Gentleman Scholar

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

How do you fight a duel in 2014? Also: Advice from the Gentleman Scholar’s mom.

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How and when do you fight a duel in 2014?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Photo by Christina Paige

Thank you for your question.

Scholars of language will recognize this query as an express train destined for the early history of the word gentleman. In the 1500s, it was supposed that only a gentleman had the right to a coat of arms—the heraldry that, originally, signified the right to bear arms itself. By the 1600s, studying at least a bit of fencing was de rigueur for fancy lads. For most of the 1700s, “anyone, civilian or military, with pretensions to gentlemanly status would have worn a small sword on a daily basis.” Fighting a duel was an upper-class privilege.

This is a first rule to heed, my gentlemanly reader: If some fellow makes a scurrilous remark at your expense, consider challenging him to a duel only if he belongs to your elevated caste. If the insult instead issues from the chapped mouth of an inferior, then simply give him a quick thrashing with your cane and get on with your day.

I know, I know. We’re trafficking in some horribly anachronistic ideas here: In 2014, an able-bodied man carrying a walking stick looks simply lame. What is this, a steampunk meetup? Many enlightened people believe that dueling is no less antiquated. Indeed, this has been the case since before the Enlightenment. The first French law against dueling was passed in 1559—and promptly disregarded. The last French duel was fought in 1967.

Benjamin Franklin was, in his time, astonished that the “murderous practice” had held on as long as it did, civilization having long outgrown its earliest approved use: “Formerly, when duels were used to determine lawsuits, from an opinion that Providence would, in every instance, favour truth and right with victory, they were excusable.” Franklin is pointing toward the great forerunner of the duel: trial by combat. In medieval times, men settled disputes by crossing swords and trusting that God would guide the correct party to victory. Then we determined that God was too busy following sports to give His attention to such matters and began hiring godless trial lawyers.

Still, the duel had its attractions for a man of status. For one thing, it served to demonstrate that he was a man of status. In its way, it was an institution—one that helped to prop up the fictions that are the foundation of any social structure. It is no wonder that dueling remained socially acceptable in the American South long after 1804, when Alexander Hamilton failed to return to New York from his morning trip to Weehawken, N.J., cementing anti-duelist beliefs in the rest of the country. And it must be said that cultures where dueling is socially approved (even though it may be against the law) are on some level notably polite. I’m sitting here looking at a recent scholarly paper written by historians who “argue that dueling had the ability to deter personal attacks in public conflicts, encouraging rivals to instead focus on the merits of their respective causes.” Need I draw a graph to demonstrate the inversely proportional relationship between the acceptability of dueling and the prevalence of chumps running around talking smack?

Three hundred years ago, you might have reasonably challenged a guy to a duel because he was going around saying that he’d slept with your sister. In 2014, receiving such news, you should probably just give her a high-five and leave it at that. Can you challenge someone to a duel in 2014? I strongly recommend against it, but if you demand the kind of satisfaction that only a fair fight can provide, then take a cue from the Inuit and propose a song duel. Here’s how the Inuit used to conduct affairs of honor in Greenland: You compose a satirical poem extravagantly deriding your adversary. You recite this poem before all the members of your household until they know it by heart. (It would also be good to choreograph a dance.) Then you meet your opponent at the appointed place, where the two of you mock each other all day long, and the wittier of you, as gauged by crowd response, is declared the victor. Call it trial by rap battle.

But what if you’re on the receiving end of a challenge? Can you correctly decline? No, you cannot. There’s a chance that your antagonist will post the news that you are a poltroon and, whoops, there go all your dinner-party invitations. What to do?

First, select your second. You need to pick a friend with proven talents for diplomacy to act as your representative in negotiating the terms of duel. With luck, he and the challenger’s second will swiftly mediate the dispute such that no one loses face or any other body part. Second, get your second to insist that you get to choose the weapon. It could be smart to proceed according to the Code Duello. Those rules, set down in Ireland in 1777, mandated flintlock, short-barreled, smooth-bore pistols—guns that are, very importantly, not terribly accurate. (Dueling only hung on as long as it did because the mortality rate was fairly reasonable.) Third, follow the advice of The Art of Duelling (1836) and, when rising early on the day of the duel to meet your opponent among the morning mists, keep breakfast simple: “I do not advise his taking more than a biscuit and cup of coffee.” Coffee means coffee here, for real: Are you prepared for your last meal to involve a hazelnut cappuccino?

I have nearly finished raising a son to gentlemanhood and need some advice about how long I can continue to correct and guide his behavior.

The son in question is in college and is about average in terms of being responsible and taking care of his own business. His mother, my lovely wife, trusts him less than I do and requires frequent updates on the status of various tasks, from making a dentist appointment to checking in after reporting a minor illness. He often neglects to report, for whatever reason. Maybe he’s behind schedule, maybe he’s busy, maybe his phone battery ran out, or maybe he’s got other things to do besides check in with Mom. Regardless, I am the one who hears about his transgressions and is often called on to explain them.

To what degree should I intervene and for how long? If I ask him to check in for the sake of my personal peace, is that out of line? If I ask her to let it go and allow him to make his own choices and mistakes, am I stifling her voice? And if I just lay low and keep out of it, am I a coward and a weakling?

Thank you for your question, which I forwarded to my mother, whom I owed an email anyway. I believe that I’ve been able to condense her 915-word response without losing its gist.

Hi Troy. I appreciate your confidence in asking my opinion. …

I think most women need the son’s father (or another older male relative) to facilitate and translate the communications (verbal and non-verbal) between mother and son. …  

Son doesn’t seem to feel that he should have to check in with Mom and his not doing so is his passive-aggressive way of telling her so. Or maybe he has a life and simply forgets to check in when he’s been a little sick. Mom gets worried and maybe—depending on her personality—she is even a little hurt. She has that maternal urge to feel his forehead and can’t understand why he keeps turning away. Mom should be encouraged to release minor things completely and accept her son’s growing independence. … Dad should not feel at all guilty about explaining to Mom that it’s time to allow Son to make his own choices and mistakes. …

However, I don’t think it’s out of line for Dad to intervene or, as I prefer to put it, interpret on behalf of Mom and Son and for the sake of keeping the peace and demonstrating to Son some valuable skills that will come in handy when Son has his own household to maintain. …

I hope at least some of this makes sense. Good luck with your article!