Kentucky Duels Over Oath Of Office

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Kentucky State Rep. Darryl Owens wants to change the state's oath of office. i

Kentucky State Rep. Darryl Owens wants to remove any mention of duels from the state's oath of office. Ed Reinke/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Reinke/AP
Kentucky State Rep. Darryl Owens wants to change the state's oath of office.

Kentucky State Rep. Darryl Owens wants to remove any mention of duels from the state's oath of office.

Ed Reinke/AP

In Kentucky, the oath of office that politicians take before assuming office has remained almost unchanged since the early 1800s. Now some say the oath needs an update, and a duel over constitutional wording has started an interesting debate about Kentucky's past and present.

'A Distraction To A Dignified Ceremony'

It happens from time to time across Kentucky. A candidate is elected to office or someone is chosen to lead a public university. Typically, a judge and honoree stand facing each other, right hands raised. The judge recites the oath of office with its words proudly repeated.

Then comes this reference: "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."

All statewide officeholders, county officials and even judges must make such a declaration. But one Kentucky lawmaker wants to change that.

Oath Of Office For Kentucky State Officeholders

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of .... according to law; and 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."

Source: The National Conference of State Legislatures

"One of the problems when you have people from out of state, and I've had it at some swearing-in ceremonies that I've been to, they look at you like you're crazy, what are you talking about," says Louisville state Rep. Darryl Owens. "It perpetuates that image of Kentucky as being backward."

Owens says snickering over the question of dueling can be a distraction to a dignified ceremony and harm efforts to bring businesses to the state.

He wants a public vote on a constitutional amendment to remove any mention of duels. No other state has such an oath.

Historical Significance

Kentucky historian Jim Klotter says the duel references were added in the 1800s because too many residents were killing each other. One of Kentucky's best-known statesmen, Henry Clay, who served in Congress and ran for president, fought two duels.

"And so you have the irony of 'The Great Compromiser,' the man who is trying to heal the nation's wounds and keep the people together, who can't compromise on the issue of honor and has to fight duels twice to make sure he satisfies his own honor," Klotter says.

Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. i

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr challenged each other in one of America's most well-known duels in 1804. Hamilton was killed in the duel, and Burr was charged with murder. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons
Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr challenged each other in one of America's most well-known duels in 1804. Hamilton was killed in the duel, and Burr was charged with murder.

Wikimedia Commons

He adds that there are records of some 40 public duels, and there were probably more. Dueling was common throughout the South and also in places like France and Mexico, Klotter says. People used guns to settle disputes over many issues, including a claim that a Latin word was mispronounced.

Not everyone is happy about the proposal to remove dueling references from the Kentucky Constitution, including former governor and current State Sen. Julian Carroll.

"It is a part of the history of this great commonwealth, and I don't think that we ought to make any changes with respect to the reflection of that history," Carroll says.

If successful, Kentucky's oath of office would lose more than half its current wording. If the bill doesn't pass, Darryl Owens jokes he might challenge some of his opponents to a duel — but he admits that would disqualify from office.

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