If you were to ask any average American about what terms such as "honor" or "gentleman" meant, chances are they would give you a definition that is far different from the revolutionary era. Our 21st century social structures are incapable of recreating the world of America's conception. For the founding generation, words like "gentleman" and "honor" were deeply woven into the social fabric of that era. When we think about the practice known as dueling, most of us in the modern world shutter at the apparent stupidity and insanity that would be required to participate in such a practice. For colonial America, however, opinions were quite different.
To understand dueling, we must understand what the revolutionary generation (not that dueling was limited exclusively to this time period) understood about its society. First off, to be a "gentleman" meant much more than good manners. It was the social standing of an inherently "superior" individual. Gentlemen were educated, sophisticated, and brave. They worked tirelessly at cultivating the highest of social graces. Being a gentleman was almost like being a colonial version of a knight of the medieval ages. It was an obsession that infected the entire upper class in colonial society. As Gordon Wood put it, to be a gentleman meant “having leisure in an era of labor, being educated in a time of semi-illiteracy, and above all else, defending one’s honor.” Defending one's honor was at the core of dueling. For example, the most famous duel (that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton) was due to the fact that Hamilton had undermined Burr's campaign to become Governor of New York, while Burr attempted to brand Hamilton as a wannabe British noble. The feud lasted for months. At the conclusion, Burr was defeated in his political bid for New York, while much of Hamilton's reputation had been damaged. To settle their grievances, both men agreed to a duel
In reality, the overwhelming majority of duels ended without incident. First off, the weapons of the era were terribly inaccurate. It was almost impossible to get an accurate shot off. The most important reason why duels rarely ended in tragedy was because most participants purposely missed or never fired. This was because honor, not death, was at stake. The mere attendance of both participants at a duel served to demonstrate how "honorable" the individual truly was. In essence, by proving brave enough to appear at one's duel was sufficient evidence of the person's "gentleman" qualities. This was often enough to end the feud between parties.
This does not mean that dueling never ended in death. As we all know, America's first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, lost his life for participating in a duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton's oldest son was also killed in a duel five years prior to his father's death. Usually those responsible for killing another in a duel had their reputations tarnished. They were rarely seen as "gentleman" of "honor." Just look at Aaron Burr. Killing Hamilton was the worst thing he could have ever done for his reputation. In fact, he lamented it for the rest of his life.
In conclusion, let us not forget the social aspects that went into dueling. Instead of seeing it as a barbarous practice we must recognize its influence on a society that was literally obsessed with honor.