Dueling in America, by Sidney Young

Dueling has a long and complex history. From Europe, to Asia, to the Middle East, the idea of affronts to honor that can only be resolved by violence, or the willingness for violence, is present in many cultures from one time period or another. This site, and the information within, looks to dueling in the United States from the 1790s to the 1850s. Dueling in this early period of American history played its part in shaping the cultural and political future of the fledgling nation.

Dueling was, as noted by the author J.G. Millingen in his 1841 book “The History of Duelling” a perplexing practice in the United States. He characterizes duels in the United States as “Not only frequent, but in general marked with a character of reckless ferocity…” Millingen laments that ” in the one [state], an offence is considered a heinous crime, which in another is deemed a mere midemeanor, an anomaly in legislation which must arise from the variety of their commercial and agricultural interests.”

To chart and examine every duel in United States history is likely an impossible task due to precisely the issues that Millingen was able to observe for himself, and in 1841 no less. The varied attitudes to dueling across state and regional cultural boundaries make the recording habits of the events as varied as the people who participated them.

However, some general trends are easily seen when one looks at the data that is available.

First, that dueling was much more prominent in the South and the westward territories than it was in New England.

Second, that dueling was accepted everywhere to a degree as long as the participants conducted themselves in accordance with the codes of honor of the day.

Finally, and perhaps the most positive trend, is that dueling decreased in prominence in the United States as the country matured. What the cause of this was is hard to say, however it is entirely plausible that as bodies of important and influential people began to accumulate at the smoking end of dueling pistols across the country, the attitudes of the people shifted towards more peaceful methods of settling slights.

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence is the lack of duels following the American Civil War, the deadliest war in U.S. history. Following the Civil War, duels were virtually non existent, and duelists were prosecuted under the law for murder regardless of whether the codes of honor were observed.

It seems that Americans finally became fed up with spilling blood over matters of personal honor by the middle of the 19th century