Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Ellery, William (1727-1820) to George Wanton Ellery

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC02300.13 Author/Creator: Ellery, William (1727-1820) Place Written: Newport, Rhode Island Type: Autograph letter Date: 5 November 1805 Pagination: 2 p. 21 x 17 cm

Written to his son at Captain Barney's School in Wickford, Rhode Island. Discusses the barbarism and immorality of dueling. Ellery is not sure he will become involved with the North Kingston Bank. Corrects George's spelling errors. A Member of the Continental Congress from 1776 until 1785, William Ellery was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was Collector of the Port of Newport from 1790 until 1820. Signature clipped from letter.

Early nineteenth century Americans did not view sin as a metaphysical abstraction. Religious leaders taught that sin was concrete. High living, moral indifference, and preoccupation with worldly and commercial matters--all these were denounced as manifestations of human depravity. After Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, a growing number of reformers denounced duelling as a sin, a relic of a more barbaric stage in human history. In the future, later reformers would not only denounce drinking and slavery as capital sins, but would repudiate all forms of force and violence. In a letter to his son, William Ellery condemns duelling.

You are about to write a composition on duelling, and cannot make a beginning to suit you, and therefore ...wish that I would assist you in the three first lines lines....
Duelling is a mode of settling certain points of honour, as they are called, by single combat.... It was introduced into Europe at a barbarous period, -- a period when property was decided by judicial combat, when it was absurdly imagined that the Deity would always give victory in favor of right. Both these practices [are inconsistent] with the Christian religion.... The party who killed his adversary...is...guilty of murder, and murder is expressly forbidden by the eighth commandment in the Decalogue, and sound reason can never admit what God has prohibited. Judicial combats have long since been laid aside, and for the sake of religion, reason and humanity, the infamous practice of duelling ought to be reprobated with universal contempt.

Order a CopyCitation Guidelines for Online Resources