Kentucky oath of office includes question about dueling

Kentucky oath of office includes question about dueling

Under Kentucky law, anyone who participates in a duel is barred from holding office: Kentucky has a long history of politicians shooting each other.


Doc Holliday could never have become Henderson’s police chief.

There are several reasons for this, but he also violated a serious part of Kentucky law: he participated in a duel.

That old-fashioned code came to the fore again Tuesday when Billy Bolin was sworn in as chief of Henderson. Like all officials in Kentucky, he was required by law to take an oath that he had “never fought in a duel with deadly weapons within or without the state.”

“Nor have I issued or accepted any challenge to a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I issued any challenge by proxy, nor have I aided or abetted any person in any such insult, SO HOLY GOD,” the oath continues.

Bolin, the former Evansville police chief, said he saw it coming — he was a Henderson police officer in the late 1990s and had already taken the oath of office — but he remembered it differently.

“I thought I had to promise not to duel with knives,” he said. “So I don’t know if that’s changed since 1995 or if I just made that up.”

How Kentucky’s dueling law came about and a group of politicians shot at each other

According to a 1903 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, dueling language has been set in stone since 1849, when the Kentucky legislature officially banned the practice in the state constitution.

“Every person who shall … make, accept, or knowingly carry forward a challenge to any person or persons to a duel with any citizen of this State, within or without the State, shall be deprived of the right to hold any office of honour or profit under this Commonwealth,” it states.

After five years, the governor can pardon the duelist in question and restore his right to hold office.

Although the law sounds ridiculous today, it was actually necessary at the time. Stuart Sanders, research and publications director for the Kentucky Historical Society, told KET that dueling was “widespread” before the Civil War, especially among upper-class white men. It was a way to settle conflicts when their fragile egos had been shattered by a random insult.

“The fact that two men would actually walk into a farmer’s field, stand about 10 metres apart and then shoot each other with a pistol to settle their differences is certainly surprising,” he said.

Politicians were among the main perpetrators. They did it so often that a few years ago the historical society set up an exhibit in the old state capitol called “Dueling Grounds,” which was all about the local legislators’ penchant for shooting at each other.

One of Kentucky’s most famous representatives also took part in the campaign. Henry Clay – then Speaker of the House of Representatives – challenged his colleague Humphrey Marshall to a duel in 1809 after Marshall had called him a liar in the House of Representatives.

Clay eventually took a bullet to the thigh and suffered a serious injury, but that didn’t stop him from challenging for a duel again 17 years later – this time as a member of the U.S. Senate.

In 1826, Virginia Senator John Randolph called Clay “blackleg” – apparently a reference to a contagious disease among goats. The two were not going to put up with this, retreated to the banks of the Potomac River and shot at each other. Randolph missed, probably on purpose, while Clay aimed directly at his opponent’s upper body, grazing his coat.

According to WETA, Randolph then fired into the air to signal that he refused to kill Clay. The two reconciled and exchanged notes the next day. A historic memorial now stands at the site of their argument. And none of this stopped Clay from eventually becoming U.S. Secretary of State.

Because of this wild story, officials in Kentucky still have to take an oath that they will not follow in Clay’s footsteps. During a swearing-in ceremony for Louisville City Council members in 2005, a chorus of giggles erupted when the controversial language was brought up.

But Tom Owen, one of the city councillors and a historian himself, knew it was necessary.

“We wouldn’t have that stuff in there,” he told the Courier-Journal at the time, “if we hadn’t had a clear problem with it at the time it was written.”