The Bullitt County History Museum

Bullitt Memories: Dueling and Its Connection to Bullitt County

The following article by David Strange originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 25 Jan 2012. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.

"...I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) that since the adoption of the present Constitution, 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, so help me God."

That quote makes up fully half of the oath that nearly every office holder in Kentucky, whether elected or appointed, must swear to every time before taking office.

It is often laughed at and ridiculed as anachronistic. "A silly waste of time from another time," many say.

But, as with most things, there once was a very real purpose for such words.

And there is some connection with those words and with Bullitt County.

In early America, the tradition of dueling over matters of honor (usually from things as simple as disparaging remarks) had been brought over from Europe. The most famous case that I can think of was that of Alexander Hamilton, one of our nations' founding fathers, who was shot and killed by Aaron Burr in a duel in 1804. In fact, if I recall correctly, Hamilton's son had also been killed in a duel some time before that.

Well, this waste of life became more and more unpopular over the years. But, it seemed, dueling could not be stopped. In Kentucky alone, between 1790 and 1867, there were forty-one recorded duels and probably many more unrecorded. The most well known, and the "straw that broke the camel's back," was that of Henry C. Pope and John T. Gray in 1849. According to an account in The Louisville Encyclopedia, Louisvillians Pope and Gray were actually close friends, but in an alcohol-impinged game of cards at the Galt House Hotel, Pope insulted Gray. Gray responded by hitting Pope on the head with a cane and then hit him in the face. The next day, Pope challenged Gray to a duel and Gray accepted. They met in Indiana, to avoid Kentucky laws, using twelve-gauge shotguns loaded with a single ball, to be fired at sixty feet. Both men fired. Pope missed his mark, but Gray did not, and Pope died soon after.

Outrage over the duel forced Gray to flee to Maryland. By coincidence, Kentucky held a state constitutional convention shortly after that in 1850, and the duel was fresh on the minds of the lawmakers. Seeing that such prominent people were still having duels and circumventing the normal laws, the decision was made to place the words in the constitution that might most affect prominent people (who were often the main participants of the "honorable" order of dueling, and most often held office).

And so the Constitution remains to this day.

Oh, the Bullitt County connection? Henry Pope was the grandson of Col. William Pope, who was the brother of Benjamin Pope, a very prominent early settler and land holder in Bullitt, and relative to many other important leaders of the day.

And, by the way, in an interesting example of unintended consequences, the constitutional banishment of dueling actually caused more killing, at least for a time. You see, according to the elaborate "code duello," or code of duels, there was supposed to be strong efforts made to make peace before an actual duel took place. Friends of the opponents were to try to work out agreement between the parties. With such a code no longer to be followed, men often resorted to just killing one another out-right in what was called a "defacto duel." Something to think about, perhaps, as our state Legislature meets again this month.

After real dueling was so banned, news accounts of simple shootings often still referred to them as duels. I will tell another time of such a "duel" that occurred in Shepherdsville.

As I say, there is often movement today to eliminate the words about dueling from the oath of office. I kind of like it in there though, for some reason. It reminds me of a more civil time, and yet a less civil time.

I think I prefer swearing that I never fought a duel with deadly weapons, as opposed to the risk of being expected to actually fight one.

Copyright 2012 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.

The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 01 Nov 2018 . Page URL: