“My God! have I missed him?” These may have been Charles Dickinson’s last words as he looked about 20 paces from a still standing Andrew Jackson.
What started as horse racing bet gone awry, ended up as a war of words traded publicly and not via a tweet or social media. Jackson called Dickinson a “coward and an equivocator.” Dickinson replying with a statement in the Nashville Review saying Jackson was a “worthless scoundrel” and a “poltroon coward.” And just to add some sting to the whole affair, Dickinson did not hesitate to take a swipe at Jackson’s wife, Rachael, and their marital status.
In a time before Twitter and social media, scurrilous personal remarks could find a person, like Jackson and Dickinson, standing early one morning at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Logan, Kentucky starring down the barrels of loaded dueling pistols.
Dickinson was a noted crack shot and his bullet hit its mark. This 70 caliber tweet hit Old Hickory square in the chest. Jackson, however, was just too stubborn to fall. Honor demanded a re-tweet. His shot, like Dickinson’s shot, hit its mark. Dickinson would bleed to death and Jackson would carry around a bullet inches from his heart for the rest of his life. Eliciting a remark from an amazed doctor at the duel how Jackson managed to stand after taking a slug to the chest.
Before there were laws outlawing dueling, there were rules for how duels were to be conducted so that honor could be defended and upheld. In the Irish Code of Duello there are 25 rules outlining the proper order of restoring honor to those who feel slighted. Rule Seven is a tough one, and more than likely got Alexander Hamilton killed on the Heights of Weehawken, New Jersey. It states that “no apology can be received in any case after the parties have actually taken the ground without exchange of fires.”
It is ironic, both Tennessee and New York had laws at the time against dueling. Both the Hamilton/Burr duel and the Dickinson/Jackson duel had to be fought in neighboring states.
Dueling hearkens back to classical times when established codes of honor existed: Medieval knights and damsels in distress or the Western sheriff standing down a hired gun. A code of honor, no matter how misguided we view it today, created standards on how an individual can earn honor, respect and maintain rank, particularly within a group. This respect is predicated on the “assumption” that there is equality among those who adhere to the code. It also lets everybody know when they crossed a line and the prescribed consequences that could follow after that line was crossed.
But maybe in the age of tweets and social media there is no code of honor among tweeters. Today elected leaders can exchange banalities like calling a Congressman a liar and a leaker with the same ease as ordering a pizza online. Disparaging someone’s charter online may or may not have the same repercussions as in days gone by.
For instance, one would think that the floor of the Senate would be a safe haven for social comment. But for one Senator, it held no sanctuary for disparaging the character of fellow senator. In 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks took his cane to Senator Charles Sumner’s head on the Senate floor after Sumner insulted his relative, and fellow South Carolinian, Senator Andrew Butler. Sumner said that Butler had taken “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”
According to the Senate Select Committee charged with investigating the bludgeoning, “The cause of the assault was certain language used by Mr. Sumner…which Mr. Brooks considered libelous to the State of Carolina and slanderous to his near kinsman.”
If Representative Brooks thought Sumner was a man of honor or a gentleman who adhered to a code, he may have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he beat him about the Senate floor like an unchained dog with his cane, which is not an appropriate dueling weapon. There was no mutual respect and hence no shame in Brooks’ action.
However, when rude behavior deforms the rule of law and overwhelms proper deportment; and when a Congressman’s actions , like Brooks’, goes unchallenged and unpunished the the rule of law becomes contorted.
Today, forget about simple etiquette there is little chance that the sender of a slanderous tweet will be publicly canned. At worst the miscreant may lose his or her job. Shame may have been served but what about the besmeared character and honor of the victim in a time with?
Merriam-Webster says that etiquette is a French word meaning “ticket” or “label attached to something for identification.” The French borrowed the word etiquette from Spain where it refers “to the written protocols describing orders of precedence and behavior demanded of those who appeared in court” … “court ceremonies” “as well as the documents.”
The French took it one step farther and applied it to “proper behavior.” When it comes to to today’s social media there seems to be no etiquette. It is our version of the wild, wild West without the horse and saddle. There is no code of honor among those who tweet. This is self-evident when leaders tweet insults demeaning the character of an individual by calling them repeatedly crooked; disparaging their physical appearance by calling them fat or little; or questioning their intelligence by calling them a clown or a real dope.
So, now it is alright to identify or tag somebody as disabled, fat or any other school yard attribute meant to malign an individual for ridicule. There is little repercussion but a collective social media laugh.
There is no credible argument for dueling in 21st Century. It is archaic as believing in the curative properties of mercury or bleeding a person to release the accumulation of black bile in the body. Today, we disagree with these drastic health beliefs just as much as we do dueling a way to settle an argument and maintain one’s honor, respect and integrity. The problem is complete lack of mutual respect and a lack of shame for crude behavior. We have no minimum standard of honor and civility just continuing downward spiral of degradation.
But just maybe there is hope after all. ABC canceled Rosanne Bar’s top-rated show after she tweeted a dishonorable tweet of a former government official. This was a serious foot-in-mouth racist tweet that was supposed to be taken as humor but wildly missed its mark. For ABC, this tweet could amount up to $60 million in lost revenue. Fortunately for Rosanne, there is no Preston Brooks around to beat her about the head with a cane. Or worst, an Andrew Jackson ready to take her to the dueling grounds and educating her on the Irish Code of Duello.
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