A pretty radical proposal, no doubt, but hear me out.
By many metrics, America today is as politically polarized as it was in the lead-up to the Civil War. A few years ago, the Pew Research Center released its compiled polarization data for the past 150 years, showing that you would have to go all the way back to the Civil War to find a time when Americans were more politically divided. That data is visualized through the graph below.
But I wanted to look back even further to before the Civil War. What I found was that polarization did not really start ramping up until around 1840. Those divisions escalated all the way up until shells started flying over Fort Sumter.
So, I started looking at what happened in and around 1840, and one thing stood out immediately: dueling was banned. Now, there were a number of things that led to America becoming more polarized after 1840. You can read entire books that blame America's ante-bellum polarization on this or that. But it's kind of interesting focusing on the role dueling played in keeping American politicians civil. So, it only makes sense that if we want to get back to a more civil America, how about letting our politicians duel one another? Keep reading, and I'll explain.
First, a brief history for why we're not allowed to duel in the District or surrounding states anymore. Dueling was banned in the region in 1839, the year after Kentucky Congressman William Graves shot and killed Maine Congressman Johnathan Cilley. This infamous duel actually stemmed from Cilley accusing the New York Courier and Enquirer newspaper of biased coverage. Jason Watson Webb was the editor of the paper at the time and felt so aggrieved, he convinced his friend, Rep. William Graves, to deliver to Cilley a duel challenge.
Cilley, not surprisingly, refused to honor the challenge, which made Graves furious and led him
to challenge Cilley to a duel (which he accepted). The two then went to Bladensburg Dueling Grounds in Maryland and after the first two volleys of shots missed, Graves was able to fatally wound Cilley on the third shot.
Just think about that. Two sitting congressmen literally shot at each other because one of them refused to accept a third party's duel challenge.
Today's politics are bitter and heated. Instead of politicians working together, they use every second in front of a camera or microphone in order to drag their opponents down. People on both sides of the aisle are so dug into their opinions that they would rather resort to personal insults instead of admitting when they're wrong.
Today's politicians insult and attack one another because they know full-well that they don't have to worry about things getting physical.
So, let's reinstate dueling. Day one after dueling is made legal again, and I guarantee the blowhards in Congress will take a step back and reassess their strategies. The next time someone accuses a colleague of trying to kill Americans, ruin their lives, or trample on their liberties, they'll have to think twice knowing that the gauntlet might be thrown down.
Back in the day, politicians were willing to turn to their pistols at even the slightest hint that their honor was questioned. Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President of the United States, challenged former-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to a duel simply because Hamilton had talked bad about Burr at a dinner party. Think about the political conversations that your family will be having at the Thanksgiving table this year. Now, imagine if Mike Pence challenged your drunk uncle to a duel because he offended his honor during a dinner discussion. That is basically the backdrop behind the Burr-Hamilton duel.
Do I really think we'd ever see Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders or Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi walk the paces with pistols in hand? No. As a whole, Americans in the 1800s were far more interested in defending their honor than people are today. And it would be really bad if politicians just started shooting one another, but I doubt it would really come to that.
But it's an interesting question to ask. Would our politicians talk this way about one another if they knew it could lead to a duel? Would we see the types of negative advertising we're seeing if the threat of a duel challenge was always hanging over politicians' heads?
All around the world, other country's parliaments occasionally devolve into fist-fights. In 2009, South Korea's parliament devolved into a full-on brawl
over legislation about media regulations. In 2010, a debate over Russia leasing a Ukrainian port started a fist-fights in Ukraine's parliament, with opposition politicians even pelting the Speaker with eggs and tomatoes. To his credit, the Speaker of Parliament came prepared with an umbrella to ward off the pelting. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to chronicling legislative violence
around the world.
One of the only places that "dueling" is still legal in the United States is in Washington State. There, the state's Mutual Combat law allows people to settle their disagreements with consensual fist fights. The law is seldom used.
Maybe we start there and see how that works.