Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Double Guilt of Dueling: The Stain of Suicide in Anti-Dueling Rhetoric in the Early Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Double Guilt of Dueling: The Stain of Suicide in Anti-Dueling Rhetoric in the Early Republic

Article excerpt

By most accounts, Alexander Hamilton never intended to kill Aaron Burr - indeed, Hamilton never intended to pull the trigger. In the days and weeks after accepting Burr's challenge to duel, Hamilton repeatedly told friends and family of his intent to hold his fire while his opponent took aim. "Then, sir, you will go like a lamb to be slaughtered," warned Rufus King. Hamilton refused to reconsider and on July 10, 1804, just hours before the encounter at Weehawken, he wrote a letter he hoped would be published should he be slain, confirming his intentions: "I have resolved ... to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire," Hamilton declared. He was mortally wounded the next morning, and, according to his friends, had remained true to his word. In the aftermath, many New Yorkers seized on those last words and the published testimony of his second, Nathaniel Pendleton, as compelling evidence that the most famous duel in American history was not murder, but suicide. "He exposed his own life," the Presbyterian firebrand Eliphalet Nott told an Albany audience before the month was out. "This was his crime."1

Rather than probe Hamilton's psychological state in his final days or examine whether he was enacting a death wish, this essay considers how the ambiguities of Hamilton's perceived intentions allowed a generation of anti-dueling reformers to build a moral majority against a practice that had held America's first generation of politicians and soldiers in its deadly grip. Although unambiguously illegal in most states, dueling had become an accepted ritual of honor and even a mark of status among officers and gentlemen seeking to emulate the European military elites they had encountered during the Revolutionary War. To such men, the lure of the field of honor was vastly more compelling than the threat of legal sanction.2

Frustrated by duelists' indifference to the rule of law, anti-dueling activists who were inspired to action by Hamilton's slaying mounted one of the first moral suasion campaigns of the new republic. This loose constellation of reformers has been almost completely neglected both by scholars interested in the ritual practices of "men of honor" in the early republic and by students of larger and better coordinated reform movements like abolition or temperance. Yet the audacity of these reformers is remarkable: Using Hamilton's death as their touchstone, this uncoordinated collection of ministers, university presidents and professors, newspaper editors, and assorted other minor public figures inverted the moral associations between dueling and honor. Obliterating longstanding notions of the duel as honorable self-sacrifice, reformers working in the aftermath of Hamilton's ambiguous death recast dueling not as an honor ritual but a unique form of homicide, a fatal compact of suicide and murder. In a full-throated denunciation of the events at Weehawken, the Newburyport Congregationalist Samuel Spring summed up the emerging moral calculus of the anti-dueling movement: "In fine, Duellists are always self-murderers, if not willful murderers of their adversaries. And who with honor can plead their cause?"3

In this compelling revision of the persistent association of honor with self-sacrifice, these reformers played upon growing contemporary anxiety about the specter of suicide, anxiety that revealed a set of deeper concerns about the ability of the young republic to elicit appropriate moral behavior and political participation from its unruly body of constituents. This master-stroke sustained anti-dueling activists for three decades as they attempted to persuade individual citizens of the moral abhorrence of taking the field. Only in 1838, in the wake of the unambiguous slaying of Congressman Jonathan Cilley by a fellow member of the House of Representatives, did events spur opponents of the practice to abandon the once potent connection between dueling and suicide and to instead embrace new tactics designed to use political tools to bring an end to ritual violence in America. …

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