Episode 97 Affairs of Honor

Duels were common in America until the end of the Civil War. They were most common in the south where the slightest offense could result in a challenge with duelists following a “polite” code of honor.

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Duels. When we hear of them we’re transported to a field at first light where two men stand, pistols at the ready, as they prepare to settle a question of honor. The names Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton may come to mind.

No one knows the exact date of the first duel but we know duels of chivalry were fought by knights in the Middle Ages. By the mid 16th century, the most familiar duel, the duel of honor, was on the rise among European nobles. Even the hint of insult, from a gentleman’s integrity and courage to the honor of a woman, could provoke a challenge.

As the popularity of the custom grew, so did criticism. In 1614 English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon argued in favor of abolishing the duel saying it was “a desperate evil that troubled peace and brought about calamity. “

There were countless efforts to outlaw them but the practice continued and was brought to the New World. The first recorded duel in America took place in the Massachusetts Colony in 1621. Two servants chose daggers and were wounded. The men survived and faced punishment for engaging in the duel because it was a practice reserved for gentlemen, not servants. 

There had been hope that the New World would be free of what was known as the “sin of the duel”. They would be rare until the Revolutionary war era. 

Benjamin Franklin spoke out about duels and challenged the reasoning behind them in a 1784 letter asking: “How can such miserable Sinners as we are entertain so much Pride, as to conceit that every Offence against our imagined Honour merits Death?” 

The criticism of the practice did little to deter it. Duels were fought in the United States well into the late 19th century. They were most popular in the antebellum South.

This is the story of affairs of honor 

Illustration of Jackson-Dickinson duel, 1806, public domain
Steven Decatur. 46 American communities are named for the Naval hero who was killed in a duel in 1820
A majority of duels were between men but women occasionally defended their own honor. This is an artist sketch of rumored “Petticoat Duel”

Episode Sources

Field of Honor: A Complete and Comprehensive History of Duelling in All Countries. 1884

Savannah Duels. Chatham County GaArchives History. 1923

Dueling. Encyclopedia of Arkansas. 15 March 2013

8 Legendary Duels. History

“Mourn Columbia!”: The Death and Legacy of Stephen Decatur. White House History. November 25, 2019.

The History of Dueling in America. PBS American Experience

In the Defense of Honor: The Rise and Fall of Dueling in America. Ultimate History ProjectBefore Burr shot Hamilton, this 1800s Kentucky duel ended in bloodshed. Courier Journal. June 13, 2019.

Episode Music

Lost, Almost in F Tranquility and Lost Frontier by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Source: http://incompetech.com

Northern Lights by Chris Haugen, Spirit of Fire by Jesse Gallagher and Alone with my Thoughts by Esther Abrami Licensed under Creative Commons

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.



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