Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday Thinking—Duels

I’ve been thinking about conflict resolution this week, partly because it clutters every news cast. Prompted by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, I’ve been specifically thinking about early American duels—the conflict resolution strategy that southern gentlemen employed to defend their honor.

I think these duels interesting:

July 11, 1804: Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Vice-President Aaron Burr. Hamilton was killed. (Can you imagine VP Joe Biden in a duel today with say . . . former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell?)

May 30, 1806: Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson. Dickinson, with 26 dueling wins to his name, was killed; Jackson was only wounded. Jackson later became the 7th President of the United States.

September 22, 1842: Abraham Lincoln and James Shields. Lincoln was an Illinois state legislator at the time and accepted a duel by James Shields who was the state auditor. Hoping to diffuse the crises, Lincoln suggested they use cow-pies as weapons. Shields was insulted so Lincoln chose cavalry broadswords. Before the duel, Lincoln made an ostentatious display of his long arms and superior reach by hacking the upper branches of a nearby tree. Shields cowered and called the duel off. (Oh, ho. Cow-pies. Yes, that would be my weapon of choice, too—cheap, plentiful, harmless, light-weight, earth-friendly.)

Dueling in the early centuries seemed a legitimate source of resolving accusations and severe offenses—even Henry Clay, THE GREAT COMPROMISER, dueled; but it seems so savage in today’s society.

However, upon hearing the following argument I began to wonder which society (19th or 21st century society) is the more coarse, uncivilized and unkind.

Edward Bates (father of 17, mind you) was usually soft-spoken and easy mannered. However one day he got in a heated argument with George McDuffie, a representative from South Carolina, on the floor of the House. McDuffie ridiculed Bates publicly with crude language, which Bates took personally, and hastily challenged McDuffie to a duel. Fortunately McDuffie declined and publically apologized to Bates (good thing, because we’re going to need Bates as Lincoln’s attorney general). Years later, Charles Gibson, a friend of Bates reflected on the southern code of dueling, “As wicked as the code was the vulgar public behavior following the demise of the practice was worse still. The code preserved a dignity, justice and decorum that have since been lost, to the great detriment of the professions, the public and the government. The present generation will think me barbarous, but I believe that some lives lost in protecting the tone of the bar and the press on which the Republic itself so largely depends are well spent.”

Because we no longer have to put our money where our mouth is we can make offensive accusations or write rude memos (oft-times anonymously). We can spit and run. Hardly the thing you could do in dueling days.

Interesting to think about isn’t it? Do you think Gibson's assessment correct? Is society’s tenor soured and off-key because men don’t have to defend their accusations? Hmmmm. That’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.


Kathy said...

Hummm. Thanks for this most interesting post. We have lost a great deal of accountability, therefore honesty. Dueling does seem barbaric, but I wonder as I think...does our corruptions cause more death..war..gangs...mob...etc? Hmmmm

Cali said...

Since you read all this to me a few days ago, I too have been pondering my opinion on dueling. I'm good at saying I'm sorry, so I think I would have gotten out of most duel offers, but what about those ones where I felt I'd spoken the truth. I have just found this ALL so fascinating.
I also liked that they chose their weapons. The antiqued pearl handled pistols, dueling swords, Gimli's ax, or Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Wrench.
Another impressive note about Lincoln and his ability to dispel tension. I think that dispelling anger was one of his greatest callings. He asked the band to play the song "Dixie." Even his death...
Well this is long enough to be an e-mail, instead of a comment. I love you, you brilliant woman, you!

hennchix said...

Wow Jane! That is some serious food for thought,with dessert thrown in. Would our manners improve if you paid with your life for offending someone? Maybe we should bring it back, definitely an incentive to keep my mouth shut!!

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say I have never thought of dueling like this, with the modern spin.

Dueling has me thinking of defending honor and chivalry, two things that I think we could use a lot more of today!

melanie said...

Your cow pie comment has me laughing out loud. Such a good post. I love your way of thinking and your way of getting me thinking! :)

Jill said...

This was certainly an interesting and unexpected post, I always learn new things when I read your blog.

I think there is a definite disconnect with the way we communicate now. It's ridiculous that we have so many ways to talk to each other, but we're so removed from the civility of face-to-face communication. I think we dash off blog comments, text messages, emails and so on without really thinking about whether we would say that to someone's face or not. It's frighening.

Marie said...

The annonymity that comes with communication today has saved the world from many-a-duel, I am sure. I'm not big on the idea of fighting to the death over a rude comment, but a little more accountablity would be nice.

Becky said...

So much to think about...too early in the morning for my brain to come up with an intelligent comment but I loved this post!

Lucy said...

I agree and think most of those duels were the result of pride and over-reaction, but I think we could learn a lesson about accountability from those history lessons.

Your blog posts are always chalk full of information. It's like I'm enrolled in Jane-school!

Alisa said...

So interesting to think about-
I think that with our vast ways of communicating today we have the ability to have so many positive connections. But with that, the pendulum swings as far the opposite direction.
I say things that I probably would not say to a persons face, for good and bad. If I carried with me the weight of the possibility of a duel with every thing I said, I might censor myself more.
In both directions.
Hmmm- I will be thinking about this.
I agree with the above comment
"jane-school"- I am a proud student!