August 15, 2011

Illuminations: The Code Duello of the American South


Highly decorative American dueling pistols. These pistols are on exhibit in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

If the French Code Duello was the most creative and diverse, and the Viking dueling codes the most, um, liberal, then the Code Duello of the American South is easily the most obsessed with decorum.

Titled The Code of Honour, the southern duello  was written by John Lyde Wilson in 1838 and penned for political and social reasons as much as to revise the prevailing Irish code, which Wilson found antiquated. Wilson was an ideal author for a dueling code. That is to say he was a psychotic misanthrope. Governor of South Carolina from 1822-1824 and a noted southern vigilante, who sanctioned atrocities such as lynching and the burning of U.S. Post Offices that had delivered abolitionist mail in South Carolina. He was an ardent duelist, and believed that his rendering of the Code Duello, as well as the practice of dueling itself, would prevent fatalities and help keep the peace.

Sound like any arguments involving guns still being bandied about? Rhetorical question, of course.

True to its title, Wilson’s southern code obsesses with honor and propriety. It so closely manages the details of arranging a duel, with careful attention to note passing and the type of language (“gentlemanly”), that it removes all anger and passion from the fight. What it leaves behind is a cold, calculating fight to the death. Murder arranged with a gentlemanly air. The Code of Honour is included in full within the Illuminations for The Duel by Joseph Conrad. For now, enjoy the first ten rules guiding the conduct of seconds in arranging a duel.

1. Whenever you are applied to by a friend to act as his second, before you agree to do so, state distinctly to your principal that you will be governed only by your own judgment,—that he will not be consulted after you are in full possession of the facts, unless it becomes necessary to make or accept the amende honorable, or send a challenge. You are supposed to be cool and collected, and your friend’s feelings are more or less irritated.

2. Use every effort to soothe and tranquilize your principal; do not see things in the same aggravated light in which he views them; extenuate the conduct of his adversary whenever you see clearly an opportunity to do so, without doing violence to your friend’s irritated mind. Endeavor to persuade him that there must have been some misunderstanding in the matter. Check him if he uses opprobrious epithet towards his adversary, and never permit improper or insulting words in the note you carry.

3. To the note you carry in writing to the party complained of, you are entitled to a written answer, which will be directed to your principal and will be delivered to you by his adversary’s friend. If this be not written in the style of a gentleman, refuse to receive it, and assign your reason for such refusal. If there be a question made as to the character of the note, require the second presenting it to you, who considers it respectful, to endorse upon it these words: “I consider the note of my friend respectful, and would not have been the bearer of it, if I believed otherwise.”

4. If the party called on, refuses to receive the note you bear, you are entitled to demand a reason for such refusal. If he refuses to give you any reason, and persists in such refusal, he treats, not only your friend, but yourself, with indignity, and you must then make yourself the actor, by sending a respectful note, requiring a proper explanation of the course he has pursued towards you and your friend; and if he still adheres to his determination, you are to challenge or post him.

5. If the person to whom you deliver the note of your friend, declines meeting him on the ground of inequality, you are bound to tender yourself in his stead, by a note directed to him from yourself; and if he refuses to meet you, you are to post him.

6. In all cases of the substitution of the second for the principal, the seconds should interpose and adjust the matter, if the party substituting avows he does not make the quarrel of his principal his own. The true reason for substitution, is the supposed insult of imputing to you the like inequality which if charged upon your friend, and when the contrary is declared, there should be no fight, for individuals may well differ in their estimate of an individual’s character and standing in society. In case of substitution and a satisfactory arrangement, you are then to inform your friend of all the facts, whose duty it will be to post in person.

7. If the party, to whom you present a note, employ a son, father or brother, as a second, you may decline acting with either on the ground of consanguinity.

8. If a minor wishes you to take a note to an adult, decline doing so, on the ground of his minority. But if the adult complained of, had made a companion of the minor in society, you may bear the note.

9. When an accommodation is tendered, never require too much; and if the party offering the amende honorable, wishes to give a reason for his conduct in the matter, do not, unless offensive to your friend, refuse to receive it; by so doing you may heal the breach more effectually.

10. If a stranger wishes you to bear a note for him, be well satisfied before you do so, that he is on an equality with you; and in presenting the note state to the party the relationship you stand towards him, and what you know and believe about him; for strangers are entitled to redress for wrongs, as well as others, and the rules of honor and hospitality should protect him.

Tomorrow concludes the look inside of the Illuminations to Conrad’s dueling story when we share some dueling lore from the Napoleonic Wars.