March 17, 2017: Bitter Twitter and Cruel Duels

I miss Chuck Q. Farley this week. He comprehends this sort of thing quicker than I do, but he’s still spooked from that mail last week, and afraid to participate so soon in another column. So I guess I’ve just got to wing it. Trouble is, when I start looking for sense in things sometimes I have a lot of difficulty finding it—particularly all the contemporary hubbub about the President’s messages on Twitter. For at least the first half of our country’s history, back when Americans were all properly religious and things were supposed generally to be better all around, no self-respecting politician would have considered the equivalent of a modern-day Tweet to be the end of a dispute—rather, merely the beginning. You see, in those days the so-called code duello was still legal in Southern states.

The historic equivalent of an aggressive Tweet—which back then could only have been publicized as a paid newspaper ad or on a handbill—would have been considered merely as a “posting” to provoke an adversary to a duel, also known as an affair of honor,with swords or smooth-bore single-shot pistols. A man thus denounced was expected to issue a challenge to the “poster” in order to avenge his impugned honor, or else be labeled a coward. Then the posting offender was given the choice of weapons, both parties chose “seconds” or assistants, the duel was set up, and unless the seconds could talk the principals out of the whole business or either or both parties missed or fired into the air, the conclusion of the entire mess was somebody’s wounding or death. Thomas Jefferson’s first Vice President, Aaron Burr, settled things this way with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton over, among other issues, Burr’s suspicious relationship with a foreign government (Holland back then, not Russia, but Spain later in Burr’s life). Andrew Jackson fought in more than a hundred duels and was said to have kept thirty-seven smooth-bore pistols at the ready in case he should need them.His varied contests ranged from the actual killing of one man, Charles Dickenson, in 1806, to his serving as second to a fellow duelist who shot some poor guy right in the seat of the pants a few years later. And a good many of Kentucky’s best-known statesmen, including Henry Clay, Richard Menefee, and William Goebel, were no strangers to the field of honor, if thus it can truly be called, either.

Perhaps the most famous Kentuckian ever challenged to a duel, however, was ashamed of the episode ever afterward. A youthful prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln initiated the quarrel through a series of juvenile, sophomoric editorial letters (not unlike modern-day Tweets, just more than 140 characters long) that he composed along with a young Lexington-born lady then known as Mary Todd against Whig politician James Shields. When challenged by Shields and asked his choice of weapon, Lincoln picked the biggest cavalry sabers he could find, figuring perhaps correctly that Shields could outshoot him and knowing that his height gave him the advantage in a swordfight with his smaller adversary. But the two duelists allowed themselves to be talked out of the contest by their seconds and other bystanders, ostensibly salvaging the honor of both, and during his term as President, when Lincoln was asked by an Army officer if it were true that he had once participated in a duel he replied, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship you will never mention it again.” Oh, well. What must one expect from these big-Federal-Government liberal types, after all, who tyrannically managed to ram the outlawing of dueling, and so many other practices equally time- and tradition-honored and pleasant, through the legislatures of every state that had once approved of them?…

But if the Courts would only reconsider the matter, dueling just might once again prove useful in both State and Federal politics. It certainly has the potential. For one thing, the code duello’s revival would definitely improve folks’ manners on Twitter, and maybe Facebook too. It couldn’t hurt to hope that politeness might return to political discourse as well, though the renewed courtesies would be pretty much like those of Huck Finn’s father, reformable only by a shotgun. The firearms industry, robbed by the change in Presidential administrations of its chief advertising gimmick, the threat of Government confiscation of firearms, could prosper once again by crafting elegant dueling pistols. And best of all, the practice could prove to be a GREAT solution to the problem of term limits. Petition your Congressman today! Or challenge him…

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