An Armed Society is a Polite Society

by LiamBean

The full quote is; "An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life." Where did this quote come from?

In 1942 Robert A. Heinlein wrote a science fiction novel titled "Beyond This Horizon." In it, humans lived in a utopian society. Production was so well established that work was more a hobby than a necessity and eugenics had created a race of super-humans the ultimate of which was Harrison Felix, the protagonist of the story. Because there are no police or war, dueling was an everyday practice.

It should be noted that science fiction is just that; fiction. Heinlein wrote a lot of novels and almost never repeated the same social model twice. Also, in this particular Utopian model Heinlein had abolished police, war, and allowed dissenters to avoid the dueling requirement. His setup was a society that wanted for nothing. Far from reality.

The Armed and Polite Society is an Old Idea

In the early to mid eighteen hundreds, honor and civility were bound up in duelling.

Dueling has been with us as human beings for about as long as individual weapons have been available. Though women have been involved in duels1, this is primarily an "activity" conducted by men. A duel was typically a matter of honor. Where one party to the duel issued an insult or question of honorable behavior to the other party and both parties determined that a duel to the death was the only solution.

Perhaps the most celebrated duel in American history was that between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Though the insult Burr called Hamilton out on is clouded in a flurry of letters between the two, Gore Vidal, author of Burr posited that it was because Hamilton accused Burr of having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter, Theadosia Burr Alston. In fact all of these accusations and insults had a direct relationship to an upcoming election. Barbs and accusations, then as now, were routine during an election cycle.

Dueling was a prohibited activity in New York, so the two men arranged to meet in New Jersey. New Jersey also had anti-dueling laws, but New York's were much more stringent.

There is a lot of conjecture about this duel. At the time duelists were required to have seconds (an ally of sorts), the firearms used were a matched set purposely built to be identical, and the entire duel was shrouded in secrecy for obvious reasons.

It is agreed that each party fired one shot, but no one knows for certain who fired first as all witness were required by social convention at that time to "turn their backs" to the duel. What is known is Hamilton's shot went over Burr's head and Burr's shot hit Hamilton just above the right hip, breaking a rib, and causing extensive organ damage to the diaphragm and liver. It is almost certain that Hamilton fired first as he was incapacitated after being struck by Burr's bullet.

Hamilton lived less than a day after this duel and Burr was indicted for murder. Burr was later acquitted, but his political career was ruined.

French Duelling Pistol
French Duelling Pistol

Dueling with Firearms Replaced with Dueling in Court

Lawyers are the new dueling pistol.

Granted in the eighteenth century lawyers abounded and so did the courts to hear cases. In fact defamation laws predated the American revolution.

It was social pressure that put an end to dueling. It wasn't just the loss of life; it was the loss of professional ability and prowess. Napoleon put an end to dueling, not because of any moral necessity, but because he was losing too many valuable officers to the duel. It simply did not fit into his plans of world conquest.

Here in the United States the reasons were similar. Not so much from a war standing, but more because we were losing entirely too many law makers and other professionals to this act of honor.

A polite society no longer needs to defend its honor with firearms. We have courts and attorneys for that.

Home Defense, Police Protection and Hunting

It is true that most of the cases where police are called in the problem has already come and gone. In these instances having a firearm at home is not a bad idea. However, a citizen has certain well defined responsibilities regarding these weapons. In other words you can't just shoot someone because you think they are a threat. In almost all areas of the country the defender has to meet some well established criteria before an act of self-defense can be claimed with any chance of holding up in court.

Also, if home defense is the aim a long arm that shoot bullets rather than shot is not the ideal weapon for defending the home. Bullets pass through walls; both the defender's and his/her neighbor's walls. A military style weapon, for that reason alone, is a risky and dangerous means of protecting property because a very real possibility of shooting the "wrong person" exists.

Killing your neighbor is hardly a polite thing to do even if it is accidental.

It is true that many armed citizens live in rural areas and enjoy taking game to supplement their diet. In some areas this isn't just a pastime, but a necessity. But those who use firearms to supplement the larder also raise livestock, fish, and gather plants. It's not simply an activity limited to firearms and that has little to do with civility. But hunting doesn't really have much to do with politeness.

The Heinlein Model

He had other ideas that we didn't point to as ideals

As was mentioned at the top of this article Robert A. Heinlein was a science fiction author. As such he wrote many fictional accounts of possible futures. That this one small aspect of one of many stories has grabbed the popular imagination in relationship to firearms is curious.

Starship Troopers was a story about a branch of the military called the Mobile Infantry. In this particular Heinlein future democratic republicanism is an accepted political model though the only way to earn the right to vote or hold public office was through federal service; including military service. As we all know citizenship in the United States requires no such service. In comparison to other Heinlein novels this one is particularly militaristic. Even so there is no dueling nor any hint that an "armed society is a polite society."

Another Heinlein novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, where the Michael Valentine Smith is a human being raised for twenty years by Martians after his parents die upon landing on the planet. The novel has a very "Christlike" slant as Michael Valentine Smith has learned some nonhuman skills from the Martians. One being that there is no real death. Eventually Smith founds a "Church of All Worlds" and is deemed a dangerous threat to another well established religion. A riot ends his life. But his spirit contacts his followers post mortum and encourages them to carry on. This novel is decidedly non military in nature and there is no dueling.


The phrase "a polite society is an armed society" is taken directly from a fictional novel about one of an untold number of possible futures. As such it simply one of many ideas that fit better within a fictional story than everyday American life.


1 There is a case where two "sporting women" fought a duel with derringers sometime in the 1830s. Interestingly the only person actually shot, quite by accident, was the very man both were fighting over.

Updated: 06/24/2013, LiamBean
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LiamBean on 03/26/2013

I think you make a good point. If we are too familiar with something we tend to reduce our respect for it.

sheilamarie on 03/26/2013

I have known several young people who were either wounded or lost their lives because of guns kept in the house. Of course, one could argue that guns should be kept locked up, and this is essential especially where very young children are concerned, but the boys I knew who died were more than capable of unlocking a gun cabinet. One was a man in his late twenties who regularly hunted with his father, and so lack of training was not an issue. Americans are way too cavalier with the idea of guns and linking gun possession to freedom and self protection. I don't believe guns have anything to do with safety, except to make everyone, even the gun owner, less safe. Sorry, but I feel strongly about this. I understand hunting as something that provides people with food and so can appreciate that hunters may need to keep weapons, but I think even there, we need to be more concerned with safety. To go from providing food to keeping guns as a matter of course is a jump I am not willing to make.
I enjoyed your article. I learned something from your historical perspective.

Mira on 01/26/2013

Great discussion on firearms. Loved the historical angle.

katiem2 on 01/21/2013

My daughters enjoy going to the range, they are really good hitting the bulls eye most all the time. It's a good thing to be well trained.

LiamBean on 01/19/2013

I did the same thing with my children. When each turned fourteen I took them to a firearms class run by a police instructor who ran a firing range. I did it this way because 1) I wanted them to get professional instruction and 2) I wanted them to be able to shoot as soon as the class was completed.

I made sure both knew I wasn't encouraging or discouraging firearm possession, but that they knew enough to make informed decisions either way.

katiem2 on 01/19/2013

My parents taught me how to use firearms, sent me to classes, got a conceal and carry permit and self defense training. I do feel good knowing how to handle and use a fire arm if need be. :)K

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