An essay upon duelling in a letter to Isaac Bickerstaff, late Censor of Great Britain

by William Machrie, Professor of Both-swords, in the City of Edinburgh, MDCCXI

Transcribed by Jean Marshall of the Linacre School of Defence


When you were a Tatler, I read over all your Lucubrations, and since you turn'd Spectator, I have done the same; my Opinions of such Papers, was always that they were either Lybels upon the Government, for which the author shou'd be hanged, or Discoveries and Secret Histories of Private Families, the Dispeners of which should be bandish'd Human Society, and the Conversation of all good Men: However, I would not have given myself the Trouble of putting Pen to Paper against you, had you not in one of your Tatlers ridicul'd Duelling, which I shall defend, notwithstanding all the frivoloous Objections rais'd against it by Mr Collier and you Honour.

You know very well, Sir, shou'd this Doctrine of your's obtain any Credit, my Employment wou'd be altogether useless; for it is very seldom, either in Battles or Sieges, that Feint-a-la-tete, or Feint-des-dome, la Flaconade, or Feint-Bas, are used; and yet this Profession of mine is so much better than your's, that I never chang'd Titles: And as I had the Honour to be the first in Britain that taught Fencing Mathematically, so as to be able with a Small Sword to parry a Pistol Bullet. I have met with suitable Encouragement to continue this Honourable Office of mine these thirty years past, and I'm sure, shall have Successors in it to the End of the World.

But now, Sir, being no Scribler to gain Money, according to the Bigness of my Paper, I come directly to Treat of the Subject propos'd; I shall therefore shew, the the first place, that Duellingis to conform to the Law of Nature. Secondly, That it's conform to the Law of Nations. Thirdly, That it is conform to the Divine Law. And lastly, I shall answer all Objections of any weight against it.

1. In the state of Nature, every Man was free, equal, his own Judge, and might do himself Justice: The Reason is obvious, because Self-defence is always both Reasonable and Natural. It is just, says Radamanthus, That he that doth evil, shou'd suffer evil. And Plato affirms, that neither the Gods, nor good Men, durst ever say other-ways. Hierax agrees with him. And Lactantivs de ira Dei, Cap. 17. Affirms, That he that punishes is not be blam'd but he that deserves Punishment; which is also conform to St. Augustine. And the worthy Philo hath these Expressions, In Punishment; something of the nature of Contracts is Observed; for he that is willing directly to transgressa Law, is by consequence willing to undergo the Penalty of that Law; just as he that sells a thing, though he mention nothing particularly, yet is presumed to stand obliged to perform all things Natural to the Sale. With him agrees Michael Ephesius upon Aristotle. I may then, if affronted, not only return the Affront and revenge the Injury, but even kill the Offender, since Custom hath made death the due punishment of Affronts, to which all Offenders seem to have acquiesed in.

If any Man attacks me, I know not what length he may go, he hath thereby declared himself mine Enemy, by which it is but naturally allowable for me to commit Hostilities upon him: Just as if I meet a Robber in the High way, and he first calls me Names, then threatens me, after that beats me; I may kill him, if I please, without waiting till he pull out a Pistol to shoot me. Belisarius in Procopius affirms, That it is but Natural to account him as mine Enemy, who hath by an Assault wounded me. The Plateans in Thucidides, plead so in the like Case; We have deservedly punished them, say they, for by that law that is in force among all Men, it is lawful to be reveng'd on those that first attack us. This too was the Opinion of Demosthenes, in his Oration against Aristocrates; and Aristides the Orator hath proven, that Revenge may be lawfully taken upon Such as have first injur'd us. King Jugurtha too in Salust. taxes the Roman People with Injustice, in forbidding him that Natural Right.

By the Law of Nature, it is Lawful to Revenge Injuries, if it tend wither to amed the Life of the Offender or to better others by his punishment, or to provide for the security of Innocent People, by taking out of the way Incorrigible Malefactors, as Seneca observes. The two last ends propos'd for punishing, doth perfectly justifie Dueling. Aristotle, Book 5. cap.14. says, That the punishments that tread on the heels of wickedness, doth not only restrain the Audaciousness of such as offend, but doth much comfort such as are injur'd. So Juvenal, satyr 13. And Gellius out of Taurus sayes that no small benefite accrues to the Partly offended, by his taking Revenge upon the Offender, in so far as it prevents the like Mischief either from the same Person or by others: This made Tacitus say of one of the Roman Emperors, he might have better provided for his own Safety by a just Revenge.

Where we have not given up out Liberties, we are in full Power to exercise those reserv'd to us; but no Man hath given any Liberty to any Magistrate whatsoever, by Statues, to take away the Power of Defending his Life, Honour and Property, except upon better condition that he make suitable provision to protect him in all these, by the Sword of Justice. Therefore all Laws against Repairing Men's Honour by Duelling, are unjust, and of themselves Null, untill States and Soverigns provide for its Reparation, by erecting Courts of Honour. Thus it is plainly insinuated, that where no Tribunals are, People may do themselves Justice; For, say the Emperors Honorius and Theodosius, for this very Cause are the Tribunals erected, least any man should argue to himself the Liberty to Revenge his own quarrels. Caesar the Dictator, when he was a private Man, without having Recourse to any Tribunal, Pursued and Chastised certain Pyrates who formerly had taken him, and finding the Proconsul Negligent in punishing the Captives, he ordered them to be hang'd by his own private Authority. A Gentleman's Honour being dearer to him than his Life, shou'd be defended than his Property; and yet all the World over, it is thought Reasonable that People may kill those who wou'd violently take away their Goods. And the Roman Law allowes a Man to Vindicate his Property himself, if the Judge Refuses, or is Remiss. That same Law allowes a Lady to kill, in defence of her Chastity, any that offers to Ravish her; because debauching a Woman, in the Opinion of the World, brings a Stain upon her Reputation: For it cannot be said, that it does create prejudice to her Person, no more than if she were married. Nor will any Body pretend that she is guilty of any Sin, because she is Ravish'd against her Will, yet because of the World's Opinion, she's allowed to Revenge. Why then may not a Man kill in Defence of his Honour, as well a Woman may in Defence of her's?

Now if Duelling, as we have proven to be allowable by the Law of Nature, to be a Second or assist a Friend in a Quarrel is perfectly as just? For all Mankind are Brethren and ought to see one anothers Grievances Redress'd, We must Love and Defend our Neighbours as our selves, says Cicero de inventione Book 2. And he that is guilty of an injustice, does thereby State himself an Enemy to Law and Society, consequently to all Mankind, and tho' he hath not particularly offended, the Friend or Second yet he may kill him, just as People kill Tigers and Lyonstho' they have bever offended them, vecause their perverse Nature is known; Of such Seneca affirms Book 7 Chap.10. de benef. That Death is their only Remedy, it being best for him to die, who lives without any hopes of being Cur'd. But now I come to the Second Head propos'd, to show that it is conform to the Law of Nations.

2. We find Hercules and Theseus are noted in History as Heroes for destroying Tyrants and bad People all the World over, without the Formality of Laws, Tribunals or Judgements.

We find Sertorius the Roman, sending a challenge to Metellus, as did Mark Anthony to Augustus Caesar. The Goths and Vandals allowed of it in their Law, from whom we in Scotland borrowed it. Nor is it abolutedly as yet Discharg'd, but only the Soveraigns Consent is first ordered to be sought. The Umbrians allow any Man when Affronted to be his own Judge and avenger, and at present, tho' this practice be very frequent is Muscovy, it is vener punish'd, and in Germanyand all the World over, except in France, where Honour can be Repair'd by other means. Noblemen and Gentlemen when affronted, always Fight single Combats: And you Mr Bickerstaff, tho' in your Tatler you Ridicul'd Duels, was very ready when ever your Honour was attack'd, to fight a Single Combat with your Offenders, and had others to stand Friends and Abetters.

But now I come to the Third Head, and that is to prove it is allowable by the Divine Law, by which Private Revenge, and consequently Duelling is allowed.

3. When the Philistines Affronted Sampson he Reveng'd himself upon them, saying, now I shall be more blameless than they, though I do them a Displeasure, Judges Chap. 15 verse 3,7, and 11. And St. Ambrosefor this commends the Maccabees. Phineas having a just Cause, tho' he wanted the Concurrence of a Magistrate, is commended for Killing. Dut Chap. 13. verse 9. Numb. Chap. 25. Moses, when a Private Man, was Second to the Israelite and Killed the Egyptian, that was contending with him, and theHebrew Law allows a Talio, an Eye for an Eye, and a Tooth for a Tooth; as also the Kinsman of him that was Murdered, to kill the Murdered with his own hand, in Case he overtake him without the Cities of Refuge, nor is this taken away by the Christian Law, for Christ Declares that he came not to Abrogate the Law but to confirm it.

But to come closer to the point, Divinely Inspir'd Solomon says Proverb. Chap. 22. verse 1. A Good Name is rather to be Chosen Then great Riches, and Chap. 15. verse. 30. A Good Report maketh the Bones fat. And Eccles. 7. Chap. verse. A Good Name is better than Precious Ointment.

If then it be better than Riches and Treasure, which may be Defended in the Jewish Law, by every private Proprietar's killing those that Obstinately attack it: It follows evidently, that we may even kill and Fight in defence of our Honour and Good Name, and truly he who sits with an affront in our days, is heinously Guilty before God; For he is thereby thougth to be a Man of no Courage, consequently one who would Renounce his Religion to save his Bacon, and therefore not fit to be Trusted in any Ecclesiastical Order or Post, not fit to serve the Common Wealth as a souldier, nor to be a Judge or Advocate, least he shou'd be dar'd to pervert Justice, or Betray the Cause of his Client: Nor can he be Trusted as a Courtier by the Sovereign, seeing, that a Coward of a Courtier may be Bullied into a discovery of his Masters secrets. He cannot be Trusted as a private Man by his fellow Citizens, to convese with them, since they are never sure, but by bad Governments, their lives may be in Danger, and this Cullion may be Commanded and forc'd to swear something, against them, so that by Refusing to Combate when a Man hath Just Ground, He puts himself out of all Condition to serve GOD, himself, and his Country, which was the very end for which he was made.

And now I come to the Last thing propos'd, viz. To solve all Objections that are propos'd against what I have advanc'd.

4. It is first objected from the Law of Nature, That Offences and Punishments should be equally ballanc'd, so as that every one should have no more than what he deserves; but a Cuff, or calling a Man a Knave, is not a sufficient Reason to take away his Life; therefore Duellsare Ridiculous.

I Answer, The Law of Nature requires not a just proportion betwixt the Crime and Punishment, but only, that the Punishment shou'd be a sufficient Remedy against the Crime; for that is the Bulwark of all Society: Therefore is it, that in all Nations at present in Europe, Theft is made Capital; and by the Jewish Law, four or fivefold was restor'd.

From the Law of Nations, It is objected, that all Societies and States have under great Penalties, discharged Duelling, as an Incroachment upon the Prerogative Royal.

My Answer is, that the most part of the World are in an Error, from which nothing can be concluded to Constitute a Law, seing all Laws and Customs must be Reasonable. And it is impossible that Statutes against Duelling can be so, while a Man's Honour is not sufficiently protected.

It is Objected from the Municipal Law of Britain, That the Law is Judge of our Propery, and of our Lives, and of all things necessary to Government; therefore most certainly of our Honour. I Answer, Where Law hath provided for my Safety, I have nothing to say, but if otherways, as I may defend my Honour, as well my Property: And sure, no Man wou'd say, that any Lawgiver had Power to Ordain, that every Subject shou'd be hang'd, who shou'd kill a Man, whom he saw attempting to Ravish his Wife, or take his goods away by force; far less can the Defence of a Man's Honour be hindered, which is dearer than all these.

From the Divine Law it is objected, Matth. Chap.5.V. 44. But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you. And furder, t is said, that GOD has put the Bounds to every Man's Life, which is violated by Duelling. Psal. 31. V.5. Into thine hand I commit my Spirit. Beside, Man's Body is the Temple of the Holy Ghost, which to demolish is Sacrilege, and GOD will destroy those that are guilty of it. 1 Cor. chap.3. v.17. If any man defile the Temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the Temple of God is holy, which Temple ye are. 1. Cor. chap.9.v.19. What, know you not that your Body is the Temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own.

Furder, Duelling is said to be sinful, because the Image of GOD is destroyed, Gen. chap. 9. ver.6. Whoso sheddeth mans Blood by man shall his Blood be shed. For in the Image of God made he man.

Add to this that those are kill'd who are Redeem'd by the Blood of CHRIST, the Value of which cannot be Rated nor comprehended, Rom. Chap,14.ver.15 Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died.

The Bible discharges sudden Wrath, so we see Gen. Chap. 49 Vers.5. That for their too Great Passion or Anger, Simeon and Leviare discommended. Simeon and Levi are Brethren, Instruments of Cruelty are in their Habitations, etc. Ver.7. Cursed be their anger for it was fierce, and their wrath for it was cruel, etc. And the Apostle James is against all sudden Wrath, and consequently Duelling, Epist. James Chap.1. ver. 19. Wherefore my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. ver. 20. For the wrath of man worketh not the Righteousness of GOD.

God himself, say Cowards has Reserved Vengeance for himself, and so disapprove of Duelling from Deut. chap. 32. v. 35. Where it is said, To me belongeth Vengeance and Recompense. And the Apostle says mych the same, Rom. 12. ver.19. Dearly beloved avenge not you selves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine I will Repay it says the Lord.

To all this I Answer, That Revenge, Wrath, and Killing People, upon these Accounts, is most Unlawful both in Magistrates and private Persons; yet no man will say that War is Discharged by the Christian Law, because we are Commanded to Love our Enemies: or that Malefactors are not so to be Sentenced by a Judge, because they are the Temple of God and God's Image, tho' to kill them from a Principal of Resentment wou'd be Sinfull. In a word, I have proven before, that every Man is his own Judge, and in a State of Nature as to Self Defence, because he neither can nor hath given up that Liberty to any Man, and that Duelling to Vindicate a Man's Honour is but Self Defence; so that being a Publick Judge, that of the 13. Rom: agrees to him, he is GOD's Minister, and beareth not the Sword in Vain. The instance of Simeon and Leviis not much to the Purpose, for they had made a Treaty of Peace, and broke it without any manner of Ground.

But now I imagine, I hear you saying ne sutor ultra Crepidam, what have Fencing Masters to do with Learn'd Dissertation.

I Answer very clearly, as much as a Disbanded Captain, a Rake and a Debauchee hath to Assume the Title and Power of a Censor, nay more, since these Thirty Years, I but Fenced one half of the Day, and Studied the other half, which you never had time to do, for Whoring and Drinking. I am.


Your Humble Servant

Will Machrie