, from Georgia, was killed in a duel with General McIntosh, in May 1777. In 1785 Captain Gunn challenged General Greene twice, both being citizens of Georgia, and threatened a personal assault when the latter refused to meet him. Greene wrote to Washington, acknowledging that if he thought his honor or reputation would suffer from his refusal he would accept the challenge. He was especially concerned as to the effect of his conduct on the minds of military men and admitted his regard for the opinion of the world. Washington approved of his course in the most decisive terms, not on moral grounds, but because a commanding officer is not amenable to private calls for the discharge of his public duty.

Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, the latter being Vice-President and the former the greatest leader of the opposition. This duel is always allowed the first place in the history of American private combats. That which stands next is the duel between Captains Barron and Decatur, the latter being killed and Barron severely wounded. Henry Clay and John Randolph fought in 1826, and Colonel Benton, in closing his account of the fight, says: “Certainly dueling is bad, and has been put down, but not quite so bad as its substitute — revolvers, bowie knives, blackguarding, and street assassinations under the pretext of self-defense.” General Jackson killed M. Dickinson in a duel, and was engaged in other “affairs.” Colonel Benton killed a Mr. Lucas and had other duels. In 1841 Mr. Clay was on the verge of fighting with Colonel King, then a senator from Alabama and elected Vice-President in 1852. Mr. Cilley of Maine fought with Mr. Graves of Kentucky in 1838, near Washington, and the former was killed. This duel caused nearly as much excitement as that between Hamilton and Burr. Both parties were members of Congress. Duels have been numerous in California, notably the combat between Terry and Broderick. Formerly they were very common in the United States navy and valuable lives were lost. It is related of Richard Somers, who perished in the Intrepid, and who is said to have been a mild man, that he fought three duels in one day. In 1830 President Jackson caused the names of four officers to be struck from the navy roll because they had been engaged in a duel. Since the Civil War stringent laws have been passed in all the States against dueling and the practice has become obsolete in this country.

Dueling in Upper Canada (now Ontario) was illegal and the person guilty of so taking life was liable for murder, but by the “unwritten law” the Crown counsel, if the combat was fairly conducted, did not press for conviction. Perhaps the most celebrated duel fought in the early days of the colony was that between William Weekes and William Dickson, and took place behind a bastion of old Fort Niagara, on the American side of the river, on 10 Oct. 1806, Weekes was killed; but as the duel had been fought in a foreign country, Dickson was never brought to trial. What is regarded as the last duel in Upper Canada took place on the banks of the river Tay at Perth on 13 June 1833 between John Wilson (afterward puisne judge of the Common Pleas of Ontario) and one Robert Lyon, in which the latter was mortally wounded; but following the customary practice, the fight having been a fair one, the jury did not convict.

State and territorial laws prohibiting duelling

There are 20 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have some statute(s) (including constitutional provisions) specifically prohibiting duelling. The remaining 30 states either have no such statute or constitutional provision, or limit their duelling prohibition to members of their state national guard. This does not necessarily mean, however, that duelling is legal in any state, as assault and murder laws can apply.

States which specifically prohibit members of the state national guard from duelling are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Hawaii, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and New York.

States and territories which have statutory prohibitions on duelling for all citizens are Colorado, District of Columbia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island and Utah. California previously prohibited duelling, but this was repealed in 1994.

Virginia passed the Anti-Dueling Act in 1810, creating civil and criminal penalties for the most usual causes of duelling, rather than for the act itself. It is still on the books. Virginia Code §8.01-45 creates a Civil Action for insulting words. Virginia Code §18.2-416 makes it a crime to use abusive language to another under circumstances reasonably calculated to provoke a breach of the peace. Virginia Code §18.2-417 makes certain slander and libel a crime.

See Also

Further Reading

    • Douglas, ‘Duelling Days in the Army’ (1887);
    • Massi, ‘History of Duelling in All Countries’ (1880);
    • Milligen, ‘History of Duelling’ (1841);
    • Sabine, ‘Notes on Duels and Dueling’ (1855);
    • Steinmetz, ‘The Romance of Duelling’ (1868);
    • Truman, ‘The Field of Honor’ (1884).
    • Baldick, Robert. The Duel: A History of Duelling. London: Chapman & Hall, 1965.
    • Banks, Stephen. Duels and Duelling, Oxford: Shire, 2012.
    • Banks, Stephen. A Polite Exchange of Bullets; The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750–1850, (Woodbridge: Boydell 2010)
    • Banks, Stephen. “Very little law in the case: Contests of Honour and the Subversion of the English Criminal Courts, 1780-1845” (2008) 19(3) King’s Law Journal 575-594.
    • Banks, Stephen. “Dangerous Friends: The Second and the Later English Duel” (2009) 32 (1) Journal of Eighteenth Century Studies” 87-106.
    • Banks, Stephen. “Killing with Courtesy: The English Duelist, 1785-1845,” (2008) 47 Journal of British Studies 528-558.
    • Bell, Richard, “The Double Guilt of Dueling: The Stain of Suicide in Anti-dueling Rhetoric in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, 29 (Fall 2009), 383–410.
    • Cramer, Clayton. Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform
    • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001; paperback ed., 2002)
    • Freeman, Joanne B. “Dueling as Politics: Reinterpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 53 (April 1996): 289–318.
    • Frevert, Ute. “Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel.” trans. Anthony Williams Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.
    • Greenberg, Kenneth S. “The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South.” American Historical Review 95 (February 1990): 57–73.
    • James Kelly. That Damn’d Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland 1570–1860″ (1995)
    • Kevin McAleer. Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany (1994)
    • Morgan, Cecilia. “‘In Search of the Phantom Misnamed Honour’: Duelling in Upper Canada.” Canadian Historical Review 1995 76(4): 529–562.
    • Rorabaugh, W. J. “The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton.” Journal of the Early Republic 15 (Spring 1995): 1–23.
    • Schwartz, Warren F., Keith Baxter and David Ryan. “The Duel: Can these Gentlemen be Acting Efficiently?.” The Journal of Legal Studies 13 (June 1984): 321–355.
    • Steward, Dick. Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri (2000),
    • Williams, Jack K. Dueling in the Old South: Vignettes of Social History (1980) (1999),
    • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South (1986)
    • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982),
    • Holland, Barbara. “Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling” New York, NY. (2003)
    • Duels and Duelling (Stephen Banks) 2012.
    • The Code of Honor; or, Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling, John Lyde Wilson 1838
    • The Field of Honor Benjamin C. Truman. (1884); reissued as Duelling in America (1993).
    • Savannah Duels & Duellists, Thomas Gamble (1923)
    • Gentlemen, Swords and Pistols, Harnett C. Kane (1951)
    • Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honor in America, William Oliver Stevens (1940)
    • The Duel: A History, Robert Baldick (1965, 1996)
    • Dueling With the Sword and Pistol: 400 Years of One-on-One Combat, Paul Kirchner (2004)
    • Duel, James Landale (2005).
    • Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature, Irina Reyfman (1999).

A Polite Exchange of Bullets; The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850, Stephen Banks (2010)


See Also

  • Legal Topics.
  • Burr-Hamilton Duel ; South, the: The Antebellum South

    Further Reading (Books)

    Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor and Slavery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    Stowe, Steven M. Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

    Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Karen RaeMehaffey

    Further Reading (Articles)

    The End of the Affair? Anit-Dueling Laws and Social Norms in Antebellum America, Vanderbilt Law Review; May 1, 2001; Wells, C. A. Harwell

    Dueling and youth violence, The Boston Globe (Boston, MA); April 30, 2007; Deborah Prothrow-Stith Deborah Prothrow-Stith is a professor of publichealth practice at the Harvard School Health.

    Dueling, New Catholic Encyclopedia; January 1, 2003; WILLKE, J. C.

    Politics and the Technology of Honor: Dueling in Turn-of-the-Century Mexico, Journal of Social History; December 22, 1999; Piccato, Pablo

    The deadliest of games: the institution of dueling., Southern Economic Journal; April 1, 2010; Kingston, Christopher G. Wright, Robert E.

    The keys to a good time ; Regional dueling piano bars and events offer tons of songs with crowd interaction, St. Joseph News-Press; July 2, 2009; Blake Hannon

    Dueling-pianos nightclub to open in downtown Salt Lake City, The Enterprise; November 12, 2007; Olson, Debbi

    Dueling Dueling Piano Bars, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; December 9, 2006; Lyons, Kim

    Revive Dueling, with Paint Guns at 10 Paces, The Washington Times (Washington, DC); July 31, 1996; West, Woody

    New Danville bar features dueling pianos, Oakland Tribune; January 14, 2011; Eric Louie

    BAC to host dueling pianos on Saturday, SouthtownStar (Chicago, IL); February 12, 2009

    Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany.(Brief Article), The Historian; January 1, 1996; Dorondo, D.R.

    Interactive on the Ivories Suburban Club Breaks out the Keyboards for Dueling Piano Nights, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL); June 9, 2006; Zeldes, Leah A.

    Dueling Visions: U.S. Strategy toward Eastern Europe under Eisenhower.(Review), Presidential Studies Quarterly; September 1, 2001; Wehrle, Edmund

    Dueling pianists entertain, The Herald News – Joliet (IL); December 4, 2003; Denise M. Baran-Unland

    Bar to host Dueling Pianos, The Pantagraph Bloomington, IL; July 22, 2004; Dan Craft

    Dueling Dragon Karate Academy opens in Elkview, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV); July 29, 2010; Clint Thomas

    ‘DUELING PIANOS’ TO LIGHT UP WELCOME WEEK, US Fed News Service, Including US State News; January 5, 2009

    Dueling trustees wrestling in courts over Petters profits.(BUSINESS), Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN); April 8, 2012

    dueling, The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana; January 1, 1994; Tad Tuleja



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