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On the different Tendency of Spring observable in some kind of Plants. Degrees in Universities. Letter from Mr. Dyer. -Classical Disquisitions. Sophocles.-Accounts of, and Extracts from, Rare and Curious Books. The Historie of Henry VII. as far as relate to Bosworth Field, by Charles Aleyn.Memoirs of Distinguished Persons. Mr. Professor Porson. -Original Poetry. Literary and Miscellaneous Information. Monthly List of New Publications, Meteorological Register. Discoveries and Improvements in Arts and Manufactures.Domestic Occurrences. Foreign Occurrences. Retrospect of Public Affairs. Commercial Report. Price of Stocks, Agricultural Reports. Prices of Grain.
On crying Fudge.
of the Feroe Islands (continued), Account of the University of Aberdeen. Mr. Hope on the Imitative Arts. On Mercantile Biography. Synonymic Elucidations (continued).
Sketch of Mildew in
a Tour into the County of Wicklow (continued).
No. 19. JULY 1st, 1808.
For the Athenæum.
THERE are evils in society to which we are so much familiarised that we are apt to lose the sense of their being evils, or, at least, to fancy that they are so interwoven into the texture of social life, that they cannot be removed without greater mischief. The practice of duelling seems, with respect to common opinion, to stand in this predicament. A case of peculiar calamity or atrocity sometimes calls forth the public compassion or indignation; but these feelings soon subside in the vague notion that the custom is too inveterate to be eradicated, and that it may have its advantages as well as its inconveniences. But, surely, when we have seen many of the most valuable lives in the nation, and amongst them, those of its two highest political characters, put to hazard through this mode of settling punctilios of honour-when we read almost daily of persons engaged to the service of their country perishing in these umpatriotic combats-when we further observe the cruel dilemma in which trials originating from this cause involve judges and juries, from which they can hardly extricate themselves without violating their public duties or their private feelings-we cannot deliberately regard duelling as an evil to be acquiesced in without an attempt for its removal.
In reasoning upon this topic I shall not think of usurping the pulpit's office by demonstrating the inconsistency of private revenge with the precepts of christianity. Speaking to the world as a man of the world, it would indeed be absurd to appeal to a law which, while its authority is acknowledged in words, has no more force in fact than if it had been promulgated in another planet. To nations continually plunged in wars of vengeance, avarice, or ambition, and in the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure or emolument, pleading the maxims of a religion which breathes nothing but humility, forgiveness, self-denial, VOL. IV.
and detachment from worldly concerns, is either a cant or a mockery. I shall, therefore, consider the matter simply upon the ground of common sense and common interest.
I take for granted that few duels are fought at present which the parties would not rather avoid if the empire of opinion would permit them to do it. There is, in fact, such a radical absurdity in the idea of revenging an injury by exposing ones-self to the same danger in which we place the person who has injured us, that this motive could not long subsist as the cause of duels. Revenge naturally points to the stilleto; and if notions of honour forbid its use, the sword or pistol in open fight can never be its substitute. The most skilful in those weapons are the most likely to offer insults. Challenges are now given and accepted chiefly through fear of the imputation of cowardice; and if that imputation could be obviated by any less hazardous expedient, the principle of self-preservation might in general be confided in for giving that the preference. A remarkable example of this truth is afforded by the modern, or rather the English, mode of seeking redress for what has been usually regarded as the most updonable injury a gentleman could receive, and not to be expired but by the blood of the offender-seduction of the partner of sd. Men of the nicest honour among us are now contented to obtain reperation for this cruel wrong by a legal action for pecuniary damages; and it is not uncommon for the husband and seducer to mix afterwards in society upon terms of civility. This fact alone is sufficient to prove that all the causes producing duels are within the control of public opinion, were means found to give it a proper direction. Indeed, as the most polished nations of antiquity maintained social intercourse without having recourse to this pretended support of order and decorum, to suppose it necessary in modern times is to acknowledge such a relapse to barbarism as no advocate for the improvement of mankind would chuse to admit. That relapse, however, which unquestionably took place on the irruption of the barbarous nations into the Roman empire, was the real source of this, as well as of various other Gothic customs, which still in some degree derogate from the boasted refinement and civility of modern Europe.
The obligation to demand or grant the satisfaction of single combat, which is now attached to the character of a gentleman, is founded upon the maxim that courage is the quality most of all indispensable to that rank in society, and that life, with all its duties and enjoyments, is not to be set in competition with the reputation of that quality. But this is a proposition which very few, I presume, would seriously maintain. That life, indeed, is freely to be hazarded, or even sacrificed, on certain occasions, is a tenet of sound philosophy, as well as of the worldly school of honour; but neither philosophy nor true honour will regard the maintaining a mere reputation for courage as one of those occasions. That reputation, too, thus supported, is a. very equivocal one; for neither is the man who, urged by the fear of disgrace, reluctantly stands a shot, proved to be brave; nor is he who
declines it from motives of duty or good sense, proved a coward. The first might shrink from trials of fortitude, which the second would pass through with credit. Surely, then, an opinion so void of solid foundation, however rooted in prejudice and habit, might be subverted by a bold and manly appeal to the reason of the public. Were two or three examples to occur of a person in a distinguished station, and of tried firmness of mind, who, upon being invited to go out with one who imagined himself affronted by him, should say, "I value my life too much to hazard it, and your's also, on such an occasion-if I have done you wrong in the judgment of an impartial umpire, I am ready to redress it, but I shall not retract what I have said or done upon just grounds;" I cannot doubt that such conduct would be countenanced by the approbation of all whose esteem was worth preserving, and that it would soon be imitated.
It is a remarkable fact that the army alone, in which the character for courage can admit of no questioning, should have established certain rules within itself limiting the obligation of accepting challenges. Those, I believe, turn chiefly upon circumstances of military rank and command; but the same professional authority and concurrence which could enforce rules in some cases, might in others. There is one point to which it is highly desirable that the limitation should be extended, and, indeed, the country has a right to require that it should be so; this is, the case of officers engaged in actual service. It is difficult to say whether pity or indiguation should preponderate on reading the frequent accounts of thoughtless young men, upon some frivolous quarrel, throwing away lives devoted to their king and country, when just on the eve of setting sail upon some important expedition in which they have an assigned post. Such an act can be regarded as nothing less than a criminal, desertion of duty-worse than a common desertion, inasmuch as besides the loss of lives, it involves the flight of the survivors and all concerned in the duel. It would be becoming the gentlemen of the army to declare their sense of this abuse of the principle of honour, by a resolution to hold as infamous, and unworthy the name of soldier, the officer who under these circumstances gives or accepts a challenge. Strictly considered, no men have their lives so little at their own disposal as those who have engaged in the military service. As they are bound, on the command of a superior, to encounter any degree of danger, or even certain death, so they are restricted from undergoing rash and useless hazards, and especially from such as expose other lives along with their own. In this light, doubtless, the practice of dueiling was regarded by the heroic Gustavus Adolphus, when, in order to abolish it among his officers, he deorced that the combatants should fight till one fell, and that the survivor should be hung on the spot.
This example might lead to the supposition that nothing more would be necessary for effecting a reform in this point, than that the sovereign should in earnest employ his power and authority for the purpose. And, doubtless, the discountenance of a court, steadily and
impartially exercised, might produce a considerable effect upon those who are dependent on its favours. But experience proves, that the general influence of a court upon the manners of a nation is much less than might be expected; and that even in absolute monarchies, national habits are little under the controul of the individual sovereign. Honour and conscience are two things that spurn the interference of power; and false notions grounded upon them are to be counteracted only by juster notions with the same foundation. If the public opinion makes it disgraceful in certain circumstances to refuse a challenge, the countenance of royalty itself cannot afford a shelter from its consequences. The laws of honour can be altered or abrogated only by its legislators. The common laws of the land are of little avail here; since those who think it incumbent on them to confront the dangers of combat in establishing a reputation for courage, will not shun the additional hazard of a criminal prosecution. Further, it is almost impossible that, during the present state of opinion, the rigour of the law can be put in force on these occasions. Neither will judges be found to direct, nor juries to bring in, verdicts of inurder in ordinary cases of killing by duel; for although the crime, according to legal definition, can bear no other construction, yet the sentiment with which it is viewed is totally different. The perpetrator is frequently more an object of pity than of detestation, and appears rather as the unhappy instrument of a fatal necessity, than as the sanguinary agent of malice or revenge. I shall not here enquire how far a distortion of the letter of the law for an humane purpose is justifiable; certainly, accustoming juries to tamper with their oaths, and equivocate with the direct meaning of words, is a very dangerous practice; and perhaps it would be better in cases of this kind to leave the exercise of mercy in the hand in which the constitution has placed it, than to save a criminal by an acquittal contrary to the evidence of fact. I only mean to assert that nothing in reality can be expected from the law as it now stands, towards abolishing the custom of duelling.
My conclusion from this discussion is, that it is both desirable and possible greatly to limit, if not entirely to abrogate, a practice which of late years has been gaining ground, and becoming more and more destructive to the peace of society; but that this can be effected only by the adoption of more rational sentiments by that class which is peculiarly implicated in the practice. Society has always in its own hands the means of enforcing such rules as are necessary for the preservation of order and decorum. What it resolves to countenance, no individual can render disgraceful in the public opinion; and surely nothing is better worthy of its interposition, than to prevent outrages, which throw men back into the state of nature, and introduce barbarism into the bosom of civilization.