You've probably noticed that our politicians delight in taking potshots at each other — our status as America's most polite city notwithstanding.

We have a national reputation, deservedly so. After all, we are the people who started the Civil War.

But it's worth remembering that things used to be worse.

A little more than a century ago, when two people got mad at each other around here, they literally shot at each other.

Grahame Long, curator of history at the Charleston Museum, has been studying this tradition for years — the museum is filled with thousands of letters, notes and artifacts related to dueling. He has just published a book, “Dueling in Charleston,” that points out the fact that this city — surprise — was known as a hotbed for trigger-happy hotheads dating back to the colonial era.

Funny thing about history: The more you learn, the more you realize that things don't change that much.

Laying down the law

Honor used to matter, even if it wasn't your own.

John Laurens and Charles Lee dueled in 1778, just because Laurens was upset over some nasty things Lee said about Gen. George Washington. Both were wounded, but still debated taking second shots at one another.

That kind of innate hardheadedness may be why South Carolina is one of the few states to still have anti-dueling laws on the books. Probably a good call. Three years ago, Charleston police said two guys got into a duel at the corner of King and Simons streets. One of them lost, by the way.

That's one of the few instances of dueling since 1880, when the state quit messing around and made it a capital offense. Which means even if you won, you lost.

Back in the day, some experts claimed that all this dueling was a result of the heat. Yeah, cops still say the summer brings out violent tendencies.

But Long's book shows that plenty of folks dueled in the winter, so there goes that theory.

Probably fighting over Clemson-Carolina.

Drive-by dueling?

Funny thing is, even though duels were violent, there was a civilized component to them.

The two parties actually negotiated terms before shooting. Even when someone had maligned your honor, or filed a lawsuit against you over some perceived wrong, folks debated their premeditated violence. Not anymore.

“Now you stay in your car and use an Uzi,” Long jokes.

So maybe it's a good thing South Carolina still has anti-dueling laws on the books. We've thankfully learned to debate contentious issues such as the completion of I-526 and redrawing Mount Pleasant school attendance lines only with words, as sharp as they may be at times.

As political discourse goes in South Carolina, that's progress.

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