Dueling dates back in different forms at least 1,500 years, where matters were settled between two men through swordfights, jousts, and other means. The very first duels in Europe began around 500 A.D. with judicial duels. If a defendant in court refused to confess guilt, the plaintiff could attempt to force a confession at sword point. If he still did not confess, they could settle their difference with a sword fight. During the medieval era knights in England and Scotland would conduct chivalric duels based on a code of conduct which included rules about nobility, betrayal, adultery, sacrilege, and more. By the 1600s most duels between men were strictly related to honor. If one man dishonored another and refused to apologize either in person or publicly, they could agree to settle their difference through a duel.
The first recorded fatal duel in America took place in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1728. Two young men quarreled over a disagreement while playing cards and decided to settle their argument with a sword fight, in which one was fatally stabbed. Dueling in America during the 18th and early 19th centuries was quite common (even DeWitt Clinton injured an opponent in a duel in 1802 before he became governor of New York), and although many disapproved of the activity there were very few colonies or states which adopted any serious laws against it. In fact, after the California Gold Rush began in 1848, dueling in San Francisco became so common and popular that newspapers would advertise upcoming duels like public performances. However, dueling finally fell out of favor after the Civil War in the 1860s and by the turn of the century had largely become a thing of the past across America.
Dueling was considered a way to settle differences among gentlemen of honor, and therefore required a code of conduct. A ‘Code Duello’ was not a law like a government would pass, but instead a set of basic rules that gentlemen would agree to follow when preparing for a duel. These rules were written by various people from the Renaissance through the 19th century, but in general the rules during the early 19th century included the following:
- A person can present a challenge for a duel following a public insult to their honor, if it has offended them.
- The person who is challenged can publicly apologize, at which point the challenge is over, or they can select weapons for the duel. The challenger would then select the time and place.
- Both parties will select a ‘second’ and a doctor to arrive with them at the locations. The seconds will act as go-betweens and will do their best to reconcile with the other party to see if an apology or agreement can be made. If it cannot, the duel will commence.
- If one party does not arrive at the agreed time and place, they are considered a coward and the other party wins the duel.
- Dice are rolled by the seconds. Whoever wins a best-of-three contest with high rolls gets to select their pistol and shooting location first.
- The parties stand approximately 20 paces apart. The seconds give a command of ‘ready’ and then ‘present.’ Upon announcing ‘present,’ the parties may fire at each other.
- The doctors on site turn their backs on the duel so that they can have deniability if they need to discuss someone’s wounds with the authorities.
- If both parties miss with their shots, they are given the opportunity to make an agreement or prepare for another shot.
- If one party is hit and the doctor deems them unfit to continue, the duel is over and the other party is victorious.
Both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had challenged others before their own confrontation. In July, 1797, Burr effected a reconciliation which avoided a duel between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe. Burr himself fought a duel with Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Barker Church, in September, 1799.
In November of 1801, Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel brought about in a political quarrel with one George Eacker, an event which drove Hamilton’s oldest daughter insane.