Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries had little use for European duelcustoms. One European practice they could cozy up to, however, was dueling — a practice that brought a veneer of sophistication to killing another person. The hoi polloi didn’t duel, only gentlemen dueled.

It was all very civilized. It even had it’s own ‘according to Hoyle’ rule book, the Code Duello, imported from Ireland, which spelled out 26 specific do’s and don’ts, right down to the hours during which duel challenges could be made and the number of wounds necessary to satisfy one’s honor.

The typical duel played out in this manner: An offended party would send a challenge to the offender (through a second, of course; the two primaries were not allowed to speak to each other lest they might resort to ungentlemanly name-calling). If the offender apologized, the matter ended, at least until the offender once again offended which he usually did.  If the offender refused to make nice, he chose the weapons and the time and place of the duel.  An apology could stop the proceedings at any time right up to the pulling of the trigger or the thrusting of the rapier or whatever.

As sophisticated as dueling was, it nevertheless began to annoy people. And on November 10, 1801, Kentucky (of all places) became the first state to adopt a law “to prevent the evil practice of dueling.” Dueling would bring a fine of $500 (about $15,000 today). Still, dueling persisted, so in 1849 a provision was added to the Kentucky state constitution requiring all public officeholders and all members of the bar to take an oath, swearing they had never, nor would they ever, take part in a duel.

We all know that once something worms its way into a constitution it pretty much stays there forever. And so it is today a source of amusement and/or embarrassment that anyone taking an oath of office in Kentucky must affirm (speaking the words right out loud) that he or she has “not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”

Inspiration for 11/10/16



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