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Americans and Their Guns: A Love Affair Shot to Hell

Early Americans could not care less about the Second Amendment or the views of their cohort on militias and guns. Americans kept dueling pistols as prized possessions, not to protect their homes, but to protect themselves and their “honor” from each other. They loved these weapons the way Samurais loved their swords and treated them in the manner art collectors treat their paintings. As long as guns were available, even our Forefathers found ridiculous excuses to kill each other. If you compare what’s been written over the last several years, you’ll find that our Forefathers reputations are like tattoos. They stretch and become distorted with old age. Nowhere is that more apparent than in their purported attitudes towards American’s affinity for guns.

Early Americans could not care less about the Second Amendment or the views of their cohort on militias and guns. Americans kept dueling pistols as prized possessions, not to protect their homes, but to protect themselves and their “honor” from each other. They loved these weapons the way Samurais loved their swords and treated them in the manner art collectors treat their paintings. As long as guns were available, even our Forefathers found ridiculous excuses to kill each other.
If you compare what’s been written over the last several years, you’ll find that our Forefathers reputations are like tattoos. They stretch and become distorted with old age. Nowhere is that more apparent than in their purported attitudes towards American’s affinity for guns. There are literally thousands of pro and anti-gun advocates justifying their positions on comments attributed to “Founding Fathers”. On not so rare occasions, gun advocates have stretched the truth and have ignored and cherry-picked the facts.
A History of Dueling For “Honor”
In a nation that is now totally devoid of shame and honor, it is not surprising that gun control debates either ignore or are unaware of a wealth of historical evidence that it was necessary for respectable early Americans to own pistols, (and on occasion rifles) not for membership in militias or protection for the home, but because of international rituals that might eventually force them to participate in an unbelievable assortment of duels for real and imaginary “insults to honor”.
America’s most important citizens defended their honor on the dueling grounds. Eighteen year old Philip Hamilton and his father Alexander were both killed in duels of “honor” at the same spot 30 months apart. Button Gwinnet, who had signed the Declaration of Independence, was shot down by General Lachlan McIntosh in a duel. Commodore Stephen Decatur of the United States Navy, an experienced duelist, died at the hands of another commodore, James Barron. Abraham Lincoln narrowly averted a duel by apologizing to an Illinois state official he had ridiculed in a local newspaper.
Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the most prominent Americans to condemn dueling. Nevertheless, Washington and Jefferson both owned, treasured, and took pains to preserve and bequeath their dueling pistols.
In “A Gift of Dueling Pistols” [Patriots of the American Revolution; Mar/Apr 2012, Vol. 5 Issue 2] the author focuses on the flint-lock dueling pistols of George Washington, which were heirlooms from Thomas Turner. He states that when Turner received the pistols after his grandfather Colonel Thomas Turner died in 1778, he gave the pistols as a gift to George Washington. Shortly before Washington died in 1799, he bequeathed the pair to his wife’s nephew Bartholomew Dandridge. Eventually the pistols were donated by Clendenin Ryan to the West Point Museum after he bought them from Edward Litchfield.
Jefferson’s dueling pistols were given to him as a gift before he became a teen ager. Replicas are a favorite of memorabilia collectors and are still available.
U.S. Historical Society Reproducing Thomas Jefferson Dueling Pistols. ($3200) A limited edition of 1,000 Pistols were produced in 1979 from the originals that Jefferson acquired in 1786 at the age of 10. They are the only pistols of Jefferson’s known to survive.”
Franklin called duels a “murderous practice…they decide nothing.” And Washington, who undoubtedly needed all the good soldiers he could get, congratulated one of his officers for refusing a challenge, noting that “there are few military decisions that are not offensive to one party or another.”
Thomas Jefferson once tried in vain to introduce in Virginia, legislation as strict as that in colonial Massachusetts, where the survivor of a fatal duel was to be executed, have a stake driven through his body, and be buried without a coffin.
In America, duels were fought by men from all walks of life. A history of early America shows, that irrespective of views on dueling, Presidents, Congressmen, judges, clergymen, soldiers, sailors, newspaper men, editors, drunks , the first recorded murderer-suicide (1) and even women named Dolley Madison all treasured dueling pistols.
(1) “This was the last duel in which McClung engaged, as few were willing to risk their lives in an encounter with him. After serving with distinction in the Mexican war he returned to Mississippi; but he had become more morose than ever and deeply melancholy. It has even been claimed by many that he was haunted by the spirits of those whom he had slain in duels—a story which was commonly believed, and particularly when, in 1855, without any explanation whatever, he blew out his brains with a pistol with which he had frequently killed others. Thus, by his own hands, died one of the most determined and representative Southern duellists of the time.”
Attorneys were a favorite target for challenges. As a young attorney Andrew Jackson earned a reputation as a formidable duelist. Jackson violated dueling codes on several occasions and many considered him “little more than a murderer.” He was one of the only famous duelists who treated his pistol with the same ugly disdain (2) he treated his opponents, preferring to use a cane.
(2) CHARLESTON, South Carolina | Sat Mar 19, 2011 12:44pm EDT
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) – Among the Oriental rugs and fine furniture at the annual Charleston International Antiques Show this weekend is President Andrew Jackson’s dueling pistol, priced at $65,000.
“It’s this one here on top, the really ugly one,” said antiques dealer Chris Mitchell of Arms & Militaria in Point Clear, Alabama, pointing to the long-barreled pistol.
Dueling is a History of Guns and the Men (and Women) Who Loved Them
In contrast to Europeans, most American duelists chose guns as their weapons. The large caliber, smoothbore flintlock pistols Hamilton and Burr used in their encounter typified the American dueling weapons. Many American men owned a pair of such pistols, and, from about 1750 to 1850, many were called to use them.
“To be certain, the appeal of these incredible guns is many-fold. The weapons enthusiast is impressed with their outstanding workmanship. The historian is seduced by their romantic history. And all are engaged by what they once symbolized: honor above all else. ….By the mid-1800s the day of the duel and the great duelling guns had faded away leaving behind legendary stories of intrigue and heroism.”
Dueling Pistols Were the Ultimate Gift
Dolley Madison’s love and appreciation of the dueling pistols given to her as a wedding gift has been emphasized in the literature. Consider the excerpt from “The Forgotten Adventures of Dolley Madison”
“19 December, 1801
Presidential Mansion, Washington City

She burst through the doors of the Presidential Mansion, face burning with embarrassment and tears of frustration, swirling past the startled guests in the foyer, past a clutter of servants in the hallway, and into the room Mr Jefferson had set aside for her and Jemmy (James)… She wanted to scream, but instead retrieved an oak box from the bottom drawer of her dresser. Inside was a matched set of dueling pistols. They were beautiful, with polished maple grips and shiny brass fittings and shiny gold inlay on both barrel and trigger guard. Her finger traced the bright gold-leafed letters stenciled on the red silk lining the box: Wogdon & Barton of London. The best dueling pistols money could buy. They had been a wedding present from a dear friend, the man who introduced her to darling Jemmy, who had helped her resolve her first husband’s estate, and who had taught her the one skill she needed to deal with the idiots and idiocies of life. They had been a grand gift, a hilarious gift, a gift evoking scandalized whispers from the old ladies and envious looks from everyone else. She and Jemmy took them on their frequent horseback rides, for protection and to shoot rabbits for evening stew.”
and independently,
“Not only have the defenders fled; they have looted as they flew: had Dolley Madison not seen to it that George Washington’s portrait was evacuated from the President’s House, it would as likely have fallen to American looters as to British, as did Madison’s dueling pistols.
A Love Affair Exposed
The anatomy of dueling written at the time of its occurrence, in contrast to later versions, often focuses with enormous detail more on the pistols than on the participants.
Eighty years after Alexander Hamilton died, Benjamin Cummings Truman wrote
“The weapons used by Hamilton and Burr are at present in the possession of a citizen of Rochester (New York). In appearance they are very formidable. They are “horse-pistols” of English manufacture, and are exactly alike. .. They do not in any respect resemble any modern arm. In handling them one is strongly impressed with the idea that they were evidently intended for use in duels where the participants ” shot to kill” and not to obtain newspaper notoriety without the disagreeable shedding of blood. Although they evidently could not be manipulated so rapidly as the modern double-acting, self-cocking pistol, they are capable of fatal execution, as they carry a bullet of 56 calibre. They are sixteen inches long, and are, in reality, small guns rather than pistols. The barrels appear to be of the best steel then manufactured, and the weapons throughout are heavily mounted with brass. They are very carefully finished in all their parts, and were evidently very expensive. A curious feature of these pistols, unknown to the present generation, but remembered by some of the older readers who have handled their grandfathers’ muskets, is the flintlocks. These, with their flints in position, are intact. It seems almost incredible, to-day, in view of the advance of everything pertaining to gunnery, that men should risk their lives on the spark from the flint and steel. It is evident, however, from an examination of these weapons, that the flints were cut with the precision of the face of a diamond, and it is probable that there was as little likelihood of their missing fire as there would be with the most finished cartridge-weapon of the present day. The pistols are ” sighted ” with a view to the purpose for which they were made, and in the hands of a man with a steady nerve and strong arm would prove a very dangerous weapon. Placed beside one of these heavy duelling weapons, an ordinary revolver appeared dwarfed into a toy-pistol, and one of its cartridges was almost lost when dropped into the spacious muzzle. Aside from the great historical interest attaching to the weapons, this comparison of the almost perfect weapon of to-day with that of eighty years ago, doubtless the most perfect of that day, is startling. The interval marks the transition and growth of weapons of defence, from the clumsy mechanism of flint and steel, and powder and ball, to the weapon which is capable of being discharged six times in as many seconds, and reloaded in a few additional seconds.. they were once the property of Aaron Burr, however, who brought them from England upon his return to his native land. They were manufactured by H. W. Mortimore, of London, gunmaker to his Majesty.
Pride in the Provenance of Killing
In addition to an obvious love of detail, early Americans took great pride in the pistols’ history demonstrating the ability to kill. (Most likely to prove the absence of misfire or shooting defects.)
“The pistol which was used by Pettis may be identified by a long deep notch indented on the handle—the one used by Burr is marked by a cross filed under the lower part of the barrel. The pair came into the possession of Colonel Brent Hopkins, through his uncle, Captain Samuel Goode Hopkins, U. S. A., who purchased them from Burr, paying him a large amount for them. The weapons have surely a blood-stained history. They have been used with fatal effect in eleven duels. Pettis killed Biddle with one of them; Edward Towns of Virginia killed a Frenchman near New Orleans; Captain Sam Goode Hopkins killed a Spanish Count near New Madrid (Mo.); Hugh Brent killed a man from Georgia on Diamond Island, below Henderson (Ky.), and they were used several times in Virginia, twice in South Carolina, and more than once in Kentucky, with deadly effect.”
Dueling and Murder: Regulation and Enforcement
The century following the formation of this nation was a century of Americans owning guns shooting other Americans who owned guns, often for reasons that defy comprehension. The victims included some of our Forefathers. Considering that the population at the time was less than 2% of what it is now, it is not clear which cohort exhibited more gun violence per capita. Nowhere in the vast history of the pros and cons of dueling and the ownership of guns is there any mention of the need for a militia or a required use of guns for the people to defend themselves against a future “unacceptable” government. Gun ownership was taken for granted as a requirement for honorable men to defend themselves against life threatening challenges from scoundrels.
The fact that it was often difficult to distinguish between the two is irrelevant. There was a code of honor [Code Duello] (3), and violators were often prosecuted for murder.
“There are also provisions for remedies by action for injuries arising from duelling in most of the States, and in a number there are laws providing that the survivor of a fatal duel—who may also be tried for murder—shall support the family of the deceased.”
“There is one exception, however, to the statements heretofore made; that is, there still remains a duelling custom among a class of Americans known as the ” cowboys” of the West, which nothing but the overwhelming approach of civilization and power of empire can effectually obliterate.”
“Captain Boyd receiving a mortal wound, from which he died in a day or two. Campbell was convicted of murder the i3th of August following, and executed on October 2.”
“About the same time Calvin M. Smith and Robert M. Brank fought in Kentucky, and the latter was slain; while Smith, who was the challenged party, was indicted for murder and stricken from the roll of attorneys.”
The point to be made, is that none of the above made any difference. As long as guns wereavailable even our Forefathers were not loathe to kill each other.
(3) In America, the principal rules were followed, although occasionally there were some glaring deviations.
America was conceived in a revolution and grew as a gun culture at a time when the world was obsessed with dueling. Europeans described American duelists as barbarous because, in comparison to their own combatants, they shot to kill.
We most certainly still shoot to kill. America, almost exclusively, has invented every weapon from the Colt double action six shooting cartridge revolver, the Winchester repeating rifle, the Gatling Gun, the “Tommy” Gun, the depleted uranium bunker buster, the drone, the nuclear bombs, and on to the weaponized control of outer space.
We are the undisputed parents of almost all weapons of global violence.
Any national “honor” that could have controlled our use of weapon-induced-violence on the rest of the world, was destroyed when we unnecessarily dropped the atom bomb on Japanese civilians merely to let the Russians know that we had it and that we are willing to “shoot to kill”.
With the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, virtually every American president since Hiroshima has contributed to global weapon violence and added new nails to the coffin of American honor.
In the ongoing quest for what is almost certainly dozens of different “root causes” of violence in America, it is just as important to hold accountable our Presidents and the nation as a whole, as it is individual citizens, for the widespread use of weapons.
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