One of the early debates in our country involving religion and public life occurred in Charleston, S.C., in 1828, and one of the foremost protagonists in the debate was none other than the first Bishop of Charleston, Bishop John England. The debate was on the issue of the morality and legality of dueling.
Two hundred years ago, on July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Both were prominent men in early American political life. Burr was never tried or convicted for his action, as dueling was not an uncommon way for a gentleman to redress an offense made against his honor by another gentleman.
This “civil” custom was still in vogue in Charleston in 1828 when Bishop England gave a remarkable address to the Anti-Duelling Society of Charleston, in the Cathedral. It was an address that has been described as “one of the most masterly and overpowering productions ever penned in any language.”
Bishop England was of the opinion that “the good sense and sober judgment of the vast majority of upright and educated men are altogether opposed to the practice of duelling, as not only useless for society, but as criminal and mischievous in its results.”
In a long and eloquent treatise he gave his reasons why this practice should end, with the support of the underpinnings of law.
In his treatment of the history of dueling, he noted that the derivation of the word duel comes from the Latin word “duellum,” meaning, as it were, “bellum inter duo” or “duorum bellum” — “war between two persons.” To constitute a duel there must be “notice given of an intended attempt to do an injury, together with a warning to be prepared for defense.”
In this, dueling differs from assassination or assault, where no previous notice has been given, just as “regular war differs from an unforeseen predatory or piratical incursion.” “A duel is then a private warfare between two individuals, and is generally terminated by a battle with deadly weapons, of a determined description, at a defined time and place.”
The duel was private warfare, as opposed to public warfare. “… The combat between David and Goliath was not a duel, but was a portion of regular, public warfare, carried on by the public authority of two nations” and “a more humane mode of terminating a contest.”
Bishop England argues “reason almost instinctively tells us that this injury of others for the gratification of our own pride, or vanity, or curiosity, is bad.” However, “we labour to create sophisms for its justification, and strive to convince ourselves that our natural convictions are mistakes. So it is that the children of Adam are led by the impetuosity of passion against the admonitions of the understanding; and then to silence the voice of conscience, they compel or they suborn the intellect, to appear as the advocate of that which in its free and unsophisticated moments it condemned.”
“Man, not being master … of his own life, could not bestow what was not under his domain, he could not give to society nor to its government, nor to an individual, a title which did not exist in himself …”
“Man … has not power over his own life: society does not derive from individuals its power of taking away life.”
Bishop England argued for the law of the land to give some direction in this matter. “Shall we proclaim to the world, that we in South Carolina are brought back to that state of dereliction as that our public tribunals, the institutions of our country, the government itself cannot protect us from insult, and that we are thus reduced to the necessity of trusting to ourselves?”
“I need not inform a Charleston auditory that natural good qualities, improved by education and by opportunity, and not the terrors of ammunition, fashion the conduct of a gentleman; and that respectable society is fully able, without violation of the laws of God or of the state, or outraging the principles of reason, to banish from its circle, and frown down to his proper place, the individual who would violate its decorum.”
The bishop told the Anti-Duelling Association that one of the principal objects of their society was to “volunteer our services in aid of the law of God and our country; to restrain not by an arbitrary assumption of authority, but by arm of the law, the unfortunate victim of a delusive passion, whilst he labours under its influence.”
He was invoking recourse to public authority as a means of reining in the practice of dueling.
Bishop England was not squeamish in talking about morality in the context of public life.
In “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” U.S. Catholic bishops pointed out in their 2004 statement that “as bishops we have a responsibility as Americans and as religious leaders to speak out on the moral dimensions of public life.”
They are doing no more than indicating what people like Bishop John England knew and put into practice when he spoke on the subject of dueling, in his Cathedral in Charleston, S.C., in 1828.
U.S. religious leaders since Bishop England have brought moral issues to the public forum whenever those issues warranted discussion, action, and legislation, from dueling to women’s suffrage to civil rights to the rights of the unborn. Failure to raise issues of major moral consequence is failure to exercise a basic right and privilege, withheld only by totalitarian regimes.