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ANDREW JACKSON & HIS DUELS

ANDREW JACKSON WAS AN ANGRY AND VIOLENT MAN. THE NATION WAS FORTUNATE THAT HIS VIOLENCE DISSIPATED PRIOR TO HIS PRESIDENCY, BUT HIS ANGER TOWARDS BOTH HIS OPPONENTS AND THEIR CORRUPT POLICIES CONTINUED.

Jackson fought two duels, acted as a second in a third, and challenged his adversaries, including the incumbent governor of Tennessee, in several others. Currently circulating reports that Jackson fought ‘hundreds of duels” are erroneous; such rumors are hyperbolic, and perhaps are spread to enhance the image of such a fascinating and colorful president.

Old Hickory’s initial duel was ‘fought’ in Jonesborough, Kentucky in August, 1788. Jackson, then a 21 year old attorney, badly lost a case to Waightstill Avery, a very experienced trial lawyer. Avery enraged and embarrassed Jackson by dismissing the latter’s courtroom performance. To protect his injured honor the young attorney challenged Avery to a duel. On the evening of August 12, the two lawyers met, and deloped, i.e. fired their pistols into the air, without loss of limb and life. Jackson’s honor was restored.

The next imbroglio was a drawn-out affair in Knoxville, Tennessee during the autumn of 1803. John Sevier, the incumbent state governor, was annoyed by the swagger of the upstart Jackson. Unfortunately, the governor blurted out the following insult: “Services? I know of no great service you rendered to the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife.” Jackson erupted: “Great God! Do you mention her sacred name?” He continued by challenging Sevier to a duel in order to avenge the dishonor to his beloved wife, Rachel Jackson. However, the duel was never fought, since the antagonists were unable to agree upon a venue for the battle.

Jackson’s second duel was deadly. It was fought on May 30, 1806 in Kentucky, just across the border from Tennessee, a state that prohibited such activity. Jackson, then a prominent 39 year old challenged the much younger Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was a noted crack-shot while Jackson was not. The origins of their dispute were complicated and involved, among other issues gambling and horse racing. Rachel’s honor was a present, but somewhat peripheral, cause.

On the date of the duel, Dickinson fired first and apparently missed. Jackson calmly aimed his pistol, but it didn’t fire. According to the rules of dueling, Jackson was entitled to refire. He did and killed Dickinson. The future president had worn a bulky overcoat to the event that masked his thin body frame; Dickinson’s aim was consequently misdirected. He had aimed for the heart, but instead damaged Jackson’s left lung. His overcoat masked his profuse bleeding, and this proudful duelist immediately departed from the field of battle to disguise his significant injury. Jackson suffered from the consequent pulmonary bleeding and pain for the rest of his life.

Dueling was common in the pre-Civil War South. It was evidence of the military-mindedness of Southern males and of their cult of virility. Moreover, it was a preferred way to avoid both lawyers and the courts to settle disputes. Challenges to a duel resulted from political differences, unhappy business relationships, or presumed insults about family, friends, physical, moral, or mental traits insults.

Lud Historian
ludmhist@comcast.net
2 Comments
  • Frank Perroni
    Posted at 14:54h, 04 September Reply

    Fascinating and it points out how History turns on minor details. An overcoat saves a future President? Who knew?

  • Frank Perroni
    Posted at 14:56h, 04 September Reply

    Very interesting, who would have guessed that an overcoat spared a future President’s life

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