IT may be proper in this place to bestow a moment's consideration upon the trite but very important case of duelling. A short reflection will suffice to set it in its true light.
This despicable practice was originally invented by barbarians for the gratification of revenge. It was probably at that time thought a very happy project, for reconciling the odiousness of malignity with the gallantry of courage.
But in this light it is now generally given up. Men of the best understanding who lend it their sanction are unwillingly induced to do so, and engage in single combat merely that their reputation may sustain no slander.
In examining this subject we must proceed upon one of two suppositions. Either the lives of both the persons to be hazarded are worthless, or they are not. In the latter case, the question answers itself, and cannot stand in need of discussion. Useful lives are not to be hazarded, from a view to the partial and contemptible obloquy that may be annexed to the refusal of such a duel, that is, to an act of virtue.
When the duellist tells me that he and the person that has offended him are of no possible worth to the community, I may reasonably conclude that he talks the language of spleen. But, if I take him at his word, is it to be admitted, though he cannot benefit the community, that he should injure it? What would be the consequence if we allowed ourselves to assail everyone that we thought worthless in the world? In reality, when he talks this language, he deserts the ground of vindicating his injured honour, and shows that his conduct is that of a vindictive and brutalized savage.
"But the refusing a duel is an ambiguous action. Cowards may pretend principle to shelter themselves from a danger they dare not meet."
This is partly true and partly false. There are few actions indeed that are not ambiguous, or that with the same general outline may not proceed from different motives. But the manner of doing them will sufficiently show the principle from which they spring.
He, that would break through a received custom because he believes it to be wrong, must no doubt arm himself with fortitude. The point in which we principally fail, is in not accurately understanding our own intentions, and taking care beforehand to purify ourselves from every alloy of weakness and error. He, who comes forward with no other idea but that of rectitude, and who expresses, with the simplicity and firmness which conviction never fails to inspire, the views with which he is penetrated, is in no danger of being mistaken for a coward. If he hesitate, it is because he has not an idea perfectly clear of the sentiment he intends to convey. If he be in any degree embarrassed, it is because he has not a feeling sufficiently generous and intrepid of the demerit of the action in which he is urged to engage.
If courage have any intelligible nature, one of its principal fruits must be the daring to speak truth at all times, to all persons, and in every possible situation in which a well informed sense of duty may prescribe it. What is it but the want of courage that should prevent me from saying, "Sir, I will not accept your challenge. Have I injured you? I will readily and without compulsion repair my injustice to the uttermost mite. Have you misconstrued me? State to me the particulars, and doubt not that what is true I will make appear to be true. I should be a notorious criminal were I to attempt your life, or assist you in an attempt upon mine. What compensation will the opinion of the world make for the recollection of so vile and brutal a proceeding? There is no true applause but where the heart of him that receives it beats in unison. There is no censure terrible while the heart repels it with conscious integrity. I am not the coward to do a deed that my soul detests because I cannot endure the scoffs of the mistaken. Loss of reputation is a serious evil. But I will act so that no man shall suspect me of irresolution and pusillanimity." He that should firmly hold this language, and act accordingly, would soon be acquitted of every dishonourable imputation.