A friend sends The Code of Honor, subtitled “or Rules for the government of principals and seconds in duelling,” published in 1837 by the former governor of South Carolina. It’s a fascinating document of a world long gone, and though the sense of honor is mostly admirable, if from our point of view absurdly sensitive, one perhaps best gone. Or rather best refined: It should be possible to have a sense of honor without the desire to kill someone for violating it.
Indeed the author, John Lyde Wilson, in his own way attempts to refine it. In this booklet he offers the rules in order to save the lives of duellers, since, he believes, the proper instruction of the duellers’ seconds will help them avert the duels in the first place. In the introduction, titled “To the public,” he writes that he is strongly opposed to duelling, and yet,
if the question be directly put to me, whether there are not cases where duels are right and proper, I would unhesitatingly answer, there are. If an oppressed nation has a right to appeal to arms in defence of its liberty and the happiness of its people, there can be no argument used in support of such appeal, which will not apply with equal force to individuals.
How many cases are there, that might be enumerated, where there is no tribunal to do justice to an oppressed and deeply wronged individual? If he be subjected to a tame submission to insult and disgrace, where no power can shield him from its effects, then indeed it would seem, that the first law of nature, self-preservation, points out the only remedy for his wrongs.
The history of all animated nature exhibits a determined resistance to encroachments upon natural rights,—nay, I might add, inanimate nature, for it also exhibits a continual warfare for supremacy. . . . The principle of self-preservation is co-extensive with creation; and when by education we make character and moral worth a part of ourselves, we guard these possessions with more watchful zeal than life itself, and would go farther for their protection.
When one finds himself avoided in society, his friends shunning his approach, his substance wasting, his wife and children in want around him, and traces all his misfortunes and misery to the slanderous tongue of the calumniator, who, by secret whisper or artful innuendo, has sapped and undermined his reputation, he must be more or less than man to submit in silence.
After a paragraph in which he argues in effect that few people are ever going to be able to turn the other cheek, especially if their persecutor slaps that one too, he writes:
I would not wish to be understood to say, that I do not desire to see duelling to cease to exist entirely, in society. But my plan for doing it away, is essentially different from the one which teaches a passive forbearance to insult and indignity. I would inculcate in the rising generation a spirit of lofty independence; I would have them taught that nothing was more derogatory to the honor of a gentleman, than to wound the feelings of any one, however humble.
That if wrong be done to another, it was more an act of heroism and bravery to repair the injury, than to persist in error, and enter into mortal combat with the injured party. This would be an aggravation of that which was already odious, and would put him without the pale of all decent society and honorable men.
I would strongly inculcate the propriety of being tender of the feelings, as well as the failings, of those around him. I would teach immutable integrity, and uniform urbanity of manners. Scrupulously to guard individual honor, by a high personal self respect, and the practice of every commendable virtue. Once let such a system of education be universal, and we should seldom hear, if ever, of any more duelling.