Did you know that in 1843 two Frenchmen fought a duel. The weapons? Billiard Balls.
The story, as Parson Weems tells it, is that in 1754 a strapping young militia officer named George Washington argued with a smaller man, one William Payne, who made up for the disparity in size by knocking Washington down with a stick. It was the kind of affront that, among a certain class of Virginia gentlemen, almost invariably called for a duel. That must have been what Payne was expecting when Washington summoned him to a tavern the following day. Instead, he found the colonel at a table with a decanter of wine and two glasses. Washington apologized for the quarrel, and the two men shook hands.
Whether or not this actually happened—and some biographers believe that it did—is almost beside the point. Weems’ intention was to reveal Washington as he imagined him: a figure of profound self-assurance capable of keeping an overheated argument from turning into something far worse. At a time in America when the code of the duel was becoming a law unto itself, such restraint was not always apparent. Alexander Hamilton was the most celebrated casualty of the dueling ethic, having lost his life in an 1804 feud with Aaron Burr on the fields ofWeehawken, New Jersey, but there were many more who paid the ultimate price— congressmen, newspaper editors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (the otherwise obscure Button Gwinnett, famous largely for being named Button Gwinnett), two U.S. senators (Armistead T. Mason of Virginia and David C. Broderick of California) and, in 1820, the rising naval star Stephen Decatur. To his lasting embarrassment, Abraham Lincoln barely escaped being drawn into a duel early in his political career, and President Andrew Jackson carried in his body a bullet from one duel and some shot from a gunfight that followed another. Not that private dueling was a peculiarly American vice. The tradition had taken hold in Europe several centuries earlier, and though it was frequently forbidden by law, social mores dictated otherwise. During the reign of George III (1760-1820), there were 172 known duels in England (and very likely many more kept secret), resulting in 69 recorded fatalities. At one time or another, Edmund Burke, William Pitt the younger and Richard Brinsley Sheridan all took the field, and Samuel Johnson defended the practice, which he found as logical as war between nations: “Aman may shoot the man who invades his character,” he once told biographer James Boswell, “as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.” As late as 1829 the Duke of Wellington, then England’s prime minister, felt compelled to challenge the Earl of Winchelsea, who had accused him of softness toward Catholics.