In France and England, though, duelling was meant to reinstate an aristocratic code of honor against the encroachment of the middle class. (This is dramatized in the strange and wonderful Ridley Scott film “The Duellists.”) But in the ideal European duel it was likely that both parties would survive. In America, around the same time, the code of honor took a very different form. American duels were dangerous, usually fought to the death, and left in their wake that special American thing, the feud. Instead of dissolving personal quarrels in a solvent of honor, the American way of duelling enhanced them. In 1808, for instance, two men fought a duel in Maryland—with rifles, and at thirty steps. During the Jackson Administration, when General Armistead Thomson Mason challenged Colonel John Mason McCarty, McCarty, it’s said, “would only consent to meet him on such terms as would result in the certain destruction of one, or both.” (McCarty had suggested that they fight with pistols at point-blank range on top of a keg of gunpowder.) In Europe, the honor of the duellist was a concept that ennobled and abstracted violence. In America, it was a concept that empowered and invigorated it.
This violent practice was fuelled by a principle of common law, traced brilliantly by the historian Richard Brown, in his book “No Duty to Retreat.” In English common law, there was an old concept of that, if you were engaged in conflict and killed someone, to prove self-defense you had to demonstrate that your back was—in most cases, literally—up against the wall. You had a “duty to retreat.” In America, the new concept was that you had no duty to retreat—indeed, you had an obligation not to retreat. You were more or less required to blast away at anyone who approached you with, as you saw it, ill will. You didn’t have to show that you had tried your best to escape the confrontation. In 1856, Texas law, Brown writes, gave private citizens “wide discretionary powers to kill their fellow citizens legally and with impunity.”
This violence-encouraging doctrine has persisted, and so, too, has the reasoning of the judicial decisions that established it. There is no invocation of natural law. The argument isn’t that all men have an inherent right to kill when threatened. It appeals instead to a kind of implicit cultural law: it is not in the American character to retreat. Beneath the surface of the liberal state and the legal rules designed to limit violence and grant a monopoly of its use to a freely elected government, there is a national character that has to be protected—or, perhaps, has to be invented. Appealing to that shadow nation impels the romance of violence in American life, and gives it practical and legal sanction as well. The legal liberal America is treated as a flimsy effigy, without the spirit to do the things that true Americans do—above all, act out violently with guns. And that identity is regarded as more worthy of protection than their citizenship.
Brown directed my undergraduate honors thesis and I’ll attest to the brilliance of his work on the origins of American violence. The connections between white men and violence run to the heart of national identity and anyone who takes that on receives maximum pushback, as I know too well. Gopnik doesn’t get too deep into the racial component of this violence, but while white men had every right to shoot each other in the street, their right to shoot people of color went almost without saying, helping explaining the everyday racial violence of American history.