Back in the old days we didn’t write so meanly to each other.
Take, for instance, this letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington. Hamilton considered himself being attacked by Washington and his allies, but take notice of how he responds:
"I have the pleasure of your private letter of the 26th of August. I most sincerely regret the causes of the uneasy sensations you experience. It is my most anxious wish, as far as may depend upon me, to smooth the path of your administration, and to render it prosperous and happy. And if any prospect shall open of healing or terminating the differences which exist, I shall most cheerfully embrace it, though I consider myself as the deeply injured party."
This is rather typical language. Before making a contrary claim, the writer first complimented the recipient in the highest terms. A starting line might be something like, “My most esteemed and benevolent colleague.” The close would be something like, “Your humble servant.”
There was a reason for this. Back then, if you engaged someone in a war of words and ideas, the person might take offense and challenge you to a duel for questioning their integrity or standing.
Once challenged to a duel, you had to accept or your honor was besmirched. There were no credit scores back then, so your reputation was everything. Once damaged, you were toast in the business and social world.
All that gentlemanly language didn’t keep Hamilton from a duel and Aaron Burr shot him dead in 1801.
Even when exchanging letters with Hamilton that led to the duel, Burr was quite polite:
I have this day received your letter of the 20th. Political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from a rigid adherence to the laws of honor or the rules of decorum. I neither claim such privilege myself nor indulge it in others.
"You appear sensible that from the style of your conversations inferences injurious to my character may have been drawn. I also feel a conviction that they have. Ordinary attention to the transactions of society and the language of the world would evince that opinions highly disreputable to me have been expressed by you. Justified by these circumstances and peculiarly urged by the formal declaration of Mr. Cooper’s respect for my own character and the opinion of the public demands the enquiry I have made. I can not [sic] conceive it incumbent on me to trace reports publicly and extensively diffused to their source. They exist and can only be contradicted by a direct application to you. They are either well or ill founded, which you alone can know, and a refusal to disavow them is not only a confirmation of their truth, but an adoption of the sentiments ascribed to you.
"If you have used language of a dubious import without intending to convey injurious impressions, it behooves you as a man “of sincerity and delicacy,” by a general disavowal of such intention to correct the hasty opinions of others and remove imputations which have thus been improperly connected with my reputation.
"To the word “despicable” the common sense of mankind, unaided by either syntax or grammar affixes the idea of dishonor, every shade of which demands investigation. The application of this term has been made under the sanction of your name. To ascertain how far it has been authorized by you is my object. Permit me therefore to solicit again your attention to the inquiry which I deemed before sufficiently intelligible, whether you have indulged in the use of language derogatory to my honor as a gentleman or which in this sense could warrant the expressions of Dr. Cooper. To this I expect a definite reply, which must lead to an accommodation or to the only alternative which the circumstances of the case will justify.
I have the honor to be,
Your Obt. Servt.
Alexander Hamilton was equally polite in his reply:
Your first letter, in a style too peremptory, made a demand, in my opinion, unprecedented and unwarrantable. My answer, pointing out the embarrassment, gave you an opportunity to take a less exceptionable course. You have not chosen to do it, but by your last letter, received this day, containing expressions indecorous and improper, you have increased the difficulties to explanation, intrinsically incident to the nature of your application.
"If by a “definite reply” you mean the direct avowal or disavowal required in your first letter, I have no other answer to give than that which has already been given. If you mean anything different admitting of greater latitude, it is requisite you should explain.
"I have the honor to be, Sir
Your Obedt. Servt.
The founding fathers took great care to be careful in their choice of words to avoid any hint of insult. Jesus Christ warned that if you called your brother a fool, you risked the fires of hell.
I certainly don’t advocate bringing back dueling as an antidote to the foul language and insults so commonly bandied about on social media. And I certainly don’t want anyone going to hell.
But given this, maybe we should be a bit more careful about the words we use to express disagreement in thought with our fellow man.