Dueling & Credit in the 19th Century

Pavel Sokolovsky
Jan 13, 2018 · 4 min read

Did you ever think to yourself, “How the fuck did Alexander Hamilton let himself get killed in a duel?”

Seriously, how ridiculous is it to settle a dispute by pacing off and shooting at each other? WITH REAL BULLETS?

You probably grew up, like me, with the understanding that men would duel to protect their honor.

Is that really worth risking death over?!

Source: Google Ngram Viewer

Look at the chart above. We’re not living during the peak of honor’s reign. We don’t get the full sense of the word, as it was used once upon a time.

In his book Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic, Robert E. Wright offers some insight into the world during the time of duels. He explains:

A man who lost his honor, who was no longer a gentleman, would no longer be worthy of credit. His personal fortune was thus jeopardized, as he might be forced to sell assets at unpropitious times in order to meet the demands of his liability holders. Attacks upon his honor, therefore, were hardly trivial affairs; they struck at the very heart of his business and personal fortune.

You see, honor and reputation were permanently intertwined. And reputation mattered immensely, because credit depended on reputation.

Credit kept the economy moving along in the times of dueling, just as it does today. Only, they didn’t have the credit reporting agencies with histories on most potential borrowers. This didn’t exist, so they had to make do!

The Modern FICO Credit Score

From Wikipedia (Dueling in the Southern United States):

The assets of plantation owners were largely illiquid, their estates holding value in the form of real estate and slaves. Thus, preserving personal credit was highly important to the livelihoods of planters.

So one needed credit, and credit depended on honor. How did one maintain his honor? By not letting others impede upon it! We turn back Robert E. Wright:

Gentlemen did not shoot each other over trivial matters; they fought when they were accused of lying or of presenting a “false face” to the public.

If a gentleman were to publicly be called a liar, he’s forced into a decision. If he lets the accusation stand, he loses his status as a gentleman and access to credit. That means he loses his livelihood!

Alternatively, he could dispute the accusation and use a duel as a conflict resolution method. Here he’s risking his life, but that looks appealing in the face of a guaranteed loss of livelihood. But if he prevails in a duel, whether he actually is a liar or not becomes irrelevant.

How did Alexander Hamilton end up in a duel? Let’s hear it from the guy who killed him, Vice President Aaron Burr (via Robert E. Wright).

Indeed, shortly after shooting Hamilton, Burr told Philadelphia broker Charles Biddle, “It is too well known that Genl. H. had long indulged himself in illiberal freedoms with my character. He had a peculiar talent of saying things improper & offensive in such a manner as could not well be taken hold of.”

Hamilton may have had some small revenge from beyond the grave. His son, Alexander Hamilton Jr., was the attorney representing Aaron Burr’s second wife Eliza Jumel during two years of divorce proceedings that ended on the day Burr died.

While I doubt many of us are fans of the big credit reporting agencies, I think we can be glad that we mustn't be shot at to sustain creditworthiness!


As a bonus for making it this far, dear reader, I’ll leave you with one last item to consider. Imagine that our leaked credit reports were as in-depth as this one from 1873.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, New York. Saturday, November 15, 1873. https://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/50391569/

For the curious, there is more to the report, including J — G — ’s weekly butcher’s bill, his wife’s housekeeping duties (none), and where he likes to play billiards.


Did you like this story? If so, press the “clap” button below to help others find it! Want even more of my writing? Visit HiPavel.com to subscribe to my weekly e-mail newsletter. Thanks for reading!

Pavel Sokolovsky

Written by

I do stuff from time to time. Visit me @ https://hipavel.com/

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade