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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: To Duel or Not to Duel

Following are excerpts from several letters exchanged between Commodores Barron and Decatur in the months before their duel:


Barron to Decatur, June 25, 1819

If you were in my place you would have written as I have. Several gentlemen in Norfolk told me that such a report was in circulation, but could not now be traced to its origin. Your declaration, if I understand it correctly relieves my mind from the apprehension, that you had so degraded my character as I had been induced to allege.

Decatur to Barron, June 29, 1819
I meant no more to disclaim the specific and particular expression to which your inquiry was directed, to wit, that I had said that I would insult you with impunity. As to the motives of the 'several gentlemen of Norfolk,' your informants, and their informants, or the rumors 'which cannot be traced to their origin,' on which their information was founded, or who they are, it is a matter of perfect indifference to me, as are also your motives in making such an inquiry upon such information.

Decatur to Barron, October 31, 1819
I do not think that fighting duels, under any circumstances, can raise the reputation of any man, and have long since discovered that it is not even an unerring criterion of personal courage. I should regret the necessity of fighting with any man; but, in my opinion, the man who makes arms his profession is not at liberty to decline an invitation from any person who is not so far degraded as to be beneath his notice. Having incautiously said I would meet you, I will not consider this to be your case, although many think so; and if I had not pledged myself, I might reconsider the case.

Barron to Decatur, [date is missing] 1819
Upon this subject of dueling, I perfectly coincide with the opinions you have expressed. I consider it as a barbarous practice which ought to be exploded from civilized society. But sir, there may be cases of such extraordinary and aggravated insult and injury received by an individual as to render an appeal to arms on his part absolutely necessary. You have hunted me out, have persecuted me with all the power and influence of your office;...and for what purpose or from what other motive than to obtain my rank, I know not.

Decatur to Barron, December 29, 1819
If we fight, it must be of your seeking. I have now to inform you that I shall pay no further attention to any communication you may make to me, other than a direct call to the field.

Barron to Decatur, January 16, 1820
Whenever you will consent to meet me on fair and equal grounds, that is, such as two honorable men may consider just and proper, you are to view this as that call.

The Agreement to a Duel
On March 8th, 1820 both men signed the following agreement:
It is agreed by the undersigned, as friends of Commodore Decatur and Commodore Barron, that the meeting, which is to take place between the said Commodore Decatur and Commodore Barron, shall take place at 9 A.M., on the 22nd inst., at Bladensburg, near the District of Columbia, and that the weapons shall be pistols; the distance, eight paces or yards; that previous to firing, the parties shall be directed to present, and shall not fire before the word 'one' is given, nor after the word 'three'; and that the words 'one, two, three' shall be given by Commodore Bainbridge.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What attitude did both men seem to have about the practice of dueling? Were their thoughts consistent with their actions?

2. Based on these excerpts, do you think Decatur or Barron provoked the duel? On what do you base your opinion?

3. Do you think the duel was inevitable? Why or why not?

Reading 3 is excerpted from The Friends of Commodore Decatur, Correspondence Between the Late Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore James Barron Which Led to the Unfortunate Meeting of 22 March, 1820 (Washington, D.C: Gales and Seaton, 1820).

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