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I Could Not Accept Your Challenge To Duel. It’s Not You, It’s Me.

On May 1st I took an oath that I cannot say I ever anticipated. On Law Day, I was admitted to the Kentucky Bar, and as part of the oath of admission, I had to swear that ”… since the adoption of the present Constitution, I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.” An article on the Kentucky Secretary of State’s website titled, “Kentucky and the Code Duello” states that Kentucky has had laws against dueling since 1799 and the oath has been required of the Commonwealth’s officials since 1891. It also suggests the oath was not much of a deterrent, with combatants avoiding the prohibition by engaging in a de-facto duel, better known to us as a brawl.

The Burr and Hamilton duel, 11 July, 1804, at Weehawken, N.J. Engraving from the George Grantham Bain Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room.

The Burr and Hamilton duel, 11 July, 1804, at Weehawken, N.J. Detail from an engraving in the George Grantham Bain Collection. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room.

Duels were not uncommon among public men in the 19th Century. Kentucky’s most famous statesman, Senator Henry Clay  fought two duels, and his pistols are on display at his estate, Ashland, in Lexington, Kentucky. Clay’s arch-rival, Andrew Jackson, fought numerous duels, taking the life of one unlucky combatant at Harrison’s Mill alongside Kentucky’s Red River. No discussion of the role of dueling in American public life would be complete without mention of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that left Hamilton dead. As you might imagine, dueling has not been much of a problem for the Commonwealth for some time, with the practice declining after the close of the Civil War. There has been a call to remove the dueling provision from the oath out of concern that it makes the taking of the oath a less somber occasion. Nevertheless, the oath remains intact, and for now, I accept that I will have to find some sort of alternative to resolve my personal disputes.

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth
    May 28, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Very interesting post! Congratulations on being admitted to the Kentucky bar.

  2. Natalie
    May 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    How silly is that? Me thinks it’s time for Kentucky to update the oath.

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