The first day of the general assembly is full of pride as lawmakers raise their hands to be sworn in to office. And in that oath, they must swear that they’ve never fought a duel with a deadly weapon.
It’s an outdated idea now, but was necessary language in the early days of statehood.
Dr. Thomas Appleton, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said the first recorded duel in the state was in 1790, two years before statehood. He says dueling was once an honorable way to settle differences among the upper class and didn’t necessarily mean a fight to the death. Just standing to be shot at or being wounded was often enough.
“As the Antebellum period progressed, it became less honorable,” Appleton said. “Rowdiness entered the picture and sons of the upper class would get drunk and have duels over meaningless things– a card game, for example.”
So in 1799, lawmakers made it illegal, with violators facing a $500 fine and prohibition from service in public office for seven years. People bypassed the law by taking their duels across state lines. The prohbition was added to the state Constitution in 1850.
One of Lexington’s most prominent citizens, Henry Clay, fought two duels. Thanks to a donation from one of his descendants, Clay’s dueling pistols are now part of the permanent collection at his Ashland Estate in Lexington.
Curator Eric Brooks said “When you look at these pistols, it’s fascinating to think about what happened with these guns over the course of 200 years plus since Henry Clay acquired them.”
Clay’s first duel took place in Indiana and the other in Virginia, when he was the U.S. Secretary of State. Historians don’t believe Clay fired his pistols in those shoot-outs because, in both cases, he was the challenger. By custom, the opponent got to choose the weapons. But the pistols were likely used later by Clay’s son in the Mexican War.
“I think it has real impact when we tell that story on the tour,” Brooks said.
Appleton says Kentucky’s oath seems silly now and points to the fat that Kentucky should revise its Constitution.
Even lawyers and firefighters still have to pledge that they haven’t fought with deadly weapons, even thought the state’s last known duel was in the 1860s.