The Double Guilt of Dueling: The Stain of Suicide in Anti-Dueling Rhetoric in the Early Republic
Abstract

Abstract:

Although unambiguously illegal in most states, dueling became an accepted honor ritual and even a mark of status among segments of America's elite in the wake of the revolution. Frustrated by duelists' indifference to the rule of law, anti-dueling activists inspired to action by the strange slaying of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, mounted one of the first moral suasion campaigns of the new republic. This essay examines their audacious efforts to build a moral majority against this form of ritual violence by obliterating long-standing notions of the duel as honorable self-sacrifice and instead recasting dueling as a unique form of homicide, a fatal compact of suicide and murder. In doing so, this essay argues, this uncoordinated collection of ministers, university presidents and professors, newspaper editors and assorted other minor public figures played upon growing contemporary anxiety about the specter of suicide, anxiety that revealed a set of deeper concerns about the ability of the young republic to elicit appropriate moral behavior and political participation from its unruly body of constituents.