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Fri September 4, 2009
The dueling debate over Kentucky oath
By Tony McVeigh
Frankfort, KY – The oath Kentucky officeholders and members of the bar take reads, in part, "I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending." Now that the risk of the governor or state legislators meeting each other at dawn on the front lawn of the Capitol is somewhat diminished, a Louisville lawmaker wants to delete the colorful language. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh reports on the effort.
Dueling has been around for centuries. The first rulebook for dueling came out in Renaissance Italy in 1410. The first recorded duel in America occurred in Massachusetts in 1621. By the late 1700's, the Code Duello had spread to the Kentucky frontier as the preferred method for gentlemen to settle serious disputes. The Kentucky Encyclopedia says 41 formal duels were fought in the commonwealth between 1790 and 1867, resulting in 16 deaths. No one was prosecuted. By 1799, the Kentucky General Assembly was passing laws to try to stop the violence. And by 1849, a "dueling clause" prohibiting duel participants from holding public office was placed in the state's third constitution.
"Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser of all people, fights two duels and is wounded in one of them, in fact," said James Klotter. "So, in a sense, it was an attempt to try to keep the best political minds of the state from killing each other."
Kentucky historian James Klotter says the "dueling clause" survived a fourth rewrite of the constitution in 1891, and the gunplay began to taper off.
"Politics and violence didn't completely divorce from each other, but still, at the same time, it did have its desired effect of seriously reducing it," said Klotter. "And then, basically, society started frowning on dueling more and more. And so that, combined with the oath, helped stopped the practice of dueling."
Dueling may have died, but the oath lives on. One-hundred-60 years after it first appeared, the oath remains in daily use. It requires all Kentucky officeholders and members of the Bar to swear they have not fought a duel with deadly weapons, issued or accepted a challenge to fight a duel, or served as a second to a duel. To Louisville Rep. Darryl Owens, the language is not only archaic, but embarrassing.
"People need to understand - in Kentucky, we have roads," said Owens. "People wear shoes. And this is not anything that I think that helps the image of the state."
Owens says the "dueling clause" detracts from the solemnity of modern-day, swearing-in ceremonies.
"If you were to have on national TV the swearing-in of our governor or somebody, now folks would probably say What is that about?'" said Owens. "You know, I think, every time I've gone to a swearing-in, invariably, a lot of people say, Darryl why don't y'all do something about that. Can't you change that?'"
And that's exactly what Owens is trying to do. Legislation he pre-filed for consideration by the 2010 General Assembly deletes the "dueling clause" from the oath. If approved by lawmakers, the measure would go before the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. Former Franklin Circuit Judge William Graham has not only taken the oath numerous times over the years, but has frequently administered it, too. He agrees the language is somewhat anachronistic - maybe even a bit humorous - but he doesn't believe it's offensive.
"My only real objection to it," said Graham, "would be if anybody thinks that, in some respect, it lessens the import of the language of the oath - because the words of the oath are very important to those who are taking it."
If the amendment reaches the people, Rep. Owens confidently predicts it will pass, but historian James Klotter isn't so sure about that.
"Some people would say, We're in the 21st Century, let's move away from it and let's vote it out,'" said Klotter. "And then others could say, Kentucky's past is important and let's not forget it and let's keep it in.' So, it could go either way."
A legislative hearing on the bill could be held later this month. The 2010 General Assembly convenes in January.