The Casuistry Of Duelling by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay


This mention of Allan Cunningham recalls to my recollection an affair which retains one part of its interest to this day, arising out of the very important casuistical question which it involves. We Protestant nations are in the habit of treating casuistry as a field of speculation, false and baseless per se; nay, we regard it not so much in the light of a visionary and idle speculation, as one positively erroneous in its principles, and mischievous for its practical results. This is due in part to the disproportionate importance which the Church of Rome has always attached to casuistry; making, in fact, this supplementary section of ethics take precedency of its elementary doctrines in their catholic simplicity: as though the plain and broad highway of morality were scarcely ever the safe road, but that every case of human conduct were to be treated as an exception, and never as lying within the universal rule: and thus forcing the simple, honest-minded Christian to travel upon a tortuous by-road, in which he could not advance a step in security without a spiritual guide at his elbow: and, in fact, whenever the hair-splitting casuistry is brought, with all its elaborate machinery, to bear upon the simplicities of household life, and upon the daily intercourse of the world, there it has the effect (and is expressly cherished by the Romish Church with a view to the effect) of raising the spiritual pastor into a sort of importance which corresponds to that of an attorney. The consulting casuist is, in fact, to all intents and purposes, a moral attorney. For, as the plainest man, with the most direct purposes, is yet reasonably afraid to trust himself to his own guidance in any affair connected with questions of law; so also, when taught to believe that an upright intention and good sense are equally insufficient in morals, as they are in law, to keep him from stumbling or from missing his road, he comes to regard a conscience-keeper as being no less indispensable for his daily life and conversation, than his legal agent, or his professional ‘man of business,’ for the safe management of his property, and for his guidance amongst the innumerable niceties which beset the real and inevitable intricacies of rights and duties, as they grow out of human enactments and a complex condition of society. Fortunately for the happiness of human nature and its dignity, those holier rights and duties which grow out of laws heavenly and divine, written by the finger of God upon the heart of every rational creature, are beset by no such intricacies, and require, therefore, no such vicarious agency for their practical assertion. The primal duties of life, like the primal charities, are placed high above us–legible to every eye, and shining like the stars, with a splendour that is read in every clime, and translates itself into every language at once. Such is the imagery of Wordsworth. But this is otherwise estimated in the policy of papal Rome: and casuistry usurps a place in her spiritual economy, to which our Protestant feelings demur. So far, however, the question between us and Rome is a question of degrees. They push casuistry into a general and unlimited application; we, if at all, into a very narrow one. But another difference there is between us even more important; for it regards no mere excess in the quantity of range allowed to casuistry, but in the quality of its speculations: and which it is (more than any other cause) that has degraded the office of casuistical learning amongst us. Questions are raised, problems are entertained, by the Romish casuistry, which too often offend against all purity and manliness of thinking. And that objection occurs forcibly here, which Southey (either in The Quarterly Review or in his Life of Wesley) has urged and expanded with regard to the Romish and also the Methodist practice of auricular confession–viz., that, as it is practically managed, not leaving the person engaged in this act to confess according to the light of his own conscience, but at every moment interfering, on the part of the confessor, to suggest leading questions (as lawyers call them), and to throw the light of confession upon parts of the experience which native modesty would leave in darkness,–so managed, the practice of confession is undoubtedly the most demoralising practice known to any Christian society. Innocent young persons, whose thoughts would never have wandered out upon any impure images or suggestions, have their ingenuity and their curiosity sent roving upon unlawful quests: they are instructed to watch what else would pass undetained in the mind, and would pass unblameably, on the Miltonic principle: (‘Evil into the mind of God or man may come unblamed,’ etc.) Nay, which is worst of all, unconscious or semi-conscious thoughts and feelings or natural impulses, rising, like a breath of wind under some motion of nature, and again dying away, because not made the subject of artificial review and interpretation, are now brought powerfully under the focal light of the consciousness: and whatsoever is once made the subject of consciousness, can never again have the privilege of gay, careless thoughtlessness–the privilege by which the mind, like the lamps of a mail-coach, moving rapidly through the midnight woods, illuminate, for one instant, the foliage or sleeping umbrage of the thickets; and, in the next instant, have quitted them, to carry their radiance forward upon endless successions of objects. This happy privilege is forfeited for ever, when the pointed significancy of the confessor’s questions, and the direct knowledge which he plants in the mind, have awakened a guilty familiarity with every form of impurity and unhallowed sensuality.

[Footnote 1: This appeared in Tait’s Magazine for February, 1841. Although practically an independent paper, it was included in the series entitled ‘Sketches of Life and Manners; from the Autobiography of an English Opium-Eater.’ The reference to Allan Cunningham occurs in the previous chapter of these ‘Sketches.’–H. ]

Here, then, are objections sound and deep, to casuistry, as managed in the Romish church. Every possible objection ever made to auricular confession applies with equal strength to casuistry; and some objections, besides these, are peculiar to itself. And yet, after all, these are but objections to casuistry as treated by a particular church. Casuistry in itself–casuistry as a possible, as a most useful, and a most interesting speculation–remains unaffected by any one of these objections; for none applies to the essence of the case, but only to its accidents, or separable adjuncts. Neither is this any curious or subtle observation of little practical value. The fact is as far otherwise as can be imagined–the defect to which I am here pointing, is one of the most clamorous importance. Of what value, let me ask, is Paley’s Moral Philosophy? What is its imagined use? Is it that in substance it reveals any new duties, or banishes as false any old ones? No; but because the known and admitted duties–duties recognised in every system of ethics–are here placed (successfully or not) upon new foundations, or brought into relation with new principles not previously perceived to be in any relation whatever. This, in fact, is the very meaning of a theory[2] or contemplation, [[Greek: Theoria],] when A, B, C, old and undisputed facts have their relations to each other developed. It is not, therefore, for any practical benefit in action, so much as for the satisfaction of the understanding, when reflecting on a man’s own actions, the wish to see what his conscience or his heart prompts reconciled to general laws of thinking–this is the particular service performed by Paley’s Moral Philosophy. It does not so much profess to tell what you are to do, as the why and the wherefore; and, in particular, to show how one rule of action may be reconciled to some other rule of equal authority, but which, apparently, is in hostility to the first. Such, then, is the utmost and highest aim of the Paleyian or the Ciceronian ethics, as they exist. Meantime, the grievous defect to which I have adverted above–a defect equally found in all systems of morality, from the Nichomachean ethics of Aristotle downwards–is the want of a casuistry, by way of supplement to the main system, and governed by the spirit of the very same laws, which the writer has previously employed in the main body of his work. And the immense superiority of this supplementary section, to the main body of the systems, would appear in this, that the latter I have just been saying, aspires only to guide the reflecting judgment in harmonising the different parts of his own conduct, so as to bring them under the same law; whereas the casuistical section, in the supplement, would seriously undertake to guide the conduct, in many doubtful cases, of action–cases which are so regarded by all thinking persons. Take, for example, the case which so often arises between master and servant, and in so many varieties of form–a case which requires you to decide between some violation of your conscience, on the one hand, as to veracity, by saying something that is not strictly true, as well as by evading (and that is often done) all answer to inquiries which you are unable to meet satisfactorily–a violation of your conscience to this extent, and in this way; or, on the other hand, a still more painful violation of your conscience in consigning deliberately some young woman–faulty, no doubt, and erring, but yet likely to derive a lesson from her own errors, and the risk to which they have exposed her–consigning her, I say, to ruin, by refusing her a character, and thus shutting the door upon all the paths by which she might retrace her steps. This I state as one amongst the many cases of conscience daily occurring in the common business of the world. It would surprise any reader to find how many they are; in fact, a very large volume might be easily collected of such cases as are of ordinary occurrence. Casuistry, the very word casuistry expresses the science which deals with such cases: for as a case, in the declension of a noun, means a falling away, or a deflection from the upright nominative (rectus), so a case in ethics implies some falling off, or deflection from the high road of catholic morality. Now, of all such cases, one, perhaps the most difficult to manage, the most intractable, whether for consistency of thinking as to the theory of morals, or for consistency of action as to the practice of morals, is the case of DUELLING.

[Footnote 2: No terms of art are used so arbitrarily, and with such perfect levity, as the terms hypothesis, theory, system. Most writers use one or other with the same indifference that they use in constructing the title of a novel, or, suppose, of a pamphlet, where the phrase thoughts, or strictures, or considerations, upon so and so, are used ad libitum. Meantime, the distinctions are essential. That is properly an hypothesis where the question is about a cause: certain phenomena are known and given: the object is to place below these phenomena a basis [[Greek: a hypothosis]] capable of supporting them, and accounting for them. Thus, if you were to assign a cause sufficient to account for the aurora borealis, that would be an hypothesis. But a theory, on the other hand, takes a multitude of facts all disjointed, or, at most, suspected, of some inter-dependency: these it takes and places under strict laws of relation to each other. But here there is no question of a cause. Finally, a system is the synthesis of a theory and an hypothesis: it states the relations as amongst an undigested mass, rudis indigestaque moles, of known phenomena; and it assigns a basis for the whole, as in an hypothesis. These distinctions would become vivid and convincing by the help of proper illustrations. ]

As an introduction, I will state my story–the case for the casuist; and then say one word on the reason of the case.

First, let me report the case of a friend–a distinguished lawyer at the English bar. I had the circumstances from himself, which lie in a very small compass; and, as my friend is known, to a proverb almost, for his literal accuracy in all statements of fact, there need be no fear of any mistake as to the main points of the case. He was one day engaged in pleading before the Commissioners of Bankruptcy; a court then, newly appointed, and differently constituted, I believe, in some respects, from its present form. That particular commissioner, as it happened, who presided at the moment when the case occurred, had been recently appointed, and did not know the faces of those who chiefly practised in the court. All things, indeed, concurred to favour his mistake: for the case itself came on in a shape or in a stage which was liable to misinterpretation, from the partial view which it allowed of the facts, under the hurry of the procedure; and my friend, also, unluckily, had neglected to assume his barrister’s costume, so that he passed, in the commissioner’s appreciation, as an attorney. ‘What if he had been an attorney?’ it may be said: ‘was he, therefore, less entitled to courtesy or justice?’ Certainly not; nor is it my business to apologise for the commissioner. But it may easily be imagined, and (making allowances for the confusion of hurry and imperfect knowledge of the case) it does offer something in palliation of the judge’s rashness, that, amongst a large heap of ‘Old Bailey’ attorneys, who notoriously attended this court for the express purpose of whitewashing their clients, and who were in bad odour as tricksters, he could hardly have been expected to make a special exception in favour of one particular man, who had not protected himself by the insignia of his order. His main error, however, lay in misapprehending the case: misapprehension lent strength to the assumption that my friend was an ‘Old Bailey’ (i. e., a sharking) attorney; whilst, on the other hand, that assumption lent strength to his misapprehension of the case. Angry interruptions began: these, being retorted or resented with just indignation, produced an irritation and ill temper, which, of themselves, were quite sufficient to raise a cloud of perplexity over any law process, and to obscure it for any understanding. The commissioner grew warmer and warmer; and, at length, he had the presumption to say:–‘Sir, you are a disgrace to your profession.’ When such sugar-plums, as Captain M’Turk the peacemaker observes, were flying between them, there could be no room for further parley. That same night the commissioner was waited on by a friend of the barrister’s, who cleared up his own misconceptions to the disconcerted judge; placed him, even to his own judgment, thoroughly in the wrong; and then most courteously troubled him for a reference to some gentleman, who would arrange the terms of a meeting for the next day. The commissioner was too just and grave a man to be satisfied with himself, on a cool review of his own conduct. Here was a quarrel ripened into a mortal feud, likely enough to terminate in wounds, or, possibly, in death to one of the parties, which, on his side, carried with it no palliations from any provocation received, or from wrong and insult, in any form, sustained: these, in an aggravated shape, could be pleaded by my friend, but with no opening for retaliatory pleas on the part of the magistrate. That name, again, of magistrate, increased his offence and pointed its moral: he, a conservator of the laws–he, a dispenser of equity, sitting even at the very moment on the judgment seat–he to have commenced a brawl, nay to have fastened a quarrel upon a man even then of some consideration and of high promise; a quarrel which finally tended to this result–shoot or be shot. That commissioner’s situation and state of mind, for the succeeding night, were certainly not enviable: like Southey’s erring painter, who had yielded to the temptation of the subtle fiend,

See also  Works And Days by George William Russell

With repentance his only companion he lay;
And a dismal companion is she.

Meantime, my friend–what was his condition; and how did he pass the interval? I have heard him feelingly describe the misery, the blank anguish of this memorable night. Sometimes it happens that a man’s conscience is wounded; but this very wound is the means, perhaps, by which his feelings are spared for the present: sometimes his feelings are lacerated; but this very laceration makes the ransom for his conscience. Here, on the contrary, his feelings and his happiness were dimmed by the very same cause which offered pain and outrage to his conscience. He was, upon principle, a hater of duelling. Under any circumstances, he would have condemned the man who could, for a light cause, or almost for the weightiest, have so much as accepted a challenge. Yet, here he was positively offering a challenge; and to whom? To a man whom he scarcely knew by sight; whom he had never spoken to until this unfortunate afternoon; and towards whom (now that the momentary excitement of anger had passed away) he felt no atom of passion or resentment whatsoever. As a free ‘unhoused’ young man, therefore, had he been such, without ties or obligations in life, he would have felt the profoundest compunction at the anticipation of any serious injury inflicted upon another man’s hopes or happiness, or upon his own. But what was his real situation? He was a married man, married to the woman of his choice within a very few years: he was also a father, having one most promising son, somewhere about three years old. His young wife and his son composed his family; and both were dependent, in the most absolute sense, for all they possessed or they expected–for all they had or ever could have–upon his own exertions. Abandoned by him, losing him, they forfeited, in one hour, every chance of comfort, respectability, or security from scorn and humiliation. The mother, a woman of strong understanding and most excellent judgment–good and upright herself–liable, therefore, to no habit of suspicion, and constitutionally cheerful, went to bed with her young son, thinking no evil. Midnight came, one, two o’clock; mother and child had long been asleep; nor did either of them dream of that danger which even now was yawning under their feet. The barrister had spent the hours from ten to two in drawing up his will, and in writing such letters as might have the best chance, in case of fatal issue to himself, for obtaining some aid to the desolate condition of those two beings whom he would leave behind, unprotected and without provision. Oftentimes he stole into the bedroom, and gazed with anguish upon the innocent objects of his love; and, as his conscience now told him, of his bitterest perfidy. ‘Will you then leave us? Are you really going to betray us? Will you deliberately consign us to life-long poverty, and scorn, and grief?’ These affecting apostrophes he seemed, in the silence of the night, to hear almost with bodily ears. Silent reproaches seemed written upon their sleeping features; and once, when his wife suddenly awakened under the glare of the lamp which he carried, he felt the strongest impulse to fly from the room; but he faltered, and stood rooted to the spot. She looked at him smilingly, and asked why he was so long in coming to bed. He pleaded an excuse, which she easily admitted, of some law case to study against the morning, or some law paper to draw. She was satisfied; and fell asleep again. He, however, fearing, above all things, that he might miss the time for his appointment, resolutely abided by his plan of not going to bed; for the meeting was to take place at Chalk Farm, and by half-past five in the morning: that is, about one hour after sunrise. One hour and a half before this time, in the gray dawn, just when the silence of Nature and of mighty London was most absolute, he crept stealthily, and like a guilty thing, to the bedside of his sleeping wife and child; took, what he believed might be his final look of them: kissed them softly; and, according to his own quotation from Coleridge’s Remorse,

In agony that could not be remembered;

and a conflict with himself that defied all rehearsal, he quitted his peaceful cottage at Chelsea in order to seek for the friend who had undertaken to act as his second. He had good reason, from what he had heard on the night before, to believe his antagonist an excellent shot; and, having no sort of expectation that any interruption could offer to the regular progress of the duel, he, as the challenger, would have to stand the first fire; at any rate, conceiving this to be the fair privilege of the party challenged, he did not mean to avail himself of any proposal for drawing lots upon the occasion, even if such a proposal should happen to be made. Thus far the affair had travelled through the regular stages of expectation and suspense; but the interest of the case as a story was marred and brought to an abrupt conclusion by the conduct of the commissioner. He was a man of known courage, but he also, was a man of conscientious scruples; and, amongst other instances of courage, had the courage to own himself in the wrong. He felt that his conduct hitherto had not been wise or temperate, and that he would be sadly aggravating his original error by persisting in aiming at a man’s life, upon which life hung also the happiness of others, merely because he had offered to that man a most unwarranted insult. Feeling this, he thought fit, at first coming upon the ground, to declare that, having learned, since the scene in court, the real character of his antagonist, and the extent of his own mistake, he was resolved to brave all appearances and ill-natured judgments, by making an ample apology; which, accordingly, he did; and so the affair terminated. I have thought it right, however, to report the circumstances, both because they were really true in every particular, but, much more, because they place in strong relief one feature, which is often found in these cases, and which is allowed far too little weight in distributing the blame between the parties: to this I wish to solicit the reader’s attention. During the hours of this never-to-be-forgotten night of wretchedness and anxiety, my friend’s reflection was naturally forced upon the causes which had produced it. In the world’s judgment, he was aware that he himself, as the one charged with the most weighty responsibility, (those who depended upon him being the most entirely helpless,) would have to sustain by much the heaviest censure: and yet what was the real proportion of blame between the parties? He, when provoked and publicly insulted, had retorted angrily: that was almost irresistible under the constitution of human feelings; the meekest of men could scarcely do less. But surely the true onus of wrong and moral responsibility for all which might follow, rested upon that party who, giving way to mixed impulses of rash judgment and of morose temper, had allowed himself to make a most unprovoked assault upon the character of one whom he did not know; well aware that such words, uttered publicly by a person in authority, must, by some course or other, be washed out and cancelled; or, if not, that the party submitting to such defamatory insults, would at once exile himself from the society and countenance of his professional brethren. Now, then, in all justice, it should be so ordered that the weight of public indignation might descend upon him, whoever he might be, (and, of course, the more heavily, according to the authority of his station and his power of inflicting wrong,) who should thus wantonly abuse his means of influence, to the dishonour or injury of an unoffending party. We clothe a public officer with power, we arm him with influential authority over public opinion; not that he may apply these authentic sanctions to the backing of his own malice, and giving weight to his private caprices: and, wherever such abuse takes place, then it should be so contrived that some reaction in behalf of the injured person might receive a sanction equally public. And, upon this point, I shall say a word or two more, after first stating my own case; a case where the outrage was far more insufferable, more deliberate, and more malicious; but, on the other hand, in this respect less effectual for injury, that it carried with it no sanction from any official station or repute in the unknown parties who offered the wrong. The circumstances were these:–In 1824, I had come up to London upon an errand in itself sufficiently vexatious–of fighting against pecuniary embarrassments, by literary labours; but, as had always happened hitherto, with very imperfect success, from the miserable thwartings I incurred through the deranged state of the liver. My zeal was great, and my application was unintermitting; but spirits radically vitiated, chiefly through the direct mechanical depression caused by one important organ deranged; and, secondly, by a reflex effect of depression through my own thoughts, in estimating my prospects; together with the aggravation of my case, by the inevitable exile from my own mountain home,–all this reduced the value of my exertions in a deplorable way. It was rare indeed that I could satisfy my own judgment, even tolerably, with the quality of any literary article I produced; and my power to make sustained exertions, drooped, in a way I could not control, every other hour of the day: insomuch, that what with parts to be cancelled, and what with whole days of torpor and pure defect of power to produce anything at all, very often it turned out that all my labours were barely sufficient (some times not sufficient) to meet the current expenses of my residence in London. Three months’ literary toil terminated, at times, in a result = 0; the whole plus being just equal to the minus, created by two separate establishments, and one of them in the most expensive city of the world. Gloomy, indeed, was my state of mind at that period: for, though I made prodigious efforts to recover my health, (sensible that all other efforts depended for their result upon this elementary effort, which was the conditio sine qua non for the rest), yet all availed me not; and a curse seemed to settle upon whatever I then undertook. Such was my frame of mind on reaching London: in fact it never varied. One canopy of murky clouds (a copy of that dun atmosphere which settles so often upon London) brooded for ever upon my spirits, which were in one uniformly low key of cheerless despondency; and, on this particular morning, my depression had been deeper than usual, from the effects of a long, continuous journey of 300 miles, and of exhaustion from want of sleep. I had reached London, about six o’clock in the morning, by one of the northern mails; and, resigning myself as usual in such cases, to the chance destination of the coach, after delivering our bags in Lombard Street, I was driven down to a great city hotel. Here there were hot baths; and, somewhat restored by this luxurious refreshment, about eight o’clock I was seated at a breakfast table; upon which, in a few minutes, as an appendage not less essential than the tea-service, one of the waiters laid that morning’s Times, just reeking from the press. The Times, by the way, is notoriously the leading journal of Europe anywhere; but, in London, and more peculiarly in the city quarter of London, it enjoys a pre-eminence scarcely understood elsewhere. Here it is not a morning paper, but the morning paper: no other is known, no other is cited as authority in matters of fact. Strolling with my eye indolently over the vast Babylonian confusion of the enormous columns, naturally as one of the corps litteraire, I found my attention drawn to those regions of the paper which announced forthcoming publications. Amongst them was a notice of a satirical journal, very low priced, and already advanced to its third or fourth number. My heart palpitated a little on seeing myself announced as the principal theme for the malice of the current number. The reader must not suppose that I was left in any doubt as to the quality of the notice with
which I had been honoured; and that, by possibility, I was solacing my vanity with some anticipation of honeyed compliments. That, I can assure him, was made altogether impossible, by the kind of language which flourished in the very foreground of the programme, and even of the running title. The exposure and depluming (to borrow a good word from the fine old rhetorician, Fuller,) of the leading ‘humbugs’ of the age–that was announced as the regular business of the journal: and the only question which remained to be settled was, the more or less of the degree; and also one other question, even more interesting still, viz.–whether personal abuse were intermingled with literary. Happiness, as I have experienced in other periods of my life, deep domestic happiness, makes a man comparatively careless of ridicule, of sarcasm, or of abuse. But calamity–the degradation, in the world’s eye, of every man who is fighting with pecuniary difficulties–exasperates beyond all that can be imagined, a man’s sensibility to insult. He is even apprehensive of insult–tremulously fantastically apprehensive, where none is intended; and like Wordsworth’s shepherd, with his very understanding consciously abused and depraved by his misfortunes is ready to say, at all hours–

See also  Love Story by Irving E Cox

And every man I met or faced,
Methought he knew some ill of me.

Some notice, perhaps, the newspaper had taken of this new satirical journal, or some extracts might have been made from it; at all events, I had ascertained its character so well that, in this respect, I had nothing to learn. It now remained to get the number which professed to be seasoned with my particular case; and it may be supposed that I did not loiter over my breakfast after this discovery. Something which I saw or suspected amongst the significant hints of a paragraph or advertisement, made me fear that there might possibly be insinuations or downright assertion in the libel requiring instant public notice; and, therefore, on a motive of prudence, had I even otherwise felt that indifference for slander which now I do feel, but which, in those years, morbid irritability of temperament forbade me to affect, I should still have thought it right to look after the work; which now I did: and, by nine o’clock in the morning–an hour at which few people had seen me for years–I was on my road to Smithfield. Smithfield? Yes; even so. All known and respectable publishers having declined any connexion with the work, the writers had facetiously resorted to this aceldama, or slaughtering quarter of London–to these vast shambles, as typical, I suppose, of their own slaughtering spirit. On my road to Smithfield, I could not but pause for one moment to reflect on the pure defecated malice which must have prompted an attack upon myself. Retaliation or retort it could not pretend to be. To most literary men, scattering their written reviews, or their opinions, by word of mouth, to the right and the left with all possible carelessness, it never can be matter of surprise, or altogether of complaint, (unless as a question of degrees,) that angry notices, or malicious notices, should be taken of themselves. Few, indeed, of literary men can pretend to any absolute innocence from offence, and from such even as may have seemed deliberate. But I, for my part, could. Knowing the rapidity with which all remarks of literary men upon literary men are apt to circulate, I had studiously and resolutely forborne to say anything, whether of a writer or a book, unless where it happened that I could say something that would be felt as complimentary. And as to written reviews, so much did I dislike the assumption of judicial functions and authority over the works of my own brother authors and contemporaries, that I have, in my whole life, written only two; at that time only one; and that one, though a review of an English novel, was substantially a review of a German book, taking little notice, or none, of the English translator; for, although he, a good German scholar now, was a very imperfect one at that time, and was, therefore, every way open to criticism, I had evaded this invidious office applied to a novice in literature, and (after pointing out one or two slight blemishes of trivial importance) all that I said of a general nature was a compliment to him upon the felicity of his verses. Upon the German author I was, indeed, severe, but hardly as much as he deserved. The other review was a tissue of merriment and fun; and though, it is true, I did hear that the fair authoress was offended at one jest, I may safely leave it for any reader to judge between us. She, or her brother, amongst other Latin epigrams had one addressed to a young lady upon the loss of her keys. This, the substance of the lines showed to have been the intention; but (by a very venial error in one who was writing Latin from early remembrance of it, and not in the character of a professing scholar) the title was written De clavis instead of De clavibus amissis; upon which I observed that the writer had selected a singular topic for condolence with a young lady,–viz., ‘on the loss of her cudgels;’ (clavis, as an ablative, coming clearly from clava). This (but I can hardly believe it) was said to have offended Miss H.; and, at all events, this was the extent of my personalities. Many kind things I had said; much honour; much admiration, I had professed at that period of my life in occasional papers or private letters, towards many of my contemporaries, but never anything censorious or harsh; and simply on a principle of courteous forbearance which I have felt to be due towards those who are brothers of the same liberal profession with one’s self. I could not feel, when reviewing my whole life, that in any one instance, by act, by word, or by intention, I had offered any unkindness, far less any wrong or insult, towards a brother author. I was at a loss, therefore, to decipher the impulse under which the malignant libeller could have written, in making (as I suspected already) my private history the subject of his calumnies. Jealousy, I have since understood, jealousy, was the foundation of the whole. A little book of mine had made its way into drawing-rooms where some book of his had not been heard of. On reaching Smithfield, I found the publisher to be a medical bookseller, and, to my surprise, having every appearance of being a grave, respectable man; notwithstanding this undeniable fact, that the libellous journal, to which he thought proper to affix his sanction, trespassed on decency, not only by its slander, but, in some instances, by downright obscenity; and, worse than that, by prurient solicitations to the libidinous imagination, through blanks, seasonably interspersed. I said nothing to him in the way of inquiry; for I easily guessed that the knot of writers who were here clubbing their virus, had not so ill combined their plans as to leave them open to detection by a question from any chance stranger. Having, therefore, purchased a set of the journal, then amounting to three or four numbers, I went out; and in the elegant promenades of Smithfield, I read the lucubrations of my libeller. Fit academy for such amenities of literature! Fourteen years have gone by since then; and, possibly, the unknown hound who yelled, on that occasion, among this kennel of curs, may, long since, have buried himself and his malice in the grave. Suffice it here to say, that, calm as I am now, and careless on recalling the remembrance of this brutal libel, at that time I was convulsed with wrath. As respected myself, there was a depth of malignity in the article which struck me as perfectly mysterious. How could any man have made an enemy so profound, and not even have suspected it? That puzzled me. For, with respect to the other objects of attack, such as Sir Humphrey Davy, etc., it was clear that the malice was assumed; that, at most, it was the gay impertinence of some man upon town, armed with triple Irish brass from original defect of feeling, and willing to raise an income by running amuck at any person just then occupying enough of public interest to make the abuse saleable. But, in my case, the man flew like a bull-dog at the throat, with a pertinacity and acharnement of malice that would have caused me to laugh immoderately, had it not been for one intolerable wound to my feelings. These mercenary libellers, whose stiletto is in the market, and at any man’s service for a fixed price, callous and insensible as they are, yet retain enough of the principles common to human nature, under every modification, to know where to plant their wounds. Like savage hackney coachmen, they know where there is a raw. And the instincts of human nature teach them that every man is vulnerable through his female connexions. There lies his honour; there his strength; there his weakness. In their keeping is the heaven of his happiness; in them and through them the earthy of its fragility. Many there are who do not feel the maternal relation to be one in which any excessive freight of honour or sensibility is embarked. Neither is the name of sister, though tender in early years, and impressive to the fireside sensibilities, universally and through life the same magical sound. A sister is
a creature whose very property and tendency (qua sister) is to alienate herself, not to gather round your centre. But the names of wife and daughter these are the supreme and starry charities of life: and he who, under a mask, fighting in darkness, attacks you there, that coward has you at disadvantage. I stood in those hideous shambles of Smithfield: upwards I looked to the clouds, downwards to the earth, for vengeance. I trembled with excessive wrath–such was my infirmity of feeling at that time, and in that condition of health; and had I possessed forty thousand lives, all, and every one individually, I would have sacrificed in vindication of her that was thus cruelly libelled. Shall I give currency to his malice, shall I aid and promote it by repeating it? No. And yet why not? Why should I scruple, as if afraid to challenge his falsehoods?–why should I scruple to cite them? He, this libeller, asserted–But faugh!

This slander seemed to have been built upon some special knowledge of me; for I had often spoken with horror of those who could marry persons in a condition which obliged them to obedience–a case which had happened repeatedly within my own knowledge; and I had spoken on this ground, that the authority of a master might be supposed to have been interposed, whether it really were so or not in favour of his designs; and thus a presumption, however false it might be, always remained that his wooing had been, perhaps, not the wooing of perfect freedom, so essential to the dignity of woman, and, therefore, essential to his own dignity; but that perhaps, it had been favoured by circumstances, and by opportunities created, if it had not even been favoured, by express exertions of authority. The libeller, therefore, did seem to have some knowledge of my peculiar opinions: yet, in other points, either from sincere ignorance or from affectation, and by way of turning aside suspicion, he certainly manifested a non-acquaintance with facts relating to me that must have been familiar enough to all within my circle.

Let me pursue the case to its last stage. The reader will say, perhaps, why complain of a paltry journal that assuredly never made any noise; for I, the reader, never heard of it till now. No, that is very possible; for the truth is, and odd enough it seems, this malicious journal prospered so little, that, positively, at the seventh No. it stopped. Laugh I did, and laugh I could not help but do, at this picture of baffled malice: writers willing and ready to fire with poisoned bullets, and yet perfectly unable to get an effective aim, from sheer want of co-operation on the part of the public.

However, the case as it respected me, went farther than it did with respect to the public. Would it be believed that human malice, with respect to a man not even known by sight to his assailants, as was clear from one part of their personalities, finally–that is to say, months afterwards–adopted the following course:–The journal had sunk under public scorn and neglect; neglect at first, but, perhaps, scorn at the last; for, when the writers found that mere malice availed not to draw public attention, they adopted the plan of baiting their hooks with obscenity; and they published a paper, professing to be written by Lord Byron, called, ‘My Wedding Night;’ and very possible, from internal evidence, to have been really written by him; and yet the combined forces of Byron and obscenity failed to save them,–which is rather remarkable. Having sunk, one might suppose the journal was at an end, for good and evil; and, especially, that all, who had been molested by it, or held up to ridicule, might now calculate on rest. By no means: First of all they made inquiries about the localities of my residence, and the town nearest to my own family. Nothing was effected unless they carried the insult, addressed to my family, into the knowledge of that family and its circle. My cottage in Grasmere was just 280 miles from London, and eighteen miles from any town whatsoever. The nearest was Kendal; a place of perhaps 16,000 inhabitants; and the nearest therefore, at which there were any newspapers printed. There were two: one denominated The Gazette; the other The Chronicle. The first was Tory and Conservative; had been so from its foundation; and was, besides, generous in its treatment of private character. My own contributions to it I will mention hereafter. The Chronicle, on the other hand, was a violent reforming journal, and conducted in a partisan spirit. To this newspaper the article was addressed; by this newspaper it was published; and by this it was carried into my own ‘next-door‘ neighbourhood. Next-door neighbourhood? But that surely must be the very best direction these libellers could give to their malice; for there, at least, the falsehood of their malice must be notorious. Why, yes: and in that which was my neighbourhood, according to the most literal interpretation of the term, a greater favour could not have been done me, nor a more laughable humiliation for my unprovoked enemies. Commentary or refutation there needed none; the utter falsehood of the main allegations were so obvious to every man, woman, and child, that, of necessity, it discredited even those parts which might, for any thing known to my neighbours, have been true. Nay, it was the means of procuring for me a generous expression of sympathy, that would else have been wanting; for some gentlemen of the neighbourhood, who were but slightly known to me, put the malignant journal into the fire at a public reading-room. So far was well; but, on the other hand, in Kendal, a town nearly twenty miles distant, of necessity I was but imperfectly known; and though there was a pretty general expression of disgust at the character of the publication, and the wanton malignity which it bore upon its front, since, true or not true, no shadow of a reason was pleaded for thus bringing forward statements expressly to injure me, or to make me unhappy; yet there must have been many, in so large a place, who had too little interest in the question, or too limited means of inquiry, for ever ascertaining the truth. Consequently, in their minds, to this hour, my name, as one previously known to them, and repeatedly before the town in connexion with political or literary articles in their Conservative journal, must have suffered.

See also  A Sweet-Grass Basket by Mary E Wilkins Freeman

But the main purpose, for which I have reported the circumstances of these two cases, relates to the casuistry of duelling. Casuistry, as I have already said, is the moral philosophy of cases–that is, of anomalous combinations of circumstances–that, for any reason whatsoever, do not fall, or do not seem to fall, under the general rules of morality. As a general rule, it must, doubtless, be unlawful to attempt another man’s life, or to hazard your own. Very special circumstances must concur to make out any case of exception; and even then it is evident, that one of the parties must always be deeply in the wrong. But it does strike me, that the present casuistry of society upon the question of duelling, is profoundly wrong, and wrong by manifest injustice. Very little distinction is ever made, in practice, by those who apply their judgments to such cases, between the man who, upon principle, practises the most cautious self-restraint and moderation in his daily demeanour, never under any circumstance offering an insult, or any just occasion of quarrel, and resorting to duel only under the most insufferable provocation, between this man, on the one side, and the most wanton ruffian, on the other, who makes a common practice of playing upon other men’s feelings, whether in reliance upon superior bodily strength, or upon the pacific disposition of conscientious men, and fathers of families. Yet, surely, the difference between them goes the whole extent of the interval between wrong and right. Even the question, ‘Who gave the challenge?’ which is sometimes put, often merges virtually in the transcendant question, ‘Who gave the provocation?’ For it is important to observe, in both the cases which I have reported, that the onus of offering the challenge was thrown upon the unoffending party; and thus, in a legal sense, that party is made to give the provocation who, in a moral sense, received it. But surely, if even the law makes allowances for human infirmity, when provoked beyond what it can endure,–we, in our brotherly judgments upon each other, ought, a fortiori, to take into the equity of our considerations the amount and quality of the offence. It will be objected that the law, so far from allowing for, expressly refuses to allow for, sudden sallies of anger or explosions of vindictive fury, unless in so far as they are extempore, and before the reflecting judgment has had time to recover itself. Any indication that the party had leisure for calm review, or for a cool selection of means and contrivances in executing his vindictive purposes, will be fatal to a claim of that nature. This is true; but the nature of a printed libel is, continually to renew itself as an insult. The subject of it reads this libel, perhaps, in solitude; and, by a great exertion of self-command, resolves to bear it with fortitude and in silence. Some days after, in a public room, he sees strangers reading it also: he hears them scoffing and laughing loudly: in the midst of all this, he sees himself pointed out to their notice by some one of the party who happens to be acquainted with his person; and, possibly, if the libel take that particular shape which excessive malice is most likely to select, he will hear the name of some female relative, dearer, it may be to him, and more sacred in his ears, than all this world beside, bandied about with scorn and mockery by those who have not the poor excuse of the original libellers, but are, in fact, adopting the second-hand malignity of others. Such cases, with respect to libels that are quickened into popularity by interesting circumstances, or by a personal interest attached to any of the parties, or by wit, or by extraordinary malice, or by scenical circumstances, or by circumstances unusually ludicrous, are but too likely to occur; and, with every fresh repetition, the keenness of the original provocation is renewed, and in an accelerated ratio. Again, with reference to my own case, or to any case resembling that, let it be granted that I was immoderately and unreasonably transported by anger at the moment;–I thought so myself, after a time, when the journal which published the libel sank under the public neglect; but this was an after consideration; and, at the moment, how heavy an aggravation was given to the stings of the malice, by the deep dejection, from embarrassed circumstances and from disordered health, which then possessed me; aggravations, perhaps, known to the libellers as encouragements for proceeding at the time, and often enough likely to exist in other men’s cases. Now, in the case as it actually occurred, it so happened that the malicious writers had, by the libel, dishonoured themselves too deeply in the public opinion, to venture upon coming forward, in their own persons, to avow their own work; but suppose them to have done so (as, in fact, even in this case, they might have done, had they not published their intention of driving a regular trade in libel and in slander); suppose them insolently to beard you in public haunts; to cross your path continually when in company with the very female relative upon whom they had done their best to point the finger of public scorn; and suppose them further, by the whole artillery of contemptuous looks, words, gestures, and unrepressed laughter, to republish, as it were, ratify, and publicly to apply, personally, their own original libel, as often as chance or as opportunity (eagerly improved) should throw you together in places of general resort; and suppose, finally, that the central figure–nay, in their account, the very butt throughout this entire drama of malice–should chance to be an innocent, gentle-hearted, dejected, suffering woman, utterly unknown to her persecutors, and selected as their martyr merely for her relationship to yourself–suppose her, in short, to be your wife–a lovely young woman sustained by womanly dignity, or else ready to sink into the earth with shame, under the cruel and unmanly insults heaped upon her, and having no protector upon earth but yourself: lay all this together, and then say whether, in such a case, the most philosophic or the most Christian patience might not excusably give way; whether flesh and blood could do otherwise than give way, and seek redress for the past, but, at all events, security for the future, in what, perhaps, might be the sole course open to you–an appeal to arms. Let it not be said that the case here proposed, by way of hypothesis, is an extreme one: for the very argument has contemplated extreme cases: since, whilst conceding that duelling is an unlawful and useless remedy for cases of ordinary wrong, where there is no malice to resist a more conciliatory mode of settlement, and where it is difficult to imagine any deliberate insult except such as is palliated by intoxication–conceding this, I have yet supposed it possible that cases may arise, with circumstances of contumely and outrage, growing out of deep inexorable malice, which cannot be redressed, as things now are, without an appeal to the voye de fait. ‘But this is so barbarous an expedient in days of high civilisation.’ Why, yes, it labours with the semi-barbarism of chivalry: yet, on the other hand, this mention of chivalry reminds me to say, that if this practice of duelling share the blame of chivalry, one memorable praise there is, which also it may claim as common to them both. It is a praise which I have often insisted on; and the very sublime of prejudice I would challenge to deny it. Burke, in his well-known apology for chivalry, thus expresses his sense of the immeasurable benefits which it conferred upon society, as a supplementary code of law, reaching those cases which the weakness of municipal law was then unavailing to meet, and at a price so trivial in bloodshed or violence–he calls it ‘the cheap defence of nations.’ Yes, undoubtedly; and surely the same praise belongs incontestably to the law of duelling. For one duel in esse, there are ten thousand, every day of our lives, amid populous cities, in posse: one challenge is gi
ven, a myriad are feared: one life (and usually the most worthless, by any actual good rendered to society) is sacrificed, suppose triennially, from a nation; every life is endangered by certain modes of behaviour. Hence, then, and at a cost inconceivably trifling, the peace of society is maintained in cases which no law, no severity of police, ever could effectually reach. Brutal strength would reign paramount in the walks of public life; brutal intoxication would follow out its lawless impulses, were it not for the fear which now is always in the rear–the fear of being summoned to a strict summary account, liable to the most perilous consequences. This is not open to denial: the actual basis upon which reposes the security of us all, the peace of our wives and our daughters, and our own immunity from the vilest degradations under their eyes, is the necessity, known to every gentleman, of answering for his outrages in a way which strips him of all unfair advantages, except one (which is not often possessed), which places the weak upon a level with the strong, and the quiet citizen upon a level with the military adventurer, or the ruffian of the gambling-house. The fact, I say, cannot be denied; neither can the low price be denied at which this vast result is obtained. And it is evident that, on the principle of expediency, adopted as the basis of morality by Paley, the justification of duelling is complete: for the greatest sum of immediate happiness is produced at the least possible sacrifice.[15] But there are many men of high moral principle, and yet not professing to rest upon Christianity, who reject this prudential basis of ethics as the death of all morality. And these men hold, that the social recognition of any one out of the three following dangerous and immoral principles, viz.–1st, That a man may lawfully sport with his own life; 2dly, That he may lawfully sport with the life of another; 3dly, That he may lawfully seek his redress for a social wrong, by any other channel than the law tribunals of the land: that the recognition of these, or any of them, by the jurisprudence of a nation, is a mortal wound to the very key-stone upon which the whole vast arch of morality reposes. Well, in candour, I must admit that, by justifying, in courts of judicature, through the verdicts of juries, that mode of personal redress and self-vindication, to heal and prevent which was one of the original motives for gathering into social communities, and setting up an empire of public law as paramount to all private exercise of power, a fatal wound is given to the sanctity of moral right, of the public conscience, and of law in its elementary field. So much I admit; but I say also, that the case arises out of a great dilemma, with difficulties on both sides; and that, in all practical applications of philosophy, amongst materials so imperfect as men, just as in all attempts to realize the rigour of mathematical laws amongst earthly mechanics, inevitably there will arise such dilemmas and cases of opprobrium to the reflecting intellect. However, in conclusion, I shall say four things, which I request my opponent, whoever he may be, to consider; for they are things which certainly ought to have weight; and some important errors have arisen by neglecting them.

See also  Harvest Mice by Elizabeth Brightwen

[15] Neither would it be open to Paley to plead that the final or remotest consequences must be taken into the calculation; and that one of these would be the weakening of all moral sanctions, and thus, indirectly, an injury to morality, which might more than compensate the immediate benefit to social peace and security; for this mode of arguing the case would bring us back to the very principle which his own implicitly, or by involution, rejects: since it would tell us to obey the principle itself without reference to the apparent consequences. By the bye, Paley has an express section of his work against the law of honour as a valid rule of action; but, as Cicero says of Epicurus, it matters little what he says; the question for us is quam sibi convenienter, how far consistently with himself. Now, as Sir James Mackintosh justly remarks, all that Paley says in refutation of the principle of worldly honour is hollow and unmeaning. In fact, it is merely one of the commonplaces adopted by satire, and no philosophy at all. Honour, for instance, allows you, upon paying gambling debts, to neglect or evade all others: honour, again, allows you to seduce a married woman: and he would secretly insinuate that honour enjoins all this; but it is evident that honour simply forbears to forbid all this: in other words, it is a very limited rule of action, not applying to one case of conduct in fifty. It might as well be said, that Ecclesiastical Courts sanction murder, because that crime lies out of their jurisdiction.

First, then, let him remember that it is the principle at stake–viz., the recognition by a legal tribunal, as lawful or innocent of any attempt to violate the laws, or to take the law into our own hands: this it is and the mortal taint which is thus introduced into the public morality of a Christian land, thus authentically introduced; thus sealed and countersigned by judicial authority; the majesty of law actually interfering to justify, with the solemnities of trial, a flagrant violation of law; this it is, this only, and not the amount of injury sustained by society, which gives value to the question. For, as to the injury, I have already remarked, that a very trivial annual loss–one life, perhaps, upon ten millions, and that life often as little practically valuable as any amongst us–that pays our fine or ransom in that account. And, in reality, there is one popular error made upon this subject, when the question is raised about the institution of some Court of Honour, or Court of Appeal in cases of injury to the feelings, under the sanction of parliament, which satisfactorily demonstrates the trivial amount of injury sustained: it is said on such occasions that de minimis non curat lex–that the mischief, in fact, is too narrow and limited for the regard of the legislature. And we may be assured that, if the evil were ever to become an extensive one, the notice of Parliament soon would be attracted to the subject; and hence we may derive a hint for an amended view of the policy adopted in past ages. Princes not distinguished for their religious scruples, made it, in different ages and places, a capital offence to engage in a duel: whence it is inferred, falsely, that, in former times, a more public homage was paid to Christian principle. But the fact is, that not the anti-Christian character of the offence so much as its greater frequency, and the consequent extension of a civil mischief was the ruling consideration with the lawgiver. Among other causes for this greater prevalence of duels, was the composition of armies, more often brought together upon mercenary principles from a large variety of different nations, whose peculiar usages, points of traditional honour, and even the oddness of their several languages to the ear, formed a perpetual occasion of insult and quarrel. Fluellen’s affair with Pistol, we may be sure, was no rare but a representative case.

Secondly, In confirmation of what I have said about duelling, as the great conductor for carrying off the excess of angry irritation in society, I will repeat what was said to me by a man of great ability and distinguished powers, as well as opportunities for observation, in reference to a provincial English town, and the cabals which prevailed there. These cabals–some political, arising out of past electioneering contests; some municipal, arising out of the corporation disputes; some personal, arising out of family rivalships, or old traditionary disputes–had led to various feuds that vexed the peace of the town in a degree very considerably beyond the common experience of towns reaching the same magnitude. How was this accounted for? The word tradesman is, more than even the term middle class, liable to great ambiguity of meaning; for it includes a range so large as to take in some who tread on the heels even of the highest aristocracy, and some at the other end, who rank not at all higher than day-labourers or handicraftsmen. Now, those who ranked with gentlemen, took the ordinary course of gentlemen in righting themselves under personal insults; and the result was, that, amongst them or their families, no feuds were subsisting of ancient standing. No ill blood was nursed; no calumnies or conspicuous want of charity prevailed. Not that they often fought duels: on the contrary, a duel was a very rare event amongst the indigenous gentry of the place; but it was sufficient to secure all the effects of duelling, that it was known, with respect to this class, that, in the last resort, they were ready to fight. Now, on the other hand, the lowest order of tradesmen had their method of terminating quarrels–the old English method of their fathers–viz., by pugilistic contests. And they also cherished no malice against each other or amongst their families. ‘But,’ said my informant, ‘some of those who occupied the intermediate stations in this hierarchy of trade, found themselves most awkwardly situated. So far they shared in the refinements of modern society, that they disdained the coarse mode of settling quarrels by their fists. On the other hand, there was a special and peculiar reason pressing upon this class, which restrained them from aspiring to the more aristocratic modes of fighting. They were sensible of a ridicule, which everywhere attaches to many of the less elevated or liberal modes of exercising trade in going out to fight with sword and pistol. This ridicule was sharpened and made more effectual, in their case, from the circumstance of the Royal Family and the court making this particular town a frequent place of residence. Besides that apart from the ridicule, many of them depended for a livelihood upon the patronage of royalty or of the nobility, attached to their suite; and most of these patrons would have resented their intrusion upon the privileged ground of the aristocracy in conducting disputes of honour. What was the consequence? These persons, having no natural outlet for their wounded sensibilities, being absolutely debarred from any mode of settling their disputes, cherished inextinguishable feuds: their quarrels in fact had no natural terminations; and the result was, a spirit of malice and most unchristian want of charity, which could not hope for any final repose, except in death.’ Such was the report of my observing friend: the particular town may be easily guessed at; and I have little doubt that its condition continues as of old.

Thirdly, It is a very common allegation against duelling, that the ancient Romans and Grecians never practised this mode of settling disputes; and the inference is, of course, unfavourable, not to Christianity, but to us as inconsistent disciples of our own religion; and a second inference is, that the principle of personal honour, well understood, cannot require this satisfaction for its wounds. For the present I shall say nothing on the former head, but not for want of something to say. With respect to the latter, it is a profound mistake, founded on inacquaintance with the manners and the spirit of manners prevalent amongst these imperfectly civilised nations. Honour was a sense not developed in many of its modifications amongst either Greeks or Romans. Cudgelling was at one time used as the remedy in cases of outrageous libel and pasquinade. But it is a point very little to the praise of either people, that no vindictive notice was taken of any possible personalities, simply because the most hideous license had been established for centuries in tongue license and unmanly Billingsgate. This had been promoted by the example hourly ringing in their ears of vernile scurrility. Verna–that is, the slave born in the family–had each from the other one universal and proverbial character of foul-mouthed eloquence, which heard from infancy, could not but furnish a model almost unconsciously to those who had occasion publicly to practise vituperative rhetoric. What they remembered of this vernile licentiousness, constituted the staple of their talk in such situations. And the horrible illustrations left even by the most accomplished and literary of the Roman orators, of their shameless and womanly fluency in this dialect of unlicensed abuse, are evidences, not to be resisted, of such obtuseness, such coarseness of feeling, so utter a defect of all the gentlemanly sensibilities, that no man, alive to the real state of things amongst them, would ever think of pleading their example in any other view than as an object of unmitigated disgust. At all events, the long-established custom of deluging each other in the Forum, or even in the Senate, with the foulest abuse, the precedent traditionally delivered through centuries before the time of Caesar and Cicero, had so robbed it of its sting, that, as a subject for patient endurance, or an occasion for self conquest in mastering the feelings, it had no merit at all. Anger, prompting an appeal to the cudgel, there might be, but sense of wounded honour, requiring a reparation by appeal to arms, or a washing away by blood, no such feeling could have been subdued or overcome by a Roman, for none such existed. The feelings of wounded honour on such occasions, it will be allowed, are mere reflections (through sympathetic agencies) of feelings and opinions already existing, and generally dispersed through society. Now, in Roman society, the case was a mere subject for laughter; for there were no feelings or opinions pointing to honour, personal honour as a principle of action, nor, consequently, to wounded honour as a subject of complaint. The Romans were not above duelling, but simply not up to that level of civilisation.

Finally, with respect to the suggestion of a Court of Honour, much might be said that my limits will not allow; but two suggestions I will make. First, Recurring to a thing I have already said, I must repeat that no justice would be shown unless (in a spirit very different from that which usually prevails in society) the weight of public indignation and the displeasure of the court were made to settle conspicuously upon the AGGRESSOR; not upon the challenger, who is often the party suffering under insufferable provocation (provocation which even the sternness of penal law and the holiness of Christian faith allow for), but upon the author of the original offence. Secondly, A much more searching investigation must be made into the conduct of the SECONDS than is usual in the unprofessional and careless inquisitions of the public into such affairs. Often enough, the seconds hold the fate of their principals entirely in their hands; and instances are not a few, within even my limited knowledge, of cases where murder has been really committed, not by the party who fired the fatal bullet, but by him who (having it in his power to interfere without loss of honour to any party) has cruelly thought fit–[and, in some instances, apparently for no purpose but that of decorating himself with the name of an energetic man, and of producing a public ‘sensation,’ as it is called–a sanguinary affair]–to goad on the tremulous sensibility of a mind distracted between the sense of honour on the one hand, and the agonising claims of a family on the other, into fatal extremities that might, by a slight concession, have been avoided. I could mention several instances; but, in some of these, I know the circumstances only by report. In one, however, I had my information from parties who were personally connected with the unhappy subject of the affair. The case was this:–A man of distinguished merit, whom I shall not describe more particularly, because it is no part of my purpose to recall old buried feuds, or to insinuate any personal blame whatsoever (my business being not with this or that man, but with a system and its principles); this man, by a step well-meant but injudicious, and liable to a very obvious misinterpretation, as though taken in a view of self-interest, had entangled himself in a quarrel. That quarrel would have been settled amicably, or, if not amicably, at least without bloodshed, had it not been for an unlucky accident combined with a very unwise advice. One morning, after the main dispute had been pretty well adjusted, he was standing at the fireside after breakfast, talking over the affair so far as it had already travelled, when it suddenly and most unhappily came into his head to put this general question–‘Pray, does it strike you that people will be apt, on a review of this whole dispute, to think that there has been too much talking and too little doing?’ His evil genius so ordered it, that the man to whom he put this question, was one who, having no military character to rest on, could not (or thought he could not) recommend those pacific counsels which a truly brave man is ever ready to suggest–I put the most friendly construction upon his conduct–and his answer was this–‘Why, if you insist upon my giving a faithful reply, if you will require me to be sincere (though I really wish you would not), in that case my duty is to tell you, that the world has been too free in its remarks–that it has, with its usual injustice, been sneering at literary men and paper pellets, as the ammunition in which they trade; in short, my dear friend, the world has presumed to say that not you only, but that both parties, have shown a little of’—-‘Yes; I know what you are going to say,’ interrupted the other, ‘of the white feather. Is it not so?’–‘Exactly; you have hit the mark–that is what they say. But how unjust it is; for, says I, but yesterday, to Mr. L. M., who was going on making himself merry with the affair in a way that was perfectly scandalous–“Sir,” says I,’—-but this says I never reached the ears of the unhappy man: he had heard enough; and, as a secondary dispute was still going on that had grown out of the first, he seized the very first opening which offered itself for provoking the issue of a quarrel. The other party was not backward or slack in answering the appeal; and thus, in one morning, the prospect was overcast–peace was no longer possible; and a hostile meeting was arranged. Even at this meeting much still remained in the power of the seconds: there was an absolute certainty that all fatal consequences might have been evaded, with perfect consideration for the honour of both parties. The principals must unquestionably have felt that; but if the seconds would not move in that direction, of course their lips were sealed. A more cruel situation could not be imagined: two persons, who never, perhaps, felt more than that fiction of enmity which belonged to the situation, that is to say, assumed the enmity which society presumes rationally incident to a certain position–assumed it as a point of honour, but did not heartily feel it; and even for the slight shade of animosity which, for half an hour, they might have really felt, had thoroughly quelled it before the meeting, these two persons–under no impulses whatever, good or bad, from within, but purely in a hateful necessity of servile obedience to a command from without–prepared to perpetrate what must, in that frame of dispassionate temper have appeared to each, a purpose of murder, as regarded his antagonist–a purpose of suicide, as regarded himself. Simply a word, barely a syllable, was needed from the ‘Friends’ (such Friends!) of the parties, to have delivered them, with honour, from this dreadful necessity: that word was not spoken; and because a breath, a motion of the lips, was wanting–because, in fact, the seconds were thoughtless and without feeling, one of the parties has long slept in a premature grave–his early blossoms scattered to the wind–his golden promise of fruit blasted; and the other has since lived that kind of life, that, in my mind, he was happier who died. Something of the same kind happened in the duel between Lord Camelford and his friend, Mr. Best; something of the same kind in that between Colonel Montgomery and Captain Macnamara. In the former case, the quarrel was, at least, for a noble subject; it concerned a woman. But in the latter, a dog, and a thoughtless lash applied to his troublesome gambols, was the sole subject of dispute. The colonel, as is well known, a very elegant and generous young man, fell; and Captain Macnamara had thenceforwards a worm at his heart whose gnawings never died. He was a post-captain; and my brother afterwards sailed with him in quality of midshipman. From him I have often heard affecting instances of the degree in which the pangs of remorse had availed, to make one of the bravest men in the service a mere panic-haunted, and, in a moral sense, almost a paralytic wreck. He that, whilst his hand was unstained with blood, would have faced an army of fiends in discharge of his duty, now fancied danger in every common rocking of a boat: he made himself at times, the subject of laughter at the messes of the junior and more thoughtless officers: and his hand, whenever he had occasion to handle a spy-glass, shook, (to use the common image,) or, rather, shivered, like an aspen tree. Now, if a regular tribunal, authenticated, by Parliament, as the fountain of law, and, by the Sovereign, as the fountain of honour, were, under the very narrowest constitution, to apply itself merely to a review of the whole conduct pursued by the seconds, even under this restriction such a tribunal would operate with great advantage. It is needless to direct any severity to the conduct of the principals, unless when that conduct has been outrageous or wanton in provocation: supposing anything tolerably reasonable and natural in the growth of the quarrel, after the quarrel is once ‘constituted,’ (to b
orrow a term of Scotch law,) the principals, as they are called with relation to the subject of dispute, are neither principals nor even secondaries for the subsequent management of the dispute: they are delivered up, bound hand and foot, into the hands of their technical ‘friends’; passive to the law of social usage as regards the general necessity of pursuing the dispute; passive to the directions of their seconds as regards the particular mode of pursuing it. It is, therefore, the seconds who are the proper objects of notice for courts of honour; and the error has been, in framing the project of such a court, to imagine the inquiry too much directed upon the behaviour of those who cease to be free agents from the very moment that they become liable to any legal investigation whatever: simply as quarrellers, the parties are no objects of question; they are not within the field of any police review; and the very first act which brings them within that field, translates the responsibility (because the free agency) from themselves to their seconds. The whole questio vexata, therefore, reduces itself to these logical moments, (to speak the language of mathematics:) the two parties mainly concerned in the case of duelling, are Society and the Seconds. The first, by authorising such a mode of redress; the latter, by conducting it. Now, I presume, it will be thought hopeless to arraign Society at the bar of any earthly court, or apply any censure or any investigation to its mode of thinking.[16] To the principals, for the reasons given, it would be unjust to apply them; and the inference is, that the seconds are the parties to whom their main agency should be directed–as the parties in whose hands lies the practical control of the whole affair, and the whole machinery of opportunities, (so easily improved by a wise humanity)–for sparing bloodshed, for promoting reconciliation, for making those overtures of accommodation and generous apology which the brave are so ready to agree to, in atonement for hasty words, or rash movements of passion, but which it is impossible for them to originate. In short, for impressing the utmost possible spirit of humanising charity and forbearance upon a practice which, after all, must for ever remain somewhat of an opprobrium to a Christian people; but which, tried by the law of worldly wisdom, is the finest bequest of chivalry; the most economic safety-valve for man’s malice that man’s wit could devise; the most absolute safe-guard of the weak against the brutal; and, finally, (once more to borrow the words of Burke,) in a sense the fullest and most practical, ‘the cheap defence of nations;’ not indeed against the hostility which besieges from without, but against the far more operative nuisance of bad passions that vex and molest the social intercourse of men by ineradicable impulses from within.

See also  An October Abroad by John Burroughs

[16] If it be asked by what title I represent Society as authorising (nay, as necessitating) duels, I answer, that I do not allude to any floating opinions of influential circles in society; for these are in continual conflict, and it may be difficult even to guess in which direction the preponderance would lie. I build upon two undeniable results, to be anticipated in any regular case of duel, and supported by one uniform course of precedent:–First, That, in a civil adjudication of any such case, assuming only that it has been fairly conducted, and agreeably to the old received usages of England, no other verdict is ever given by a jury than one of acquittal. Secondly, That, before military tribunals, the result is still stronger; for the party liable to a challenge is not merely acquitted, as a matter of course, if he accepts it with any issue whatsoever, but is positively dishonoured and degraded (nay, even dismissed the service, virtually under colour of a request that he will sell out) if he does not. These precedents form the current law for English society, as existing amongst gentlemen. Duels, pushed a l’outrance, and on the savage principles adopted by a few gambling ruffians on the Continent, (of which a good description is given in the novel of The most unfortunate Man in the World,) or by old buccaneering soldiers of Napoleon, at war with all the world, and in the desperation of cowardice, demanding to fight in a saw-pit or across a table,–this sort of duels is as little recognised by the indulgence of English law, as, in the other extreme, the mock duels of German Burschen are recognised by the gallantry of English society. Duels of the latter sort would be deemed beneath the dignity of judicial inquiry: duels of the other sort, beyond its indulgence. But all other duels, fairly managed in the circumstances, are undeniably privileged amongst non-military persons, and commanded to those who are military.

I may illustrate the value of one amongst the suggestions I have made, by looking back and applying it to part of my last anecdote: the case of that promising person who was cut off so prematurely for himself, and so ruinously for the happiness of the surviving antagonist. I may mention, (as a fact known to me on the very best authority,) that the Duke of Wellington was consulted by a person of distinction, who had been interested in the original dispute, with a view to his opinion upon the total merits of the affair, on its validity, as a ‘fighting’ quarrel, and on the behaviour of the parties to it. Upon the last question, the opinion of his Grace was satisfactory. His bias, undoubtedly, if he has any, is likely to lie towards the wisdom of the peacemaker; and possibly, like many an old soldier, he may be apt to regard the right of pursuing quarrels by arms as a privilege not hastily to be extended beyond the military body. But, on the other question, as to the nature of the quarrel, the duke denied that it required a duel; or that a duel was its natural solution. And had the duke been the mediator, it is highly probable that the unfortunate gentleman would now have been living. Certainly, the second quarrel involved far less of irritating materials than the first. It grew out of a hasty word, and nothing more; such as drops from parliamentary debaters every night of any interesting discussion–drops hastily, is as hastily recalled, or excused, perhaps, as a venial sally of passion, either by the good sense or the magnanimity of the party interested in the wrong. Indeed, by the unanimous consent of all who took notice of the affair, the seconds, or one of them at least, in this case, must be regarded as deeply responsible for the tragical issue; nor did I hear of one person who held them blameless, except that one who, of all others, might the most excusably have held them wrong in any result. But now, from such a case brought under the review of a court, such as I have supposed, and improved in the way I have suggested, a lesson so memorable might have been given to the seconds, by a two-years’ imprisonment–punishment light enough for the wreck of happiness which they caused–that soon, from this single case, raised into a memorable precedent, there would have radiated an effect upon future duels for half a century to come. And no man can easily persuade me that he is in earnest about the extinction of duelling, who does not lend his countenance to a suggestion which would, at least, mitigate the worst evils of the practice, and would, by placing the main agents in responsibility to the court, bring the duel itself immediately under the direct control of that court; would make a legal tribunal not reviewers subsequently, but, in a manner, spectators of the scene; and would carry judicial moderation and skill into the very centre of angry passions; not, as now they act, inefficiently to review, and, by implication, sometimes to approve their most angry ebullitions, but practically to control and repress them.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *