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AS WE SEE IT: Dueling over oaths

The cities of Olive Hill and Grayson both swore in their city councilpersons in the last week, both using some anachronistic language that can be a bit jarring when you first hear it. But there it is, right smack dab in the middle of a somber and serious ceremony – a pledge that the person accepting the office hasn’t fought in a duel, or served as second in a duel, in this state or any other. 

It always draws at least a smile from someone in the crowd or from those being sworn in. 

Two hundred years ago, it might have been necessary. Kentucky, indeed the United States itself, was a different place. Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr, then vice president of the United States, in an 1804 duel. Duels were used to settle everything from questions of honor to political disputes. In at least one reported case a duel was fought over a slight and a disagreement over how to pronounce a certain Latin phrase. 

In the case of Burr’s and Hamilton’s duel the two men simply disliked each other, and their disagreements, both public and private, escalated to the point that their honor demanded some action. 

While their duel came at a time when the practice was falling out of fashion, and indeed being outlawed in some places, Kentucky was still considered the edge of the frontier at that time. Dueling – once an accepted way of settling disagreements among civilized men – was still an accepted practice for some time to come. Remnants of the old honor system could be seen in the stereotypical “old west” showdown at high noon. Though these sorts of shootouts were more a dramatic device of the dime novels of the era than actual practice, the popularity of the conceit shows just how ingrained in popular culture the idea of the duel still was. 

So, more than 200 years since Kentucky became the 15th state of the Union, it’s still a part of the oath that city council members, judges, mayors, and other elected and appointed state, county and local officials have to swear. 

There have been some efforts to change that. 

In 2010 State Representative Darryl Owens tried to introduce legislation that would remove the language from Kentucky’s oaths of office. He was unsuccessful, of course, with his opponents pointing to the preservation of history while Owens complained that preserving the language also preserved perceptions among those from outside the state that Kentucky was “backwards.” 

Owens worried that it not only drew smiles and snickers from Kentuckians and outsiders alike, detracting from what should be a serious event, but that it hurt Kentucky’s image among potential investors. 

That’s an interesting take. And Kentucky could surely use more investment and business growth. But we don’t think it’s the oath that has hurt Kentucky’s economic growth. 

In fact, while we have found ourselves smiling at the language along with elected officials, we find the preservation of this linguistic relic of an earlier era endearing. Sure, swearing in ceremonies are serious and somber affairs, but the language about duels not only injects a little levity into the ceremony for modern observers, it also points out how far we have come. While it may seem silly for us today, it wasn’t too long ago that these kind of restrictions were absolutely necessary. 

We think by keeping in mind just how far we’ve progressed as a society – to the point that the idea of solving every petty argument at gun point seems ludicrous and asinine – we can help assure we don’t slide back into those antiquated ideas. In the best case scenario it can also help keep us aware of potential modern equivalents of this “might equals right” (such as “wealth equals right” or “influence equals right”) mentality that could challenge and jeopardize our democracy. 

So, yes, it sounds a little silly. But we’re glad Representative Owens’ move failed, and has failed to take off again in the decade since his proposal. We hope the language persists for a long time to come. Not because we’re tethered by our past, but because we want to honor it and never fail to learn from it. 

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