From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  IT is not to much purpose to show that this strange practice is in itself wrong, because no one denies it. Other grounds of defence are taken, although to be sure \here is a plain absurdity in conceding that a thing is wrong in morals, and then trying to show that it is proper to practise it.

  Public notions exempt a clergyman from the “necessity” of fighting duels, and they exempt other men from the “necessity” of demanding satisfaction for a clergyman’s insult. Now we ask the man of honour whether he would rather receive an insult from a military officer or from a clergyman. Which would give him the greater pain, and cause him the more concern and uneasiness! That from the military officer, certainly. But why? Because the officer’s affront leads to a duel, and the clergyman’s does not. So, then, it is preferable to receive an insult to which the “necessity” of fighting is not attached, than one to which it is attached. “Why then attach the necessity to any man’s affront? You say that demanding satisfaction is a remedy for the evil of an insult. But we see that the evil, together with the remedy, is worse than the evil alone. Why then institute the remedy at all?—It is not indeed to be questioned that some insults may be forborne because it is known to what consequences they lead. But on the other hand, for what purpose does one man insult another! To give him pain: now we have just seen that the pain is so much the greater in consequence of the “necessity” of fighting, and therefore the motives to insult another are increased. A man who wishes to inflict pain upon another, can inflict it more intensely in consequence of the system of duelling.

  The truth is, that men fancy the system is useful because they do not perceive how public opinion has been violently turned out of its natural and its usual course. When a military man is guilty of an insult, public disapprobation falls but lightly upon him. It reserves its force to direct against the insulted party if he does not demand satisfaction. But when a clergyman is guilty of an insult, public disapprobation falls upon him with undivided force. The insulted party receives no censure. Now if you take away the custom of demanding satisfaction, what will be the result? Why, that public opinion will revert to its natural course; it will direct all its penalties to the offending party, and by consequence restrain him from offending. It will act towards all men as it now acts towards the clergy; and if a clergyman were frequently to be guilty of insults, his character would be destroyed. The reader will perhaps more distinctly perceive that the fancied utility of duelling in preventing insults results from this misdirection of public opinion, by this brief argument:

  An individual either fears public opinion or he does not.

  If he does not fear it, the custom of duelling cannot prevent him from insulting whomsoever he pleases; because public opinion is the only thing which makes men fight, and he does not regard it.

  If he does fear public opinion, then the most effectual way of restraining him from insulting others, is by directing that opinion against the act of insulting,—just as it is now directed in the case of the clergy.1

  Thus it is that we find—what he knows the perfection of Christian morality would expect—that duelling, as it is immoral, so it is absurd.

  It appears to be forgotten that a duel is not more allowable to secure ourselves from censure or neglect, than any other violation of the moral law. If these motives constitute a justification of a duel, they constitute a justification of robbery or poisoning. To advocate duelling is not to defend one species of offence, but to assert the general right to violate the laws of God. If, as Dr. Johnson reasoned, the “notions which prevail” make fighting right, they can make any thing right. Nothing is wanted but to alter the “notions which prevail,” and there is not a crime mentioned in the statute book that will not be lawful and honourable to-morrow.

  It is usual with those who do foolish and vicious things, or who do things from foolish or vicious motives, to invent some fiction by which to veil the evil or folly, and to give, it if possible, a creditable appearance. This has been done in the case of duelling. We hear a great deal about honour, and spirit, and courage, and other qualities equally pleasant, and as it respects the duellist, equally fictitious. The want of sufficient honour, and spirit, and courage, is precisely the very reason why men fight. Pitt fought with Tierney; upon which Pitt’s biographer writes—“A mind like his, cast in no common mould, should have risen superior to a low and unworthy prejudice, the folly of which it must have perceived, and the wickedness of which it must have acknowledged. Could Mr. Pitt be led away by that false shame which subjects the decisions of reason to the control of fear, and renders the admonitions of conscience subservient to the powers of ridicule?”2 Low prejudice, folly, wickedness, false shame, and fear, are the motives which the complacent duellist dignifies with the titles of honour, spirit, courage. This, to be sure, is very politic: he would not be so silly as to call his motives by their right names. Others, of course, join in the chicanery. They reflect that they themselves may one day have a “meeting,” and they wish to keep up the credit of a system which they are conscious they have not principle enough to reject.

  Put Christianity out of the question,—Would not even the philosophy of paganism have despised that littleness of principle which would not bear a man up in adhering to conduct which he knew to be right,—that littleness of principle which sacrifices the dictates of understanding to an unworthy fear ?—When a good man, rather than conform to some vicious institution of the papacy, stood firm against the frowns and persecutions of the world, against obloquy and infamy, we say that his mental principles were great as well as good. If they were, the principles of the duellist are mean as well as vicious. He is afraid to be good and great. He knows the course which dignity and virtue prescribe, but he will not rise above those lower motives which prompt him to deviate from that course. It does not affect these conclusions to concede that he who is afraid to refuse a challenge may generally be a man of elevated mind. He may be such; but his refusal is an exception to his general character. It is an instance in which he impeaches his consistency in excellence. If it were consistent, if the whole mind had attained to the rightful stature of a Christian man, he would assuredly contemn in his practice the conduct which he disapproved in his heart. If you would show us a man of courage, bring forward him who will say, I will not fight. Suppose a gentleman who, upon the principles which Gifford says should have actuated Pitt and all great minds, had thus refused to fight, and suppose him saying to his withdrawing friends—“I have acted with perfect deliberation: I know all the consequences of the course I have pursued: but I was persuaded that I should act most like a man of intellect as well as like a Christian by declining the meeting; and therefore I declined it. I feel and deplore the consequences, though I do not deprecate them, I am not fearful, as I have not been fearful; for I appeal to yourselves whether I have not encountered the more appalling alternative,—whether it does not require a greater effort to do what I have done, and what I am at this moment doing, than to have met my opponent.”—Such a man’s magnanimity might not procure for him the companionship of his acquaintance, but it would do much more; it would obtain the suffrages of their judgments and their hearts. While they continued perhaps externally to neglect him, they would internally honour and admire. They would feel that his excellence was of an order to which they could make no pretensions; and they would feel, as they were practising this strange hypocrisy of vice, that they were the proper objects of contempt and pity.

  The species of slavery to which a man is sometimes reduced by being, as he calls it, “obliged to fight,” is really pitiable. A British officer writes of a petulant and profligate class of men, one of whom is sometimes found in a regiment, and says, “Sensible that an officer must accept a challenge, he does not hesitate to deal them in abundance, and shortly acquires the name of a fighting man; but as every one is not willing to throw away his life when called upon by one who is indifferent to his own, many become condescending, which this man immediately construes into fear; and presuming upon this, he acts as if he imagined no one dare contradict him, but all must yield obedience to his will.” Here the servile bondage of which we speak is brought prominently out. Here is the crouching and unmanly fear. Here is the abject submission of sense and reason to the grossest vulgarity of insolence, folly, and guilt. The officer presently gives an account of an instance in which the whole mess were domineered over by one of these fighting men;—and a pitiably ludicrous account it is. The man had invited them to dinner at some distance. “On the day appointed, there came on a most violent snow storm, and in the morning we despatched a servant with an apology.” But alas! these poor men could not use their own judgments as to whether they should ride in a “most violent snow storm” or not. The man sent back some rude message that he “expected them.” They were afraid of what the fighting man would do next morning, and so the whole mess, against their wills, actually rode “near four miles in a heavy snow storm, and passed a day,” says the officer, “that was without exception the most unpleasant I ever passed in my life!”3 In the instance of these men, the motives to duelling as founded upon fear, operated so powerfully that the officers were absolutely enslaved,—driven against their wills by fear, as negroes are by a cart-whip.

  We are shocked and disgusted at the immolation of women among the Hindoos, and think that if such a sacrifice were attempted in England, it would excite feelings of the utmost repulsion and abhorrence. Of the custom of immolation, duelling is the sister. Their parents are the same, and like other sisters, their lineaments are similar. Why does a Hindoo mount the funeral pile? To vindicate and maintain her honour. Why does an Englishman go to the heath with his pistols? To vindicate and maintain his honour. What is the nature and character of the Hindoo’s honour! Quite factitious. Of the duellist’s? Quite factitious. How is the motive applied to the Hindoo? To her fears of reproach. To the duellist? To his fears of reproach. What then is the difference between the two customs? This,—That one is practised in the midst of pagan darkness and the other in the midst of Christian light. And yet these very men give their guineas to the Missionary Society, lament the degradation of the Hindoos, and expatiate upon the sacred duty of enlightening them with Christianity! “Physician! heal thyself.”

  One consideration connected with duelling is of unusual interest. “In the judgment of that religion which requires purity of heart, and of that Being to whom thought is action, he cannot be esteemed innocent of this crime, who lives in a settled, habitual determination to commit it, when circumstances shall call upon him so to do. This is a consideration which places the crime of duelling on a different footing from almost any other; indeed there is perhaps No other, which mankind habitually and deliberately resolve to practise whenever the temptation shall occur. It shows also that the crime of duelling is far more general in the higher classes than is commonly supposed, and the whole sum of the guilt which the practice produces, is beyond what has perhaps been ever conceived.”4

  “It is the intention,” says Seneca, “and not the effect, which makes the wickedness:” and that Greater than Seneca who laid the axe to the root of our vices, who laid upon the mental disposition that guilt which had been laid upon the act, may be expected to regard this habitual willingness and intention to violate his laws, as an actual and great offence. The felon who plans and resolves to break into a house, is not the less a felon because a watchman happens to prevent him; nor is the offence of him who happens never to be challenged, necessarily at all less than that of him who takes the life of his friend.

1 See West. Rev. No. 7, Art. 2.
2 Gifford’s Life, vol. i, p. 268.
3 Lieut. Aubury: Travels in North America.
4 Wilberforce: Practical View, c.4, s.3.

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