"Duel between Pleasants and Ritchie." Virginia Historical Society
On 26 January 1810 the General Assembly passed an act addressing dueling,
a prevalent practice of the times. Following an encounter between Nathaniel Pope and a Mr. Richardson in March
1809 in which the former was killed, legislation was introduced to suppress "the barbarous custom of duelling," a
vice "justified neither by precepts of morality, nor by dictates of reason."
Although this piece of legislation was the first statute enacted in Virginia concerning dueling, it seems evident
that the tenets of common law had long been inadequate. The act prescribed capital punishment for those
causing death of the other party in a duel, and provided the means by which judges and magistrates could
attempt to prevent such encounters from occurring. Furthermore, the legislature sought to eliminate the
custom of dueling from the lives of elected and appointed officials, requiring oaths affirming their
abstinence from duels as a condition of holding office.
Despite these efforts to curb dueling, the custom not only persisted but thrived throughout much of the
nineteenth century. For many, a turning point occurred in 1884 when John S. Wise, veteran of the Civil
War, lawyer, and son of a former Virginia governor, published a letter in the Richmond paper publically
refusing the challenge of a prospective opponent. At the time, many could have considered this an act
of cowardice, but Wise's past demonstrations of bravery, his dedication to his family and state, and
his clever tact left him the victor in the increasingly "civilized" world of the 1880s. Though public
quarrels and affronts to honor exist in all eras, the means by which such disputes are settled has
greatly changed in the commonwealth during the past two centuries.
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