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Monday, December 1, 2014

Some Harsh Words on Dueling

While researching and writing a paper on arbitration by combat and Game of Thrones, I came across the case of Smith v. State, 9 Tenn. 228 (1829). There, Tennessee's Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals evaluated the case of an attorney, Calvin M. Smith (no relation) (hopefully), who had been charged with murder after killing another man in a duel. Smith also faced disbarment for his actions.

The court was not persuaded by Smith's claim that killing another person in a duel was less-deplorable than killing a person in different circumstances:
Taking the petition for true, and how does the case of the defendant stand? By the laws of God, the laws of England from the days of the Edwards; by the laws of Kentucky and Tennessee, and every civilized land, he is declared to have been guilty of wicked and malicious murder, and a felon fled from justice. Is it possible that any well balanced mind can, for a moment, believe that a man whom the law thus condemns, is a fit person to be an aider and adviser in the sanctuaries of justice! 
We are told this is only a kind of honorable homicide! The law knows it as a wicked and wilful murder, and it is our duty to treat it as such. We are placed here firmly and fearlessly to execute the laws of the land, not visionary codes of honor, framed to subserve the purposes of destruction. (237).
The court did not have kind words when describing the various types of people who participate in duels:

It is true, as a part of the history of our species, that many men of strong minds have equally strong passions, which are ill controlled, and subject such men to grosser errors than others with fewer mental advantages; these are the men of worth that fight duels, having no guide but blind and reckless passion when aroused, regardless of their own lives or those of others; hence their conduct furnishes the worst possible evidence upon which to ground a rule for the government of society. This class of duellists are not less wicked than others we will name, but their standing renders it more difficult to punish them. 
Another set of men fight duels (or more generally make a show towards it) to gratify their vanity, by drawing upon themselves a little temporary notice, which their personal worth or good conduct cannot procure. These are always worthless coxcombs, equally destitute of bravery, virtue, or sense, whose feeble nerves would be shattered and prostrated at the sight of an enemy in the field of battle, who are ridiculous in every situation where courage or conduct is required. This class of duellists do little harm other than to disturb the community; they quarrel to make peace; or if officious intermeddlers force them into a fight, are too much alarmed to hit, or perhaps see, their antagonist. The affair is laughed at as a farce, and the parties turned over to the constable. (233).
And recently-admitted attorneys in Tennessee should take note that dueling will most likely have a negative effect on one's ability to practice law:

Let it be once understood that the bar of Tennessee dare not fight, and it will be deemed cowardly to challenge a member of it; and this court solemnly warns every lawyer, that if he violates the laws made to suppress duelling, we will strike him from the rolls of the court, upon the fact being made known to us. The truth is, such men are too often insolent and impudent bullies, who tyrannise over, and impose upon, all orderly men about them; who literally dragoon society, by fear of personal violence, into silence and seeming acquiescence, with respect to their conduct. That such a counsellor is a disgrace, and serious encumbrance to any court where he is permitted to practice, all will admit; those who engage in duels, the statutes deem, and we will treat, as of this description. (234).
Dueling is generally frowned upon in most jurisdictions. Other commentators have noted that dueling convictions have historically led to serious collateral consequences beyond criminal punishment or the ability to practice law. But of the various cases I have read on the subject of dueling, the language in Smith v. State is the most colorful and dramatic that I have been able to find so far.

1 comment:

  1. Yet again the Supreme Court of Errors shows that writing today could use a little more color (and a lot more exclamation points!!) and a little less Plain English.