In an article published here a few days ago, the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton was mentioned in passing. My sister, Vee, commented that ” [The duel] doesn’t fit my narrative of a civilized society.” So how does the “civilization” of the American nineteenth century compare to twenty-first century America? 200 years ago a public figure shooting off his mouth, insulting an opponent, if you will, might easily lead to the offended party demanding “satisfaction.” This in turn could well lead to a meeting on a remote river island with pistols at thirty paces. Someone might die.
In today’s America, insults are bandied about with impunity, the press picking up the duel of words as the offended party responds with what he hopes is a greater insult than the one he received, all done under the guise of exposing the truth, of course. The louder, then, and more extensive the words, the more the media love it and the pot boils.
200 years ago, the principals and their seconds trudge home from the dueling grounds, perhaps carrying a body, or perhaps not, and the matter is settled.
In what way is that “less civilized” than the character assassinations our current leaders engage in? In what way is the 19th-century response less civilized than the pot-stirring public display of animosities the press and the public engage in today?
Currently, our biggest problem would be finding enough remote river islands in which to conduct the hostilities. But perhaps on the Capitol steps in full view of the cameras?
I wonder. I wonder how long it would take some people to gain control of their tongues and introduce some civility into their discourse were we to revert to some earlier practices.