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public opinion, which is certainly against it, and the interdictions of all law, human and divine!
Of the numerous American duels which have at different periods agitated the feelings of all classes of our citizens, three may be mentioned as furnishing painful instances of the practice, which will never be forgotten while our institutions continue.
In the first of these, we lost a brave military commander-ALEXANDER HAMILTON; in the second, an equally gallant naval officer— STEPHEN DECATUR; and in the third, an eminent statesman-JONATHAN CILLEY, who stood fair to become an ornament to his country.
It would indeed be an easy matter to adduce other examples of madness and folly of this kind, in which American citizens of great eminence have proudly offered to sacrifice their lives at the shrine of false honor. But our limits will not permit.
(1.) The first duel above introduced was fought on Wednesday, the 11th of July, 1804, between Col. Aaron Burr, who gave the challenge, and Gen. Alex. Hamilton, who died of the wound he received at two o'clock the next day. In this combat a very valuable life was lost. Mr. Hamilton, under Washington's administration, was Secretary of the Treasury of the United States; and as such was acknowledged as one of the best, if not the very best, officer who has ever been called to discharge the duties of that responsible place. He was major-general in the revolutionary war; and in the beginning of the struggle for independence was aid-de-camp to the commander-in-chief. He continued in the military service of his country until the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown, where the British works were stormed and taken by the Americans under his command.
In 1804 Col. Burr was one of the candidates for the office of governor of the state of New-York. Gen. Hamilton was one of his principal political opponents. The contest this year between the political parties was, as indeed it almost always is, very warm and acrimonious. The two parties indulged in mutual aspersions of character. In the heat of the controversy Dr. C. D. Cooper wrote a letter, which was soon after published, containing some dishonorable insinuations in reference to Col. Burr, which the latter thought demanded an immediate explanation. The objectionable sentence was the following: "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion, which Gen. Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr." When Col. B. was apprized of the existence of this letter, he addressed Gen. H. a note, requesting an explanation. The answer to this note was not satisfactory; and other communications were exchanged, which finally ended in a challenge to single combat. The parties met at Weehawk, on the Jersey shore, at seven o'clock in the morning. The weapons were pistols. At the first fire Gen. H. fell.
(2) The next in course happened between Commodore Stephen Decatur and James Barron.
It originated in something the former said in an official communication bearing upon the affair of the Chesapeake, which the latter received as an attack upon his honor. This occasioned an animated and very unpleasant correspondence between these officers,
which continued for nearly nine months. This epistolary correspondence ended in a challenge from Barron to Decatur. They met on the plains of Bladensburg. Both fired at the same moment. Both fell; and both were wounded-the one mortally, and the other severely. The hitherto brave Decatur died, and was buried with all the honors of war. His antagonist survived, to feel, unless his conscience was seared, the remorse of having hurried a fellow-being into the presence of his Judge as in a moment.
(3.) The third and last duel to be stated here is yet fresh in the reader's memory. It was fought on the 24th day of February, 1838, near the Annacosta bridge, on the road to Marlborough, in Maryland, between the Hon. Jonathan Cilley and Mr. Graves, both members of the House of Representatives of the United States. The facts in this case are too well known to need repetition here. The weapons chosen were rifles. The third fire brought Cilley to the ground, and he died on the spot.
These three duels were about equal in the excitement they produced on the public mind; and the last, especially, will long be remembered by the American people; and all who were engaged in it will yet receive the reward of their doings from the just indignation of an incensed people, as well as the righteous retributions of Heaven.
A few concluding remarks, and the subject shall be dismissed. These remarks will be confined to the two great considerations which are supposed to justify dueling, and to the best means of its complete extermination.
The first of these considerations is based on the false presumption, that public opinion is in favor of this practice. This appears to have been the strong hold of Mr. Graves, by whose hand Mr. Cilley fell, in his late defense before the House of Representatives.
"Deal out to me equal-handed justice," said he, "and I shall quietly submit to whatever fate may be assigned me by public opinion: a tribunal to whose behests, on the subject that has given rise to this proceeding, not only the humble individual who now addresses you, but the greatest and best men that have adorned the annals of British and American history in the present age, have been compelled to bow in humble submission,"
And again: "Public opinion is practically the paramount law of the land; every other law, both human and divine, ceases to be observed; yea, withers and perishes in contact with it. It was this paramount law of this nation and of this House that forced me, under the penalty of dishonor, to subject myself to the code which impelled me unwillingly into this tragical affair. Upon the heads of this nation, and at the doors of this House, rests the blood with which my unfortunate hands have been stained."
This may be a comfortable opiate for a duelist's conscience, in a public address, delivered to screen himself from the just indignation of an insulted-community; but it will never satisfy its poignant rebukes in the hours of sober reflection, or on the bed of death, or at the bar of infinite Justice.
Human laws may have their defects, in their very construction, in the objects embraced in them, in their penalties, and in their execution; but the law of God is perfect, as well as holy, just, and good;
and what this wretched man is pleased to call "practically the paramount law of the land," can never cause it to "wither and perish." The law of God wither and perish! The lightning of its vengeance gleams with the same terrific brightness now in the clouds of sin, as it did when the enveloped summit of Sinai was illuminated by its glare! And the thunder of its voice is as loud and fearful still, as it was when it shook the strong rocks of Horeb ! "Thou shalt not kill" has not been "withered" by the breath of mortals; "thou shalt not kill" has not "perished" through the opinions of men. As well might the gentle zephyr strive to overturn the towering mountain, or the little insect say to the gathering tempest, Thou shalt not rage, as man endeavor to slight and annihilate the law of his Maker. If Mr. G. however insinuates, that this divine law is sometimes set at defiance by human beings, he himself has given us a melancholy example of the truth of his remark.
But what is this "paramount law of the land?" And is this law in favor of dueling? To answer these questions, then, public opinion is the opinion of the public. Now if we can ascertain what we are to understand by the public, it will lead us to a correct definition of this much used, and much misused term. Public stands in opposition to private; and public opinion to private opinion. A private man, properly, is an ordinary citizen without office, ecclesiastical, civil, or military: a public man is one who officiates before the people in his proper relation. A public man may express a private opinion; and a private man may declare a public opinion; but the opinion of a few individuals, whether they are officers of any kind or not, not public opinion, unless it agree with the views of the people generally. Neglecting to consider this has led many persons into a very palpable mistake on this subject. They have concluded that, because they were public officers, their opinions were therefore the opinions of the public; but, before they can draw this inference, they must first be assured that they are expressing the sentiments of those who made them such officers—i. e., the people.
A public-house is a house of entertainment for all classes of people. To publish a thing, from the Latin publico, to make known or public, is to announce or declare it for the general information of the community. And public opinion is not the sentiment of a few persons, however highly elevated they may be in the scale of office, but it is the view entertained of a matter by society at large.
This opinion, on any public subject, we may best learn through the medium of the papers. And if the numerous presses of these United States; if the sacred pulpits of the different churches; if the conversation of the social circle; if the addresses of popular assemblies; and if the laws of the country can be relied upon, as a correct expression of public sentiment on the subject of dueling, that sentiment is against it in toto.
If Mr. Graves, then, and all other "gentlemen of honor," will quietly submit to whatever fate may be assigned them by public opinion, as he confesses, in his address, he was willing to do,-let them remember that they are condemned by the public; esteemed persons whose hands are stained with the blood of a fellow-creature; that dueling is commonly acknowledged to be the remains of barbarism; that the honor which requires it is a false honor; and
that the courage with which it is met is cowardice. For were it even granted that public opinion is in favor of this practice, the duelist,' with all his boasted prowess and bravery, has not sufficient moral courage to bear up against the unanimous sentiment of a wrong multitude, nor yet against the sentiment of a wrong minority. He has courage enough to be shot at, but not enough to be laughed at.
The second consideration by which gentlemen justify the custom of killing each other in single combat, is founded on its honorableness. It is supposed by the few advocates of dueling, that it is always esteemed a mark of honor to send or accept a challenge, and to fight accordingly. But, if this is true, it can only be honorable in that "system of rules constructed by people of fashion," as Dr. Paley calls the law of honor; which, to quote the language of the same author, "allows of fornication, adultery, drunkenness, prodigality, dueling, and of revenge in the extreme, and lays no stress upon the virtues opposite to these."-Moral and Political Philosophy, book i, chap. ii.
It is also admitted that it was considered honorable by the barbarous Swedes; and likewise in the days of chivalry, when the newlycreated knight received a slight touch with the sword as the last insult he should consent to bear, after which he was to revenge every injury he met with by the same weapon; but the sentiments of the people have greatly changed.
There are not many words in the English language more frequently used, more indefinite, and various in their meaning, and less understood, than the term honor, which is on almost every body's lips. Hence it is very common to hear a man say, "Upon my honor," "I will pledge my honor," "My honor is gone," "My honor is at stake," &c., &c., when, perhaps, he but seldom knows what the word signifies.
Dr. Webster has no less than fourteen different definitions of this word as a noun, and six as a transitive verb; but neither of them expresses clearly what is properly meant by true honor.
We honor God when we love, and serve, and worship him; we honor our parents by obeying them in the Lord; we honor our rulers by being subject to "the powers that be;" we honor our superiors by giving them outward respect according to the custom of the country, and by obeying their commands as far as we can consistently with our duty to God; we honor widows who are widows indeed, by supporting them out of the funds of the church; and we account the elders who rule well worthy of double honor," by giving them a liberal support. See Macknight on 1 Timothy, chap. v, verse 17, note 3.
A man may be an honor to his species, or to his family, or to his neighborhood, or his country, or the church, or his profession, or to the world. We think sobriety, sedateness, and justice, honorable in a judge; humility, exemplary piety, affectionate zeal, intelligence, and attention to his particular duties, in a clergyman; honesty, punctuality in his engagements, and attention to business, in a merchant; diligence, faithfulness, and a steadfast adherence to his word, in a tradesman; industry, economy, integrity, and a judicious culture of his soil, in a farmer; knowledge of legal matters, zeal in VOL. X-April, 1839. 21
advocating the cause of his client, ingenuity, and truth, in the lawyer; and so of all the professions and relations of life.
But the question still recurs, What is true honor in man? Honor is 'defined by Grotius to be the opinion of our worth or excellence. But this definition, says, in substance, Dr. Rutherforth, (in his Institutes of Natural Law, p. 192, &c.,) if he means by it a man's own opinion, as a principle of action, is not true; because then every thing would be consistent with a person's honor which he could reconcile to his opinion, whatever the rest of the world might think, or whatever the rules of right reason might determine about it; and a man who had debased his mind, or corrupted his judgment, would easily prove to you, that cowardice and treachery are as consistent with a principle of honor as courage and fidelity. And if Grotius means by it the opinions of others, the definition is unintelligible; for it would be nonsense for a man to talk of his own honor, unless we add something to it to give it likewise a reference to himself. If it is considered merely as the opinion of other men, without any reference to himself, then he cannot speak of it as a principle in his own heart. This writer therefore concludes, that honor is a sense of the esteem or regard of mankind; a desire of raising and preserving in them an opinion of our worth and excellence.
But this definition of true honor has also its defects. "Mankind” sometimes are in an error, on some particular subject, en masse. This was the case a few years ago with the temperance cause, when opposition to it was almost universal, and the opinion of society at large was in favor of making, vending, and using spirituous liquors. A man then was in danger of losing the good wishes and esteem of his neighbors, and, indeed, of the whole community, by advocating the cause of total abstinence. How then could a person have " a sense of the esteem or regard of mankind; a desire of raising and preserving in them" a good opinion, when he knew that his conduct would have just the contrary effect? It often happens that the populace is wrong, and a few of the more pious and intelli. gent are right; a man, therefore, to act honorably, should not seek to please the multitude, if wrong, but the few whose esteem is worth possessing.
True honor may consequently be defined to be, as it respects the individual, a desire to procure and maintain the good estimation of society, if that society act rationally and Scripturally; or, if not, of those who have piety and good sense, manifested in a constant and careful attention to merit this opinion, by cultivating such qualities and by performing such actions as will naturally produce and preserve it.
It will at once be seen that these qualities and actions must necessarily have in view the glory of God in the welfare of the people, and correspond with the requirements of the divine law. Every child in ethics can determine whether dueling is such an action. Has the duelist in view the glory of his Maker? Will the deed he is about to perpetrate promote the interests and happiness of society? Has it not a tendency to destroy his own peace of mind? Does it agree with the moral law of the Bible? Is it not murder, even in the best codes of human law? And how, then, can fighting a duel be honorable in any proper sense of the term?