Supreme Court: 2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, by Chief Justice John Roberts
This post originally appeared on the Supreme Court’s website on December 31, 2015
In 1838, John Lyde Wilson, a former governor of South Carolina, made a grim contribution to the literature of dispute resolution by publishing “The Code of Honor; or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling.” That 22-page booklet, sized to fit comfortably alongside a gentleman’s matched pair of dueling pistols, specified the procedure for issuing a challenge, the duties of seconds, and the proper conduct of the duel itself. More detailed than its predecessors, the Irish and French dueling codes, Wilson’s rulebook set out time limits, the form and methods of written communications, the obligation to attempt reconciliation without bloodshed, and—if attempts at mediation failed—how to pace off the field of battle. Wilson professed that he was not advocating that adversaries settle their disputes through duels, but he claimed that dueling was inevitable “where there is no tribunal to do justice to an oppressed and deeply wronged individual.” He suggested that laying out practices and procedures to ensure that duels would be conducted fairly—including 2 provisions for resolving disputes through apology and compromise—would in fact save lives.
It may be that Wilson’s code had exactly the opposite effect, glorifying and institutionalizing a barbarous practice that led to wanton death. Our Nation had lost Alexander Hamilton to a senseless duel in 1804. Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain could have perished in duels if their seconds, in each instance, had not negotiated an amicable solution. But others were not so fortunate; one historian has calculated that, between 1798 and the Civil War, the United States Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea.