Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820
The Repository. No. XX.
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This essay appeared in the May 1794 edition of the Massachusetts Magazine under the name "Constantia." It examines the practice of dueling, which Judith thought should be abolished.


The Repository. No. XX.
 
How absurd is the practice of dueling! Surely it can on no principle be justified; or if it can, every other species of murder may also claim its advocate. Suicide especially, ought never to be condemned, where the arrogating this mode of self decision is tolerated, since it must be allowed, that if we have the least right to dispose of the life of another, we may, with abundantly more propriety, yield up our own. But I have been grossly injured -- Well, shall I give the injurer an opportunity of robbing my family of, perhaps, its only support; of adding injury, by taking a life upon which the peace of many may depend? If my antagonist is as well skilled in wielding the instrument of death as myself, the chance at least is equal; and if he is not, it is baseness in the extreme to engage with him. Nay, too often the insulter has the advantage; for as the challenger supposes himself ill used, this consideration frequently robs him of the aid of reason, and by consequence he cannot be under the command of that judgment that might probably point the way to victory. Besides, suppose I am fatally triumphant, grant that I have deprived a fellow creature of existence, when calm reflection succeeds, will the consideration that I have taken such deep revenge set lightly upon my soul? Surely, when an important breach is to be made in society; when a person, possibly in many respects truly worthy, is by a violent death to be torn from his family and connexions, his offence, in the judgment of unimpassioned reason, ought to be of the deepest die. Assuredly, language hath not powers sufficiently energetic, to paint the audacity and folly of him who, usurping that sacred character -- a man of honour -- in defiance of all laws, human and divine, challenging a fellow citizen, perhaps for an equivocal word, to the combat of death! Let us attend the system of the deliberate duellist -- A person hath incurred the displeasure of one of those doughty heroes, and what is the recompense which he requires? Great, undoubtedly: He will be amply revenged, for he will either insist upon yielding up his own life, or by taking that of his opponent, he will forfeit it to the laws of his country; reducing himself to the necessity of continuing, for the remainder of his days, a solitary exile! In either case, he will abandon and render desolate the gentle female who is wholly dependent upon him! The language of his conduct is -- My helpless children, adieu for ever; instantly your parent hastes to death or banishment: Social life, thou hast no longer any claims upon me; from this hour I abjure thy dictates, and thy pleasures! Commencing a wretched wanderer, or sleeping in the icy arms of the king of terrors, the luminous beams of reciprocal enjoyment, shall not again gladden my melancholy hours; every natural, every civil tie, by one effort, I burst asunder thy manifold cords; the smiles of friendship shall no more assuage my anguish, nor shall the torch of amity again light my path. Revenge, I am wholly thine; I fly to meet the gross offender, and by these sacrifices, to avenge the outrage, which he fancied he might with impunity commit, and for which I am thus to become a voluntary, and a heinous transgressor! Strange, mad reasonings these! But if the hair brained offender, after imbruing his hands in the blood of his brother, should be seized, and arraigned before the tribunal of that community to which he is responsible, and which he hath so deeply wounded, the sufferings of his connexions are greatly augmented! -- When they behold the tender husband, the indulgent parent, the obliging relative, led forth to an ignominious death, what tongue can describe the unutterable anguish, which in a moment so awful, will take place in their lacerated bosoms, yielding them a prey to inquietudes, the corroding influence of which, even the lenient hand of time can hardly meliorate.

It is, methinks, passing strange, that a custom, doubtless originating in savage life, should thus maintain its ground, and hold such extensive sway over the civilized and informed mind! During the reign of anarchy, it cannot be a matter of surprise, that every haughty spirit, upon a supposed injury, should be ready to throw the gauntlet in his own defence; but where the Legislature, acting the part of a judicious, equal, and tender parent, opens its ready ear to the voice of every rational complainant, reason can never sanction an appeal to the weapon of death. Even the military hero, if acting up, in every respect, to the duties of his profession, might, I conceive, preserve the dignity of his character, without putting his life in competition with the desperate bravo, who lives but to insult, and to trample under foot the laws of nature -- those laws which are pointed by reason, and which must ever be sanctioned by propriety.

Succeeding ages have combined to applaud the answer of Cæsar, to the time branded, and uxorious Anthony. Tell that vaunting challenger, said Cæsar; tell Anthony, that if he is weary of his life, there is other means of meeting death than upon the point of Cæasar's sword; surely the manly, the energetic mind, rising superior to the legendaries of tradition, or the tyranny of custom, and, influenced by principles truly patriotic, will decisively conclude, that it is abundantly more honorary, to reserve his life as a bulwark for the public weal, than to put to hazard his present existence, in any private quarrel, however culpable the aggressor may be. The polished Grecians held in the utmost contempt that point of honor, which even in the present enlightened period, is esteemed so important. It was their pride to arm only in defence of their respective republican states. A barbarous and an uncultivated Scythian, we are told, witnessing a spectacle that struck his imagination as shockingly derogatory, vehemently exclaimed to his Athenian companion, or guide, that if any audacious offender should have the temerity to address such opprobrious language to him, as the Athenians tolerated from each other, he would soon convince him, that the weapon of death glittered not by his side an empty and useless ornament. These sentiments predominated in the bosom of the untaught Scythian, and the annals of other times prove, that correspondent ideas are the growth of every uncultivated mind. To the resentments of an untutored barbarian, of the savage, the ferocious aborigine of our country, there are no bounds, or at least death only, by giving his victim to elude his fury, can cancel his indignation -- an injury of the slightest kind will, not seldom, arm his implacable bosom with immortal hatred; his glowing and murderous anger, stoppeth not to consider the nature of a fault; his haughty and imperious spirit decideth in its own cause; pride takes the alarm, and the trivial error must be capitally compensated. An imaginary thought, a word, a look will frequently be construed as reflecting upon that visionary being, that viewless phantom, his evanescent dignity; and blood only can obliterate the crime! The Grecian refinements, the Grecian philosophy, corrected these excesses, which in an unformed, and sanguinary mind, so fatally obtain. Practiced in the benign art of social life, they happily acquire the knowledge of meeting the aggressor upon equal ground; of calculating their chastisements upon a scale adequate to the wrongs they had received; by these efforts barring the possibility of the peevish or petulant effusions of a moment swelling to a deluge, which might, in its desolating progress, have whelmed every social, civil, or rational barrier. "In those warlike republics," says a pleasing writer, "If any citizen had worn armour in time of peace, he must have been regarded either as a mad man, or as an assassin; for to the chastised principles of Grecian discipline, it would have appeared altogether absurd, that the sword or dagger should be thought necessary to retaliate the reproaches of the tongue, or even the more daring insults of the arm."

CONSTANTIA

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2007 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.