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The political art of duelling

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The challenge to a duel in Hyde Park from a Polish nobleman to a British politician created something of a time warp. The exchange, of words only, between Janek Zylinski and UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage prior to the election has reopened the old question of what is an unacceptable insult in the often vitriolic world of politics. For Daniel O’Donaghue, the member for Tipperary, it was being called a traitor during a 1862 debate in the House of Commons. The insult was directed at O’Donaghue by the Secretary for Ireland Sir Robert Peel, son of the famous statesman, following a political meeting in Dublin. O’Donaghue sent his friend, another Irish MP, to ‘demand satisfaction’. The challenge was however intercepted by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. The old tactician then took to the floor and spoke at length of the hallowed freedom of expression, an English right now jeopardised by threats of physical violence. O’Donaghue was derided as a Celtic barbarian, an outsider to the modern political system.

This was not the case earlier in the nineteenth century when the distinction between political insult and personal slur had been enforced with pistols. The 1809 duel between the Cabinet members Lords Canning and Castlereagh is often held up as the most high-profile political encounter of the century. Castlereagh, tasked with the campaign against Napoleon, was furious at Canning’s backdoor machinations to remove him as war minister. But it was the Duke of Wellington’s duel in 1829 that seemingly shocked the nation with the potential loss of the ‘first warrior of England’. The Morning Post editor reflected that this duel with the Earl of Winchelsea over the Roman Catholic Relief Act ‘gave the first great shock to duelling as a social institution.’ It was ‘too monstrous’ that Wellington should risk his life ‘in compliance with this social superstition.’ It was the loss of valuable life, rather than the loss of reputation, that made duelling statesmen undesirable.

The last political duel to be publically announced took place between two parliamentary candidates contesting a seat in Canterbury in 1852. Then, as now, the boundaries about what was, and was not, an acceptable insult or allegation during a bitter election battle was porous. Frederick Romilly, the incumbent, and the George Smythe clearly felt the campaign had exceeded the boundaries of acceptable exchange and arranged an isolated encounter in a Surrey wood. In the same year that Chambers’s Miscellany defined duelling as a ‘thing of the past’, two legislators not only took to the field but then wrote to the Morning Chronicle. The Aberdeen Journal noted that this was ‘the first instance ... of a duel being formally minuted and attested and publicly advertised, by the parties concerned, for the special behoof of the considerate public.’ In response to this duel, prominent electors in the duellists’ borough of Canterbury pledged not to support either candidate in the upcoming election. The two principles were not returned, nor was one of the men who attended the duel.

While Wellington’s status as the ‘first warrior of England’ was not jeopardised by fighting a duel, duelling had come to be seen as a foreign pastime by the time of his death, the same year as the Canterbury election duel. Boasts that duelling had been eradicated in England were very often made in comparison to foreign nations.  For instance, an editorial in the Glasgow Herald proclaimed that for German students ‘the duel supplies the place which cricket and boats hold among English youth’. Travel accounts, especially those of the US South, were incomplete without a duel. When two French émigrés duelled in Hyde Park in 1852, the Morning Chronicle hoped that ‘enlightened English justice’ would make allowances for foreign ‘habits and notions’. Coverage of foreign duels was an opportunity to insist upon national exceptionalism.

If duelling were an un-English occupation, then duellists were foreigners by default. This was a political advantage seized upon by Palmerston in 1862. That Peel’s challenger was an Irish member made the task that much easier. Despite the decline of duelling in Ireland at the same time as in Britain, the popularity of fictional portrayals, such as Sir Lucious O’Trigger in Sheridan’s The Rivals, perpetuated stereotypes of the Irish hothead.  Peel tapped into such retrograde associations by insisting that the political meeting at the Rotunda in Dublin was attended only by ‘a few manikin traitors’, little men who ‘sought to imitate the cabbage–garden heroes of 1848.’ This dismissive reference to unsuccessful past efforts to overthrow monarchies in Europe denied the very present-day purpose of men like O’Donaghue who wanted to direct the efforts of Irish Fenians into the mainstream political process rather than into illegal tactics. Some in the press like Punch magazine colluded with this sneering tone, noting that O’Donaghue was like ‘negroes and other naturalists’ who could fight but not speak.

The political tradition of ‘duel-baiting’ has arguable outlived the duel itself. Politicians insult their opponents into making rash claims and then assume a posture of shocked indignation. But this strategy invites backlash. Despite Palmerston’s efforts in 1862 to contrast Peel as a pacific Englishman against O’Donaghue’s Celtic barbarian, press coverage of the scrap soon turned on Peel. The Illustrated Times condemned the ‘hard phrase’ used by the ‘rash and impetuous’ Peel while the London Review lambasted the manner of the ‘impetuous Irish Secretary’ towards the ‘young mild-mannered Irishman’ O’Donaghue. The public, it was claimed, condemned the ‘savage insulter’ more than ‘the challenger who takes up the defence of his own right.’ Farage should take note.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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