10 July 2012

Civility


By David Dean

It is probably not uncommon for most people to look at previous generations and think, "People were nicer to one another back then; they had better manners."  After all, we live in contentious times and the country appears somewhat polarized these days.  It's hard to imagine George Washington being rude to anyone, or that anyone would ever think of being rude to him.  Ditto for Franklin, Jefferson, etc...  Our nation's forefathers all appeared so stately, calm, and resolute.  We, on the other hand, seem so quarrlesome and mean-spirited.  Not to mention pretty foul-mouthed.  It's hard to walk among people, whether in the mall or in the workplace, without being bombarded with the f-word and other oft-repeated, and unpleasant, adjectives and nouns.  I use them far too often myself--I plead twenty-five years in law enforcement as my flimsy defense.  Violence appears to go hand-in-hand with our current posture.  Even murder has to be pretty damn sensational to raise an eyebrow these days--unless, of course, it involves someone close to you.

That being said (or written in this case), a rose-colored view of those that have gone before us is just that--rose-colored...and inaccurate.  If you think our present-day politicians are intractable and rude to one another, then you don't know much about their predecessors: fist-fights and canings were not a rare occurence in the capitol of young America.  In one instance, a duly elected official was nearly beaten to death with a walking stick on the floor of Congress by another.  The run-up to the Civil War was particularly contentious, but there were plenty of unpleasant incidents from the very start.  The name-calling; the wholly slanderous accusations, make our current crop of politicians appear positively restrained and angelic.  Even death couldn't be ruled out for national figures--remember the Burr-Hamilton duel. 

The Infamous Duel at Weehawkin, New Jersey

What suggested this topic to me is a story that I am currently working on.  It is a period piece set in the Ante-Bellum South.  It involves ferocious acts of violence by characters who are, by and large, very polite.  It got me to thinking about civility and vilolence, murder and manners.  A close friend of mine once said (and I paraphrase), "If it weren't for manners here in Georgia, half the population would murder the other half!"  I'd like to think that's not strictly true, but I understood his point.  We need some ritualized behavior in our lives that makes resorting directly to conflict, or violence, a longer road to travel.  Manners present an acceptable way to speak to people and to behave in the company of others.  It gives us an alternative to thoughtless words, affrontive attitudes.  They buy us time to think things through.

Yet again, however, it would be naive to think these practioners of politeness are immune, and certainly incorrect to think that the mannered classes of any era had a lock on good behavior.  In fact, those same courtesies could be bent and purposed to achieve malicious goals.  It was not uncommon for one man to prick and goad his chosen target, in the most polite language, of course, until the tormented man could take no more and issued a challenge.  During the dueling days of our nation the man who challenged surrendered the right of choosing weapons.  So the silver-tongued devil that truly engineered the fight gained the advantage from the beginning.  This could seal a man's fate in some cases.  In fact, a man might be such a master of a particular weapon that it was virtually murder on his part to insist on its use.  Hence the incentive to be challenged and not the other way around.

Duels, though couched in myth and legend, were hardly polite even when they were highly ritualized--and they weren't always even that.  Oftentimes, after the heat of the challenge and during the planning phase of the contest, tempers might cool.  In this case, the seconds (usually close and trusted friends and advisors of the combatants) would get together and discuss honorable terms for resolving the conflict without violence.  These efforts were very often successful, as few people, given a little time to think about it, want to risk death or maiming over some heated and, probably, alcohol-fueled, exchange.  Not always though.

Once it was decided to carry through on the challenge, the opponents would meet in a secluded area away from the prying eyes of law enforcement.  Duelling was generally illegal.  Having met, the opponents, if armed with pistols, had several decisions to make: Upon being given the command to commence, one, or the other, could fire their round into the air, signifying that honor had been satisfied by the courageous behavior exhibited so far by both parties.  This was a dangerous choice.  If the other man had not yet fired, he still had the right to do so.  The first man was expected to remain standing on the field until he did...or didn't.  To flee was to expose himself to being shot by any member of the opponent's party of seconds.  It would also brand the man a coward.  To remain standing there must have been a nerve-wracking exercise.  If the other man fired his pistol into the air, then honor was satisfied all round.  Brandy was, no doubt, produced and everyone went home with a good story and reputation intact. 

Or...you got shot.  This was usually accomplished with a .50 caliber ball that did a lot of damage even if it wasn't fatal.  The odds were excellent that you would die of blood loss or infection before all was said and done.  Sometimes you just lost a limb.

The same rules applied if you fired and missed.  You still had to wait the other guy's turn.  If you both fired and missed, then the option of retiring from the field with honor was discussed.  If this was not mutually agreeable, the pistols were reloaded and the whole ritual was repeated until someone got shot--not your normal day at the office.

German Sword Duelists
Dueling with swords was not as popular in America.  It seems we have always been a gun nation.  Knives are another matter.  Largely thanks to Jim Bowie, knife fighting went through a period of popularity in the early 1800's.  James Bowie was credited with the invention of the 'Bowie' knife.  Historians think that it was actually his brother, Rezin, who designed the famous blade.  As the original has been lost in the mists of time we shall never know exactly what it looked like.  What we do know is that it was designed with the specific purpose of self-defense.

A replica of what the original was believed to look like.
 Jim made the Bowie knife a household word after his famous "Sandbar Fight."  This bloody brawl was the culmination of several years of bad blood between two political rivals and their supporters in Mississippi (what did I tell you about these old time politicians?).  A duel was arranged on a sandbar in the Mississippi River that was often used for this purpose.  The aggrieved parties, their seconds, and their supporters, all showed at the duly appointed time...and all hell broke loose.  Before it was over several men had died by Bowie's blade and he lay grievoulsy wounded and near death--a legend was born.


Bowie recovered and went on to kill more people, though it would be unfair to characterize these encounters as duels--like the Sandbar, they were fights and brawls.  He was not a nice man.  Even so, a fad of sorts was begun and knife duels flourished for a short while.  Knife fights were particularly brutal and ugly affairs and the outcomes uncertain in the extreme.  Hence the time-honored joke: How can you tell who is the winner of a knife fight?  Answer: He's the second man to die.  Oddly, the mystique has persisted.  Even when I was young (a scant few years ago) a certain glamor was attached to knife duels.  Fighting knifes (daggers and such) were sometimes referred to as Georgia boxing gloves.  Thankfully, I was never on the receiving end of any such encounter.          

In spite of all the romantic hogwash surrounding dueling, most of our American forebears frowned on the practice (scratch Andrew Jackson on that, as he both liked and was good at them).  Beyond the moral and legal implications, there were the practical concerns to be considered: What of the families left behind? Who would take care of them?  How would they survive?  There were no safety nets then.

So, as you ponder the woeful state of  our national discourse, and shake your head at the coarsening of American civility, just remember this, it could be worse...you could be living in those far more polite, mannered, and deadly days of yore, when your opinion might cost you your life, and stating it required actual physical courage.   



 



                   

9 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

David, your column today has really set me thinking about duels, which, I confess, I've never given much thought to before.
"Honor" is such a variable and is so influenced by differing cultures, but even as a child, I thought challenging for a fight to the death over what some folks considerd "honor" was unreasonable. You've made me think of other forms of "duels"... the teenagers who played "chicken" over who had the hottest car...even the gang-related fights over someone "dissing" another one. Thoughts of dueling elicits a lot of digressions. Does your story involve a duel or is it just in that time frame?

Fran Rizer said...

PS - Wow! Count the typos in my first comment.

David Dean said...

Both, Fran--it's set in the 1830's and there will be, at least, one duel. Murder, too, possibly several. Some form of violence for everyone, I'm thinking.

Yes, dueling fascinates me, too...at least, intellectually. And you're absolutely right, there's many watered-down versions of it. Most of the fist fights I was involved in as a kid were about 'honor.' If someone didn't believe me, or said something bad about my family or friends, they were challenged. I remember even setting the place and time of the fight. For kids, it was quite formal. Of course, it didn't always go that way; there were also spontaneous dust-ups, and even ambushes!

R.T. Lawton said...

David, good timing. The short story I just started writing in my Armenian series (set in 1850's Chechnya) concerns a pistol duel between two Russian officers. Your blog covered some of the same details, so if yours is a short story, let me know where you intend to submit.

Eve Fisher said...

The whole idea of dueling was pretty pervasive back in the 1800's - I know it shows up in some surprising literature, like Anthony Trollope's "Phineas Finn" where the hero and his best friend (!) fight a duel over a woman they both want. But back to real duels - from what I've read, Andrew Jackson was a menace: he liked to duel, he liked to win, and he didn't mind being shot. I believe he carried a bullet in him the rest of his life.

David Dean said...

R.T., I'm sure there's a place for more than one tale featuring a duel. I will submit this one to EQMM, no doubt. Always my first choice. But have at it, my friend! By the way, I can't wait to read your story; I'm fascinated with that region.

You are quite right, Eve, duels appear in a lot of great literature: War and Peace, Barry Lyndon, etc...As for Jackson, yes indeed, he was a ferocious character. Both he and Bowie had a taste for violence. Neither could be classified as nice men, but they certainly had courage...however misplaced it might have been at times.

Robert Lopresti said...

I missed this piece until now, good one. As for Washington being rude, one soldier noted with satisfaction that at the Battle of Monmouth he "swore like an angel from heaven," but that was an exception.

Ever read JK Jerome's THREE MEN ON THE BUMMEL? He writes about the German sword duels at universities which, according to him, were carefully designed to g et you an attractive and romantic scar on the face without risking serious harm.

David Dean said...

I can always count on you for some interesting info, Rob. Since it was done on a battlefield, I'm gonna give that one to George. He's entitled to that much, I think.

Attractive and romantic scars do sound nice, but is there a safer way to get one than at sword point? I haven't read that story, but will look for it. Ed Hoch also wrote about the German dueling clubs in "The Vorpal Blade."

Jeff Baker said...

The story that comes to my mind involving a duel is "The Survivor" by Mellville Davisson Post. Good luck with your stories, and Fran, i can hold my own when it comes to typos!