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Column: Anti-Dueling Crusade Is a Model

On the morning of July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, two longtime political adversaries faced off in a duel. After pacing off against his opponent, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, shot and mortally wounded the former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. (No, Dick Cheney was not the first vice president to shoot someone!) Even though dueling was technically illegal in most states, and Benjamin Franklin characterized it as a “murderous practice,” dueling had become popular as part of a “culture of honor” among veterans of the Continental Army. Soldiers and politicians sought to mimic the European military elites they had encountered while fighting alongside them against the British during the War for Independence.

Not all duels ended in fatality. Because firearms were still rather crude, a duel very often inflicted injury rather than death; in the peculiar etiquette of the duel, as long as shots were exchanged, “honor” had been served, and the combatants often reconciled after having faced one another over the barrels of dueling pistols. Still, Americans persisted in this brutal ritual. “The rage for dueling here,” a visitor from France noted in 1779, “has reached an incredible and scandalous point.”

Those who wished to engage in a duel found ways to circumvent the laws. Although dueling was illegal in the District of Columbia, for instance, politicians simply crossed the Anacostia River to Bladensburg, Md., to carry out their duels on what became known as the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds. More than 50 duels took place there early in the 19th century.

Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr, however, provoked a public outcry. Newspapers characterized the duel as “dreadful” and “barbarous and vicious.” At Hamilton’s funeral, ships in New York harbor flew their flags at half mast. The scene at the Trinity Episcopal Church gravesite, according to the New York Evening Post, was enough “to melt a monument of marble.”

The duel in Weehawken — not unlike the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. — began to galvanize popular opposition. Ministers led the charge against dueling, joined by college presidents and other leaders in society. In 1806, two years after Hamilton’s death, Lyman Beecher, then a Presbyterian minister on Long Island, published a pamphlet against dueling, urging voters to pledge never to vote for anyone who supported dueling.

Evangelical reformers like Beecher pointed out that the notion of grown men pointing guns at one another was barbaric and unworthy of a civilized society. These preachers and reformers launched a moral crusade not only to outlaw dueling nationally but also to consolidate the public’s repugnance toward anyone who supported the practice. Although Congress finally passed a law against dueling in 1839, the practice continued. By the onset of the Civil War, however, reformers had so discredited dueling that it all but disappeared.

I’m struck by the parallels with the current discussions about gun control. Despite all of the rhetorical flurry in Washington following the Newtown shootings, I have my doubts that legislation will prove sufficient to accomplish what advocates hope, especially given the patchwork of state laws, many of which differ widely. In addition to legislation, we also need to advance a moral argument against the culture of violence that so characterizes American society, from video games to motion pictures. We glorify violence on the hockey ice and the football field, not to mention the gladiatorial fighting on cable television. It’s no wonder that anyone thinking himself aggrieved resorts to violence.

Common-sense legislation shoring up background checks and outlawing assault weapons provide a starting point, of course. But people of good faith also need to mount a moral campaign similar to that waged against dueling in the 19th century — similar even to the moral outrage against dog-fighting that emerged following the arrest of professional football player Michael Vick in 2007.

The Newtown massacre provides an occasion for making that argument, no less than the death of Alexander Hamilton precipitated the crusade against dueling. Just as dueling had become popular among the post-Revolutionary generation, so, too, we have become a society transfixed by guns and vigilante justice. It’s all too easy to settle a score or to avenge a slight by pulling a trigger, whether in Columbine or Milwaukee or Aurora or Newtown or on the streets of Los Angeles or Chicago — or, for that matter, in rural New England.

The crusade against dueling in the 19th century teaches us the value of moral argument as a complement to the law in order to stem the ills of society. It’s time for people of character to stand up and declare that resorting to violence is unacceptable in a civilized society, that the answer to too many guns is not more guns. Real reform requires more than legislation; it demands that we construct a moral consensus against behavior that undermines the common good.

Randall Balmer is chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College. His commentary appears on the Perspectives page monthly.