If you were to ask any average American about what terms such as "honor" or "gentleman" meant, chances are they would give you a definition that is far different from the one shared by our founding generation. Our 21st century social conceptualizations are incapable of recreating the world of early America, and as a result, are incapable of fully understanding just how important words like "honor" and gentleman" were for men of that time. For this reason, when we think about the practice of dueling, most of us in the modern world shutter at the apparent stupidity and insanity that would be required to participate in such a practice. For colonial America, however, opinions were quite different.
To understand dueling, we must understand what the revolutionary generation (not that dueling was limited exclusively to this time period) understood about its practice. First off, to be a "gentleman" meant much more than good manners. It was the social standing of an inherently "superior" individual. Gentlemen were educated, sophisticated, and brave. They worked tirelessly at cultivating the highest of social graces. Being a gentleman was almost like being a colonial version of a knight from the Medieval ages (though not as dramatic). It was an obsession that infected the entire upper class of colonial society. As Gordon Wood put it, to be a gentleman meant “having leisure in an era of labor, being educated in a time of semi-illiteracy, and above all else, defending one’s honor.” Defending one's honor was at the core of dueling. For example, the most famous duel (that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton) was due to the fact that Hamilton had undermined Burr's campaign to become Governor of New York, while Burr attempted to brand Hamilton as a wannabe British noble. The feud lasted for months. At the conclusion, Burr was defeated in his political bid for New York, while much of Hamilton's reputation had been damaged almost beyond repair. To settle their grievances, both men agreed to a duel.
In reality, the overwhelming majority of duels ended without incident. First off, the weapons of the era were terribly inaccurate. Since pistols and muskets lacked rifling it was almost impossible to get an accurate shot off. The most important reason why duels rarely ended in tragedy was because most participants purposely missed or never fired. This was because honor, not death, was at stake. The mere attendance of both participants at a duel served to demonstrate how "honorable" the individual truly was. In essence, merely showing up at one's duel was sufficient evidence of the person's "gentleman" qualities and was more than a satisfactory defense of one's honor. Usually this act of "bravery" would end the feud between rival parties.
This does not mean that dueling never ended in death. As we all know, America's first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, lost his life by participating in a duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton's oldest son was also killed in a duel five years prior to his father's death. Usually those responsible for killing another in a duel had their reputations tarnished. They were rarely seen as "gentleman" of "honor." Just look at Aaron Burr. Killing Hamilton was the worst thing he could have ever done for his reputation. In fact, he lamented it for the rest of his life.
In conclusion, let us not forget the social aspects that went into dueling. Instead of seeing it as a barbarous practice we must recognize its influence on a society that was literally obsessed with honor and status. Though we have (thankfully) moved past dueling, the practice wasn't totally irrelevant. It served to settle grievances (I guess simply setting down and talking was out of the equation), it defended honor and it settled old scores.
Truly the "gentleman" thing to do! =)