3 Famous Duels Involving Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the 7th President of the United States, a General, a celebrated war hero, and one of the founders of the Democratic Party. He is one of the most influential and controversial figures in American history, and a lot of the famous stories surrounding Jackson talk about his aggressive temperament, toughness, and his principles.
It was this combination of personality traits that got Andrew Jackson in personal altercations with people, and in more extreme circumstances these altercations could lead to duels. Jackson wasn't a marksman, and he didn't seek to duel people unless he felt he had a personal reason to. Nevertheless throughout his life he participated in many duels and these are three of his more notable ones.
Painting of Andrew Jackson
A Note on Dueling
Reasons for dueling during this time were largely based on honor. People challenged each other to duels when the felt their honor was at stake or their reputation was threatened. A man who was considered dishonorable or was slighted in public during this time stood to lose a lot. If a compromise couldn't be reached verbally then a duel might take place.
Dueling on the Frontier during Andrew Jackson's time was not like dueling in the Wild West, meaning people didn't just take 10 steps and shoot as quickly as possible. Most of the time people would stand and fire their gun in the air or purposefully miss their opponent, making the duel more or less about a test of courage. However, there are plenty of real life examples where people would try to kill each other in a duel (for example Hamilton and Burr).
People involved in duels also chose second's, or people to accompany them to the duel to make sure it was legitimate. Often times second's also found themselves acting as peacemakers to a duel, making sure if shots were fired they weren't fired at other people.
It is unknown how many duels Andrew Jackson took part in, but the number of duels is estimated to be between 10 to 100. A number of Jackson duels probably ended with both parties showing up to the agreed location and deciding not to fire their weapons at each other, however that was not always the case.
Andrew Jackson's first duel (that we have any record of) was set against Waightstill Avery, a successful attorney and veteran of the American Revolution. During Jackson's early years as an attorney he faced off against Avery in a civil suit. Avery at this time was a much more experienced attorney than Jackson.
During the trial, Avery who outmatched Jackson considerably, took one of Jackson's arguments and turned it around so badly on him that Jackson felt he had been slighted. Jackson immediately wrote out a challenge for a duel in an old law book and handed it to Avery. Avery didn't take this challenge seriously so 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 second's 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 decided not to shoot each other, with each man firing a single shot in the air. Jackson and Avery considered themselves satisfied without bloodshed, and according to Avery's son remained on friendly terms afterwards.
Painting of John Sevier
Dueling The Governor
The build up to Andrew Jackson's duel with John Sevier, the first Governor of Tennessee, took a couple of years of bitter rivalry to develop into a duel. The build up to this rivalry began after John Sevier served three consecutive terms as Governor of Tennessee before stepping down due to term limits. In his place Andrew Jackson's friend, Archibald Roane was elected Governor.
Sevier decided to run for the post of Commander of the Militia after his three-term limit was up. His opponent for the post was Jackson, and the election that followed was close enough to be determined a draw. According to Tennessee law at the time it was then up to the Governor (Jackson's friend) to choose the next militia commander. Governor Roane chose Jackson. This defeat to Jackson left Sevier feeling bitter, especially since Sevier had a great deal more military experience than Jackson at this time.
Since Governor terms lasted only two years in Tennessee and since their was no term limit to the number of times you could be Governor during your life, Sevier chose to run for Governor against Roane in the next election. During the election Roane, with Jackson backing him, accused Sevier of bribery and fraud because they believed that Sevier had changed the original land claims for the state of Tennessee. This hurt Sevier's reputation, but did not stop him from defeating Roane for the Governor's seat.
With Sevier now the Governor again, and Jackson still the Commander of the Militia both men saw each other on a regular basis, and Sevier had not forgotten Jackson's accusations during the election. During a heated exchange out in the courthouse square in Knoxville, Sevier accused Jackson of adultery.
Note: Jackson married his wife while she was still married to another man, which would technically constitute adultery. Jackson's wife would eventually be able to obtain a divorce settlement from her former husband making her marriage to Andrew Jackson legitimate.
This accusation led to shots being fired (no one was hurt), and Jackson having to be pulled away from Sevier. The next day he sent Sevier a letter challenging him to a duel. After some disagreements regarding where they were to duel (dueling in Tennessee was illegal) they settled on meeting at Southwest Point (in Virginia at the time) to settle their feud.
Accounts differ as to what happened next, but Jackson arrived at the agreed 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 second's 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 helped advance Jackson's reputation as a man of principle and garnered him a lot of attention, which was important since he was a political upstart at this time.
Andrew Jackson Daguerreotype
Andrew Jackson's most notorious duel was set against Charles Dickinson, another upstart attorney trying to build his reputation on the Frontier. The duel with Dickinson, like Jackson's duel with the Governor, also developed over a longer period of time, but this time it was about a horse race.
Jackson had placed a bet with Joseph Erwin, Dickinson's father in law, on having a race between two of their horses. According to their bet, the loser of the horse race would have to pay $2,000, and if a horse couldn't run then their was an $800 forfeiting penalty. Before they could race their horses Erwin's horse went lame, and he and Jackson got into a disagreement over the forfeiting penalty. Eventually, Erwin paid, but hard feelings remained between the two.
Stories about the dispute between Erwin and Jackson spread and grew into something that they probably weren't. Nevertheless, Dickinson became angry about some of the rumors going around between Jackson and his father in-law so he sent a friend of his, Thomas Swann, to ask around about what Jackson was saying about the matter. Swann's meddling into Jackson's affairs prompted Jackson to confront Swann at a bar which ended with Jackson beating Swann with his cane.
These two incidents prompted Dickinson to begin publishing articles in the local paper calling Jackson a coward. Jackson replied by challenging Dickinson to a duel. The two agreed to meet in Kentucky and face off at 24 paces. It should be noted that Dickinson was an excellent marksman, it was said he could shoot 4 bullets within the space of a dollar coin at 24 paces.
Jackson knowing that he was about to duel an excellent marksman, prepared for the event by wearing an overly large coat to disguise his body's form, and to disguise where his heart was located. He also planned on letting Dickinson shoot him first, so that he could take his time with aiming and fire a well placed shot.
At the dueling ground Jackson carried out his strategy with devastating effect. After the order to fire and been given Dickinson turned and shot Jackson in the chest, missing his heart by only an inch. According to witnesses at the event, they all thought Dickinson had missed because Andrew Jackson just stood there like nothing had happened. After being shot in the chest Jackson took his time before finally delivering a bullet to Dickinson's abdomen.
Dickinson collapsed and was taken home where he died several hours later from the wounds he sustained in the duel. As for Jackson, the bullet that hit him was too close to his heart to perform surgery on, and he ended up carrying it with him for the rest of his life. This bullet frequently caused Jackson health problems in his future, with him often coughing up blood as a result and as a reminder to the duel he fought with Dickinson.
Andrew Jackson His Life and Times - H.W. Brands