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To the men of Andrew Jackson’s era, the following or breaking of the rules of dueling signified much about one’s own character and what one thought of his opponent’s character. Once the two men agreed to having been satisfied in the duel, a strong friendship might resume…

From the very origins of colonial America, public as well as private violence have permeated most aspects of American society. Certainly, the building of a people out of the frontier demanded violence—or, at least—the threat of it. Of the major peoples who settled the American English colonies freely, only the Quakers avoided it. Additionally, republicanism throughout time and space has demanded of its citizens the duty to protect one’s self, family, and community. When a frontier and a republic combine, the level of violence—actual or just threatened—soars. It must also be noted that scholars, most notably Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald, have demonstrated that of all the ethic and religious groups that settled America, none were so violent as the Scotch-Irish. Jackson was equal parts frontiersman, republican, and Scotch-Irish. He was, by all standards, the very personification of honor and violence.

How many duels Jackson participated in during his life remains unknown, at least in terms of actual numbers. While his altercations were frequent, his actual duels often made major news because of his high position in Tennessee. Dueling in America involved any number of complex rules and arcane rituals. To the modern eye, most of these rules seem ridiculous and perplexing. To the men of Jackson’s era, however, the following or breaking of rules signified much about one’s own character and what one thought of his opponent’s character. Challenges might originate in many conflicts, but, by far, the most common reason for dueling were 1) the calling of another a coward; 2) insulting a woman in one’s family; or 3) claiming another lied. In general, Jackson did not formally duel a man he considered his inferior. Had an inferior claimed something ill of him, he would dismiss it as unimportant, or give the offender a beating. He might cane him, or he might physically brawl with him, but these were minor incidents in Jackson’s mind, little more than the older teaching the younger to mind his manners and recognize the authority of his superiors. Not surprisingly, the American tendency to duel also had its origins in the classical world, and reading Jackson’s justifications for his own duels reminds one very much of the life and trials of Marcus Cato the Elder of republican Rome.

As opposed to brawling, dueling was the sport and duty of gentleman, designed to keep society civilized and the women and children safe… at least that is what the duelers argued. In these duels, a man demanded “satisfaction.” Only a person of equal social statue could take or give satisfaction. Importantly, satisfaction did not demand a death. Instead, it simply demanded that the duelers meet on the field and exchange shots. Perplexingly to the modern mind, once the two men agreed to having been satisfied, a strong friendship might resume. Most infamously, Jackson dueled John Sevier in 1803, Charles Dickinson in 1806, and Thomas Hart Benton’s family in 1813. Though Jackson killed Dickinson, he rekindled a friendship and a good public relationship with both Sevier and, especially, Thomas Hart Benton after their respective battles.

Sometimes allies and sometimes competitors for high offices in the 1790s and 1800s of Tennessee, Jackson and John Sevier had a love-hate relationship. Each sought to serve the public, and each desired to rise economically on the frontier. Sometimes these two goals proved incompatible, and frustrations flared. In the autumn of 1803, accusations emerged in state gossip that Governor Sevier had been using his political office for personal profit. Upon leaving his courtroom one afternoon, Jackson found Sevier and a large crowd waiting for him. As soon as Jackson emerged from the building, Sevier began to attack him verbally. Words and emotions escalated quickly, and no doubt egged on by the crowd, both men claimed to want to kill the other. Comically, while the two men declared their wish to duel, they could not agree on a time or a place. Letters with details and proposals went back and forth, each man either ignorantly or willfully misunderstanding the suggestions of the other. In Jackson’s first letter to Sevier, dated October 2, 1803, he wrote:

The ungentlemany Expressions, and gasgonading conduct, of yours relative to me on yesterday was in truef character of your self, and unmask you to the world, and plainly shews that they were the ebulations of a base mind goaded with stubborn prooffs of fraud, and flowing from a source devoid of every refined sentiment, or delicate sensation. But sir the Voice of the people has made you a Governor. This alone makes you worthy of my notice or the notice of any Gentleman. To the office I bear respect, to the Voce of the people who placed it on you I pay respect, and as such I only deign to notice you, and call upon you for that satisfaction and explanation that your ungentlemany conduct & expressions require, for this purpose I request an interview, and my friend who will hand you this will point out the time and place, when and where I shall Expected to see you with your friend and no other person. My friend and myself will be armed with pistols.[1]

The rules of southern dueling required each dueler to have a “second,” not only to keep the two duelers honest, but also to have a backup should the primary fall.

Sevier’s response mocked Jackson and his challenge, imitating it almost word for word, but with proper spelling.

Your Ungentlemanly and Gasgonading conduct of yesterday, and indeed at all other times heretofore, have unmasked yourself to me and to the World. The Voice of the Assembly has made you a Judge, and this alone has made you Worthy of My notice or Any other Gentleman, to the office I have respect and this Alone makes you worthy of my notice.[2]

Sevier concluded the letter, accepting any time or place named by Jackson but outside the state of Tennessee. Such letters and proposals passed between the two men for over a week. Jackson grew so frustrated with the inability to find a place and time to duel that he finally published the following to the public: “To all whom Shall See these presents Greeting—Know yea that I Andrew Jackson, do pronounce, Publish, and declare to the world, that his Excellency John Sevier Esqr. Governor, Captain General and commander in chief, of the land and Naval forces of the State of Tennessee—is a base coward and poltroon. He will basely insult, but has not the courage to repair the wound.”[3] Finally, the two men agreed on a time and place. Jackson arrived to the spot early, but Sevier arrived late. When Jackson saw Sevier approaching, he had an ally ride forward to deliver a letter to the governor, listing every crime the man had supposedly committed against Jackson. Sevier, though, refused to accept the letter, which threw Jackson into a rage. Jackson mounted his horse and charged Sevier, brandishing his cane as a weapon. Stunned by the man galloping toward him, Sevier fell off his horse, fumbling as he tried to unsheathe his sword. The sword broke as Sevier landed under his own horse. Satisfied, Jackson considered the matter done. The two men and their followers rode back into town, gay and full of friendship for one another.[4]

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Notes:

[1] Andrew Jackson to John Sevier, October 2, 1803, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 1: 367-368.

[2] John Sevier, October 2, 1803, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 1: 368.

[3] Andrew Jackson to the Public, October 10, 1803, in Papers of Andrew Jackson 1: 378-379.

[4] Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson 1: 234-235.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Mike, there are those who might argue that, indeed, they do?

    An aside: I saw a picture of a tombstone that read: “…he never killed a man that didn’t need a good killing.” Which kind of says it all?

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