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Philip Foner's introduction:
This article was written after Paine read a pamphlet entitled Cursory Reflections on the Single Combat or Modern Duel. Addressed to Gentlemen in every Class of Life, the author of which remains unknown. Paine's article appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine of May, 1775.
Paine and Jefferson both voiced disapproval of the "murderous Practice of Duelling," regarding it as a hang-over from the age of feudalism and entirely out of date in civilized society. Paine was not too confident that the practice would soon disappear, and the number of duels fought during and immediately after the War for Independence proves that his pessimism was justified. For an excellent discussion of the practice of duelling in the Revolutionary period, see Evarts B. Greene, "The Code of Honor in Colonial and Revolutionary Times, with Special Reference to New England," in Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Publications, vol. XXVI, 1925, pp. 367-388.
GOTHIC and absurd as the custom of duelling is generally allowed to be, there are advocates for it on principle; reasoners, who coolly argue for the necessity and even convenience, of this mode of accommodating certain kinds of personal differences, and of redressing certain species of injuries, for which the laws have not provided proper or adequate remedies: they conclude, therefore, that an appeal to the sword is a requisite supplement to the law, and that this sort of satisfaction for extra judicial offences, must take place till some other mode shall be devised and established. The learned Dr. Robertson has observed, in favor of this practice-even while he condemns it-that its influence on modern manners, has been found, in some respects, beneficial to mankind.
"To this absurd custom," says he, "we must ascribe, in some degree, the extraordinary gentleness and complaisance of modern manners, and that respectful attention of one man to another, which, at present, render the social intercourses of life far more agreeable and decent than amongst the most civilized nations of antiquity."1
The author of these considerations ["Cursory Reflections"] reduces the arguments which have been offered in behalf of the private combat to these two.
I. That the duel is the only expedient to obtain satisfaction for those injuries of which the laws take no cognizance.
II. That a man of honor is bound on pain of infamy to resent every indignity that may be offered to him with the point of his sword or with a pistol.
These positions our sensible author undertakes to refute; and we shall give a specimen of his reasoning: but, first, it will not be improper to lay before our readers part of what he has said on the origin of the single combat, or duel.
"The ancient states," says he, "of Greece and Rome, from whence we derive the noblest-models of heroism, supported private honor, without delivering down to us any evidences of this baneful custom of demanding so severe a decision of private affronts; which, considering the military spirit of these nations, must, if it obtained at all, have proved more destructive to them at home, than the united swords of their enemies abroad. The practice is in fact of later and more ignoble birth; the judicial combat, the parent of modern duels, springing from monkish superstition, grafted on feudal barbarism. Whoever reads Hurd's entertaining and ingenious "Letters on Chivalry and Romance," with Robertson's elaborate "History of the Emperor Charles V.," will no longer hesitate concerning the clear fact.
"The judicial combat obtained in ignorant ages, on a conclusion that in this appeal to Providence, innocence and right would be pointed out by victory, and guilt stigmatised and punished by defeat. But alas! Experience at length taught us not to expect a miraculous interposition, whenever superior strength, superior skill, and superior bravery or ferocity, either or all of them, happened to appear on the side of injustice."
Dr. Robertson, above quoted, denies the fashion (as the writer of these reflections has observed) of terminating private differences by the sword, or pistol, by the illustrious example of the challenge sent by Francis I. of France to the Emperor Charles V. This was not, indeed, the first instance of such challenges, among princes; but, as our author remarks, the dignity of the parties, in the present case, afforded a sufficient sanction for extending this mode of deciding differences; to which we may add, that the spirit of chivalry and romantic knight-hood still prevailing in those fighting times, was continually exciting the heroes of the age to this mode of proving their personal prowess and valor.
We now return to our author's manner of reasoning upon the postulata before stated:
"With respect to the first argument," says he, "if we annex any determined ideas to our words, by satisfaction we are to understand redress, compensation, amends or atonement. Now, gentlemen! for the sake of all that is valuable in life, condescend for a minute to bring down your refined notions to the sure standard of common sense, and then weigh the satisfaction to be obtained in a duel.
"Is satisfaction to be enforced from an adversary by putting a weapon into his hand, and standing a contention with him, life for life, upon an equal chance?
"Is an offender against the rules of gentility, or against the obligations of morality, a man presumptively destitute of honor himself, fairly entitled to this equal chance of extending an injury already committed, to the irreparable degree of taking the life also from an innocent man?
"If a gentleman is infatuated enough to meet a person who has degraded himself from the character of a gentleman, upon these equal terms, and loses a limb, or his life, what species of satisfaction can that be called? But it is better to suffer death than indignity. What, from the injurious hand? Correct your ideas, and you will esteem life too valuable to be complimented away for a mistaken notion.
"If the aggressor falls, the full purpose of the injured person is thus answered, but what is the satisfaction? The survivor becomes a refugee, like a felon; or if he should be cleared by the equivocal tenderness of a court of justice, must he not be a barbarian instead of a gentleman, who can feed upon this inhuman bloody satisfaction, without experiencing the pangs of self-reproach, for having sacrificed the life of a fellow creature to a mere punctilio; and perhaps involved the ruin of an innocent family by the brutal deed? If, on the other hand, he is really a mistaken man of humanity, what has he obtained? The satisfaction of embittering all the remainder of his life with the keenest sorrow; of having forfeited all his future peace of mind by a consciousness of guilt, from which his notions of honor can never release him, till the load drags him down to the grave!
"If a man of strict honor is reduced to beg his life of a mere pretender to honor, a scoundrel, what satisfaction can this be esteemed? Is not this a mortifying, a painful aggravation of a wrong already sustained? What consolation can honor afford for such a disgrace?"
Our author has some other very sensible animadversions on this first branch of the argument in defence of duelling; after which, he proceeds to the second plea, viz. "The obligation of resenting affronts in this manner, founded on the infamy of suspected courage"; and, in our opinion, he satisfactorily proves that this argument is by no means irrefragable: but for his reasoning on this delicate point, we must refer to his pamphlet, and proceed to take notice of his plan for putting a stop to the practice of duelling.
In the first place, he recommends that a law be passed, "declaring the act of sending a challenge, or the reducing a person to defend his life with sword or pistol, to be felony; and the killing a person in a duel, to be punished as murder, without benefit of clergy, unless sufficient proof is made that the party killed, really urged the combat.
As this first part of his proposal relates rather to the mode of punishing, than the means of preventing duels, he proceeds:
"In every quarrel between two gentlemen where satisfaction is thought necessary, let the parties be empowered to summon a jury of honor from among their friends, six to be appointed by one gentleman, and six by the other, or in case of a refusal of either party, let the six chosen by the other complete the number by their own appointment, each nominating one; and finally, let all this be done, if possible, free from the embarrassing intervention of lawyers.
"Let this jury of honor, when duly assembled, discuss the merits of the dispute in question, and form their opinion by a majority of votes; but to guard against generating fresh quarrels by the discovery of the votes on either side, let the whole twelve be bound to secrecy upon their honor, and the whole twelve sign the verdict of the majority. Let a copy of this verdict be delivered to the gentleman whose conduct is condemned; and if he refuses to make the required concession or due satisfaction, let this opinion be published in such a manner as may be thought proper, and be understood to divest him of his character as a gentleman so long as he remains contumacious.
"By this single expedient, conveyed in few words, it is hoped the necessity of duels may be effectually superseded, the practice suppressed, and ample satisfaction enforced for all injuries of honor. In the examination of subjects of importance we are often tempted to overlook the thing we want, on a supposition that it cannot be near at hand. This plan may perhaps admit of amendment, but it is feared the more complicated it is rendered, the more difficult it may prove to carry into execution: and it is hoped, as it is, it will not be the worse thought of, for coming from an unknown pen."
With respect to the practicability of this scheme, we apprehend that the great difficulty would lie in obliging the quarrelling parties, or either of them (who by the author's plan are merely empowered), to refer the matter to a court of honor. But the writer does not give this as a finished plan: he barely suggests the hint; leaving others to improve upon it, if thought worthy of farther consideration.
As to the proposed act for punishing the survivor, where one of the parties has fallen in the conflict, it is, indeed, a melancholy truth, that our laws in being have been found inadequate to the purpose of preventing duels by the dread of legal consequences. The king of Sweden's method was virtually the same which is here recommended; and it is said to have been effectual in that kingdom.
The great Gustavus Adolphus, finding that the custom of dueling was becoming alarmingly prevalent among the officers in his army, was determined to suppress, if possible, those false notions of honor.
Soon after the king had formed this resolution, and issued some very rigorous edicts against the practice, a quarrel arose between two of his generals; who agreed to crave His Majesty's pardon to decide the quarrel by the laws of honor. The king consented, and said he would be a spectator of the combat; he went, accordingly, to the place appointed, attended by a body of guards, and the public executioner. He then told the combatants that "they must fight till one of them died"; and turning to the executioner, he added, "Do you immediately strike off the head of the survivor." The monarch's inflexibility had the desired effect: the difference between the two officers was adjusted; and no more challenges were heard of in the army of Gustavus Adolphus.
From the peculiar prevalence of this custom in countries where the religious system is established, which, of all others, most expressly prohibits the gratification of revenge, with every species of outrage and violence, we too plainly see, how little mankind are, in reality, influenced by the principles of the religion by which they profess to be guided, and in defence of which they will occasionally risk even their lives.
- The reference is to Reign of Charles V, Book V, by Dr. William Robertson, the historian.