The Duel Life of a President

Article excerpt

Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION Was U.S. President Andrew Jackson a serial duellist who killed more than 20 opponents? COMING from the frontier area of Tennessee, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was a lawyer turned politician who became the seventh U.S. president (1829-1837) after serving as an army general, defeating the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) and the British at the Battle of New Orleans (1815).

His reputation as a war hero and hard man enabled his election to what proved to be a strong presidency. Noted for his iron will and aggressive personality, Jackson was nicknamed 'Old Hickory'.

It was claimed that he was addicted to duelling to build and protect his reputation on the cut-throat frontier. Duelling was common at the time and politicians, as well as newspaper editors and lawyers, frequently received challenges, but although Jackson's biographies mention many duels and scrapes, just three are a matter of public record.

In 1788, as prosecutor in the North Carolina (later Tennessee) territorial court, Jackson's opponent was Waightsill Avery, a well-known revolutionary veteran and one of the most erudite lawyers in North Carolina.

Avery humiliated Jackson in court, and in a letter Jackson subsequently challenged Avery. He wrote: 'My character you have injured, and further you have insulted me in the presence of a court and a large audience. I therefore call upon you as a gentleman to give me satisfaction for the same.' By the time the duel was due to be fought, Jackson's temper had cooled, and both deliberately missed with their shots and shook hands, and their seconds agreed that honour had been satisfied.

Fifteen years later, Jackson tangled with another distinguished veteran, Tennessee governor John Sevier, who years before had blocked Jackson's election as major-general of the Tennessee militia. In 1802, Jackson narrowly beat Sevier to win the major-generalship and publicly disclosed evidence he'd discovered of Sevier having dealt in forged land warrants.

Sevier burst into Judge Jackson's Knoxville court with a cutlass and demanded a duel, but before one could take place, the pair met and managed to settle their differences without coming to blows.

Jackson's most famous duel, in 1806, arose from a disagreement with a rival lawyer, the horse breeder and plantation owner Charles Dickinson. Dickinson's father-in-law, Captain Joseph Ervin, mishandled a horse racing bet with Jackson and a friend of Jackson's criticised him for it.

As Ervin's son-in-law, Dickinson was enraged and quarrelled with Jackson's friend, upon which Jackson got involved. Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a 'coward and an equivocator', and in May 1806 he published a statement in the Nashville Review characterising Jackson as a 'worthless scoundrel ... a poltroon and a coward'. The last straw was when Dickinson accused Jackson's wife Rachel of bigamy.

Despite Dickinson's reputation as a top gunfighter, Jackson challenged him to a duel. Duelling was by then illegal in Tennessee, so they agreed to meet at the Red River in Kentucky on May 30, 1806.

Jackson famously gave Dickinson the first shot and took a bullet two inches from his heart, breaking several ribs. He held his wound and, fighting the urge to collapse, aimed his weapon, but misfired. …