Thursday, March 16, 2017
March 16, 2017: Andrew Jackson’s America: Dueling Histories
[March 15th marks the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five sides to this controversial, influential figure and president, leading up to a special weekend post on Jackson and Trump!]
On what two of Jackson’s many duels help us understand about both the activity and the man.
By far the most famous single duel in American history—even before the smash hit musical that has made it famous to a whole new generation of Americans—would have to be the July 1804 tilt between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. But thanks to the confluence of both cultural and personal contexts, Andrew Jackson is likely just as famous as an individual participant in numerous duels (the number is uncertain but has been said to be as high as 103). For one thing, dueling was particularly prevalent on the frontier, and at the time of Jackson’s youthful experiences in Tennessee that state was very much on the new nation’s western frontier; although dueling was technically illegal in Tennessee, Jackson, himself a lawyer, fought most of his duels while living there (often crossing into Kentucky to do so). For another thing, while living in Nashville Jackson fell in love with Rachel Donelson Robards, a very unhappily married woman, and the two were married before (it turned out) she had received a divorce; this led to numerous accusations of adultery, many leveled at Jackson by legal or political opponents, and to which Jackson’s most consistent answer was a challenge to duel. And for a third, and simplest, thing, Andrew Jackson seems to have been a man prone to anger and violence, living in an era when codes of gentlemanly behavior gave him an acceptable outlet for those tendencies.
All duels weren’t created equal, though, and two very distinct Jackson duels offer dueling images (I know, I know—don’t shoot me) of the activity. Jackson’s first recorded duel was in North Carolina on August 12th, 1788, against Waightstill Avery, a fellow attorney and prominent Revolutionary War veteran who had handily bested the much younger Jackson (he was only 21 at the time, to Avery’s 47) in a court battle. Chastened by the legal outmaneuvering, the hot-tempered Jackson challenged Avery to a duel on two consecutive days of the trial, and on the second Avery accepted. By the time the two men arrived at the dueling grounds later that evening, however, their passions had cooled sufficiently that they resolved the matter in an apparently honorable but entirely harmless way: firing their guns into the air. While I don’t know how many of Jackson’s 103 duels were similarly symbolic rather than life-threatening, it seems likely that this possibility played out a fair amount of the time—after all, whatever the era and its social codes and mores, few people actively seek death on a regular basis, and fewer still can consistently find willing compatriots in that pursuit. That Jackson and Avery apparently became and remained friendly after their symbolic duel only cements the idea that such displays of honor often existed as much to make a point as to end a life.
Friendship was very much not the outcome of Jackson’s most famous single duel, however: a fatal contest with fellow attorney Charles Dickinson in May 1806. This time Jackson was the elder (39 to Dickinson’s 26), and Dickinson more the instigator: a series of family and financial skirmishes culminated in Dickinson insulting Jackson’s wife Rachel, a move that by this time was more or less guaranteed to result in a challenge to duel. Dickinson, well known as a crack shot (he had supposedly already killed 26 men in duels by this time), shot first and hit Jackson in the chest, narrowly missing his heart; but the hardy Jackson did not fall (leading to Dickinson’s famous cry, “My God! Have I missed him?”) and hit Dickinson, who died of his wounds later that night. Jackson would carry the bullet inside him for the rest of his life, certainly a reminder of the far more destructive and fatal possibilities of dueling. Indeed, while Dickinson is the only man whom we know Jackson killed in a duel, it’s fair to say that the practice served as a constant reminder of the presence of violence in both Jackson’s individual temperament and his society and era.
Last JacksonStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jackson histories or contexts you’d highlight?