Dueling was a traditional means of settling points of honor by armed confrontation between two aggrieved gentlemen. Swords and later pistols were the usual weapons of choice. The practice evolved from ‚Äújudicial combat‚Ä� of the Middle Ages when disputes were supervised by legal authorities and it was assumed that divine providence had selected the victor.
Rules for dueling in Europe were formalized in 1777 in the Code Duello; modifications were later made for engagements in America.
Usually an offended party would extend a challenge and, if accepted, each participant would select a second. The second sought to resolve matters short of armed confrontation; if unsuccessful, the seconds were in charge of making arrangements for the duel. The death of one‚Äôs opponent was not necessarily the point; one‚Äôs honor could be preserved by firing a shot or drawing blood. Most governments and religious organizations opposed dueling, but the practice remained popular among politicians, military officers and aristocrats.
Those who refused a duel were often ‚Äúposted,‚Ä� meaning a notice was posted in a public place or published in a newspaper which described the declining party‚Äôs cowardly actions.
Charles Lee was involved in at least two duels. While in Poland in 1769 and taking part in the Russo-Turkish War, he fought a duel in which he killed his opponent. Late in the Revolutionary War, Lee`s open dislike for George Washington provoked John Laurens, one of Washington`s aides, to challenge him to a duel. Both men were wounded in the engagement but neither died.
The most famous duel in American history was between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804, in which Hamilton lost his life. Andrew Jackson fought and killed James Dickinson in 1806, over remarks that Jackson considered insulting to himself and to his wife.
Admiral Stephen Decatur was killed on March 22, 1820, in a duel with Commodore James Barron, who had lost his commission in the Navy and whose reappointment Decatur opposed. Duelling had become so common between military officers at this time that the War Department was forced to threaten to withdraw the commissions of an officers found to be taking part in the practice.