Dueling, defined as private combat governed by formal rules, was a manifestation of the romantic spirit that once existed in the South. A relic of feudalism, the duel was popularized among rank-conscious southern gentry by European officers who participated in the American Revolution. Dueling involved a prearranged encounter between two antagonists who, armed with lethal weapons, usually a sword or pistol, met on the field of honor in the presence of seconds or other witnesses in order to resolve personal and familial disputes.

Local conditions modified various aspects of the code of honor in the states below the Mason-Dixon line, and especially in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, where the practice of chivalric warfare flourished. On May 30, 1806, Andrew Jackson shot and mortally wounded Charles Dickinson, a fellow Tennessean, despite the fact that he himself had been seriously wounded by his younger opponent. Twenty years later, Sam Houston, a political disciple of Jackson and future president of the Republic of Texas, severely injured his opponent, William A. White, in another famous affair of honor, having actually trained several days for the duel on the grounds of the Hermitage.

Adverse public reaction, encouraged by church disapproval of dueling, led to the adoption of anti-dueling laws in every southern state. Few, however, were as draconian as that of North Carolina's 1802 edict proscribing the death penalty. The Tennessee constitutions of 1835 and 1870 denied public office to anyone who participated in a duel or aided and abetted the fighting of a duel; the legislature could also punish offenders. Neither constitution disqualified potential candidates who fought duels outside Tennessee. In State ex rel. v. DuBose (1890) the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the state had no power to punish the act of dueling when it was done legally outside the state.

General opposition to the code duello notwithstanding, the prevalence of dueling activity in the antebellum South, with its highly stratified society, may be adjudged by the fact that legal enactments failed to eradicate the institution, largely because of the unfortunate dichotomy existing between laws and actual social practice. Indeed, because newspaper editors, politicians, and other community leaders constituted a disproportionate share of its adherents, dueling thrived in the South long after the cult of chivalry had disappeared from other geographical sections, thereby contributing substantially to the tradition of violence that prevailed in states like Tennessee beyond the Civil War era.

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  • Article Title Dueling
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018