To Gain the Whole World and Lose His Own Soul: Nineteenth-Century American Dueling as Public Law and Private Code
70 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2006
The practice of dueling demolishes any happy notion that people are fundamentally the same regardless of the particular chronological moment in which they inhabit the world. Yet the duel flourished in the United States at least until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, when it died out in a regionally specific manner. This Article provides an antidote to static views of dueling by analyzing the duel as both a subject of legal regulation and a precursor to legal remedies for injuries to reputation. The duel carried profound public meaning; to duel was to perform the specific role of gentleman by asserting the right to vindicate personal honor in the realm of public notice. A subtle alchemy was therefore necessary for dueling to be viable as an institution: a translation from private dispute into public performance. This translation occurred frequently throughout the United States for much of the first half of the nineteenth century. By mid-century, however, growing dissonance between North and South led the two regions to diverge in their practice of dueling. Elite southerners embraced the duel as a symbol of southern exceptionalism and gentility, in contrast to what they viewed as the declining civility of northern industrial society. In clinging to the duel, southerners sought to maintain their traditional view of public and private as a single, coherent arena for human activity with a single code of behavior. Northerners, meanwhile, began to object to the duel because they viewed its merger of public and private realms as no longer appropriate for their increasingly urban, commercial, and industrial society. Instead, northern opinion gravitated toward an aspirationally modern and legal worldview in which only damage touching a male individual's public role as a merchant or a professional - and not the more diffuse persona of "gentleman" - qualified for public redress.
Keywords: dueling, public, private, nineteenth century, honor, reputation
JEL Classification: N41, B15, B10, B30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation