Andrew Jackson killing Charles Dickenson in 1806. Woodcut print, 1834. (Library of Congress)
Andrew Jackson, the controversial seventh president of the United States, was notoriously thin-skinned. He had a temper that landed him the reputation of a volcano that “only the most intrepid or recklessly curious cared to see it erupt,” according to biographer H.W. Brands. Jackson seemed to recognize that about himself, once saying, “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me.”
But Jackson didn’t settle his scores in 140 characters or less. He challenged his foes to duels — more than 100 of them (one opponent even died!). However, for the most part, people would stand and fire their gun in the air or purposefully miss their opponent, making the duel more about a test of courage when one’s honor was at stake or their reputation was threatened.
And those involved in duels selected “seconds,” people to accompany them to the duels to certify that it was conducted legitimately and to make sure it was reported accurately — but they also found themselves acting as peacemakers as a last ditch effort.
Not every time Jackson lost his cool with a gun in his hand is documented, but here are four that helped give him his reputation as a rage-filled lunatic — and a few that left his body rattling “like a bag of marbles.”
Waightstill Avery was an adversary and friend of the argumentative Jackson.
In 1788, Jackson, then a young lawyer, was facing in a civil suit Waightstill Avery, a successful attorney and veteran of the American Revolution. During the trial, Avery, who outmatched Jackson considerably, took one of Jackson’s arguments and turned it around on him so forcefully that Jackson felt he had been intellectually insulted.
Seeking revenge against Avery, who would often proclaim “I refer to Bacon” — meaning Francis Bacon’s noted text The Elements of the Common Laws of England — when making a point, Jackson replaced a copy of the text with an actual slab of bacon in Avery’s saddlebags.
When Avery criticized Jackson for pulling a childish stunt, Jackson leapt to his feet and yelled, “I may not know as much law as there is in Bacon’s Abridgement, but I know enough not to take illegal fees!” Avery shot back, “It’s false as hell!”
Jackson issued a challenge to a duel by immediately writing it in a page of an old law book, tearing out the page and handing it to Avery. The senior lawyer didn’t take the challenge seriously. The next day at court Jackson challenged him again and a time and place were set for the two to duel later that evening.
By the time the two had met at the place where they were to duel Jackson had cooled down a bit. The seconds of both men assured each of them that their honor would remain intact if they chose not to shoot one another. Nevertheless both men stepped off but ultimately fired their single shots in the air. Jackson and Avery considered themselves satisfied without bloodshed and remained on friendly terms afterwards.
President Andrew Jackson’s dueling pistols, on display at the National Museum in 1926. (Library of Congress)
Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson, a lawyer and famous duelist, were rival horse breeders and southern plantation owners who had a longstanding hatred of each other. But it became even more personal when Dickinson accused Jackson of reneging on a horse bet with $2,000 at stake and the two traded insults in the press.
After Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel, the two met Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Logan, Kentucky on May 30, 1806. Paces apart, Jackson and Dickinson stood opposed to one another. At a mere 24 feet from one another, many thought that Dickinson would easily shoot and kill Jackson. But Jackson figured his best chance against a duelist who had already shot and killed 26 men was to let him shoot first.
Within the first few seconds, Dickinson fired, putting the first bullet into Jackson’s chest next to his heart. Jackson put his hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood. Despite smoke and dust billowing from Jackson’s coat and his hand touching his chest, Jackson remained standing, puzzling Dickinson: “My God! Have I missed him?”
The duel’s protocol required stated that Dickinson to remain in place while Jackson aimed to take his shot. Jackson fired, but the flint hammer stopped half-cocked, not counting as a legitimate shot. Jackson aimed again–ever so carefully–and fired a second time. This time, the shot was good and the bullet hit Dickinson in the chest and he dropped to the ground.
Reflecting on the duel, the doctor remarked to Jackson, “I don’t see how you stayed on your feet after that wound.” To which Jackson responded, “I would have stood up long enough to kill him if he had put a bullet in my brain.”
In the end, Dickinson succumbed to his wounds later that night. Jackson was not prosecuted for murder and Dickinson would be the only man he ever killed in a duel — something that did not prevent him from becoming president in 1829.
Vote with a pistol
In 1803, when John Sevier — an American soldier, politician and one of the founding fathers of Tennessee — was re-elected as governor of Tennessee, it was a thorn in the side of Jackson, his political rival.
In the election, Jackson accused Sevier of bribery and fraud because he believed that Sevier had changed the original land claims for Tennessee. But with Sevier now the governor again, and Jackson serving as the commander of the militia, both men saw each other on a regular basis. During a heated exchange in the courthouse square in Knoxville, Sevier, who had not forgotten Jackson’s accusations during the election, accused Jackson of adultery because his wife was still married to another man.
“I know of no great service you rendered to the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife.” Sevier snarled at Jackson, to which he replied, “Great God! Do you mention her sacred name?”
John Sevier, Tennessee governor, delayed dueler. (Knox County Public Library)
The accusation led to shots being fired and Jackson having to be pulled away from Sevier. The next day Jackson sent Sevier a letter challenging him to a duel. Sevier accepted. The next day, Jackson arrived at the location first, waiting several hours for Sevier who had been delayed. After awhile, Jackson, believing Sevier was not going to show up, began to head back to Knoxville when he encountered Sevier on the road heading to the agreed location. Both men began exchanging insults on the road, and during the argument Sevier’s horse ran off with his firearms. Jackson pulled out his firearm and began chasing Sevier who had to hide behind a tree while their seconds tried to calm them down. Eventually, Jackson was calmed down and both men parted ways without any bloodshed.
Supporters of Jackson and Sevier spent the next several months insulting each other in the papers, and debating each other in the bars. The dispute between the governor and the commander of the militia actually helped advance Jackson’s reputation as a man of principle.
The Scene at the Capitol after Richard Lawrence’s unsuccessful attempt on Jackson’s life. (Library of Congress)
Let me alone!
On January 30, 1835, as Jackson was leaving a congressional funeral on Capitol Hill, he became the target of the first known assassination attempt on an American president. A 35-year-old house painter by the name of Richard Lawrence, just steps from Jackson, pulled out a pistol. When that gun misfired, he pulled out another. That one, too, misfired.
While it may not have been a duel in the traditional sense, Jackson didn’t see it that way and charged at the would-be assassin with his hickory cane. Although, at the age of 67, Jackson was frail from a variety of illnesses and injuries, he viciously beat Lawrence, yelling, “Let me alone! Let me alone! I know where this came from,” according to Library of Congress archives.
Jackson was convinced the attempt on his life was a conspiracy among his political enemies in the Whig party, but Lawrence turned out to be a mentally ill man acting alone. Lawrence, who was born in England, believed that he was King Richard III and that Jackson had killed his father and was withholding his family fortune. At his trial, Lawrence dressed royally, in a shooting jacket and cravat, and proclaimed himself above the proceedings. As the jury prepared to announce their judgment after just five minutes of deliberation, Lawrence interrupted, “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.” He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the remaining 25 years of his life in asylums.
Excerpted from Forget Twitter wars, Andrew Jackson challenged more than 100 men to duels (but only killed one)
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