Andrew Jackson’s Advice On Dueling


Practical tips on ending a troublesome scoundrel

It is a popular myth that Andrew Jackson fought in over one hundred duels. According to Jackson biographer Mark R. Cheathem, the number of duels we have evidence he fought in is just two (and a half.) But based on this letter from September 9, 1819, you might believe Jackson had been dueling his whole life.

Jackson’s close friend (and future Secretary of War) John Eaton had recently been smeared in an anonymous attack in a newspaper thought to be written by a man named Andrew Erwin. Eaton was ready to defend his honor in a duel with Erwin, and he chose Captain Richard Keith Call as his “second,” or designated duel coordinator. Jackson wrote to impart his deep dueling knowledge to Call.

Because it’s such a great example of Andrew Jackson the man, I’m sharing this letter in its entirety here — with minor edits to punctuation, capitalization, and spelling for clarity — and with my impressions throughout.

Hermitage Sept 9th 1819

Captain Call.

In prosecuting the business you have taken charge of for your friend, Major Eaton, you must steadily keep in mind that the man you have to deal with is unprincipled. You will be guarded in all your acts, have everything in writing and hold no conversation with him unless in the presence of some confidential person of good character, he is mean and artful.

Old Hickory knows how to scare someone. Maybe I’ve watched too many horror movies, but this setup is right up there with the warning talks Clarice Starling got before visiting Hannibal Lecter and Father Karras got before visiting the demon in The Exorcist.

It is possible from what I think of the man that he will propose rifles or muskets. These are not weapons of gentlemen – and cannot and ought not to be yielded to. Pistols are the universal weapons (with one solitary exception) of firearms gentlemen use. These or swords ought to be selected, and as neither of those concerned are in the habit of using swords, the offending party will make choice of this weapon.

So you’re definitely recommending swords? Got it.

The next choice in the opponent is distance — ten paces is the longest — and although the defendant may choose as far as ten paces, still if the offended is not as good a shot as the defendant, custom and justice will bring them to a distance that will put them on a perfect equality position. To prevent accident, let them keep their pistols suspended until after the word fire is given.

Safety first. We wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt.

The first rule is to let each man fire when he pleases, so that he fires one minute or two after the word.

One to two minutes?! I’ve always pictured the opponents counting and immediately turning to shoot. This tense waiting game sounds so much more terrifying.

Charge your friend to preserve his fire, keeping his teeth firmly clenched, and his fingers in a position that if fired on and hit, his fire may not be extorted. Sometimes when the distance is long it is agreed that both or either may advance and fire. If this arrangement is made, charge your friend to preserve his fire until he shoots his antagonist through the brain, for if he fires and does not kill his antagonist, he leaves himself fully in his power.

Jackson is speaking 100% from experience here, as his own duel with Charles Dickinson in 1806 resulted in Jackson getting shot first, in the chest. Dickinson was then forced to wait for Jackson to return fire. The wounded Jackson, like a horror movie monster, raised his arm and fatally shot Dickinson in the abdomen.

Jackson and Dickinson Duel, from The Illustrated American, June 8, 1895

Have every rule written down and signed by his friend. Receive none but written answers, and all open, that you may inspect and see that they are decorous, for this is the friend’s duty to see that no paper that comes through him ought to contain indecorous expressions.

You’re already negotiating a duel based on indecorous expressions – what happens if a few more get thrown around? Do you get to use a pistol and a sword?

I have been always of an opinion that a base man can never act bravely. The attack upon Major E[aton] was in the first place wanton, then throwing the authorship on a diminutive blackguard printer, that no one could notice, only with a cudgel – shows a meanness and cowardice, with all his boasted courage, that induces me to believe that he will not fight.

Ultimately, the duel was called off because a newspaper editor came forward to take credit for writing the anonymous attack on Eaton.

It may be he may rather select me ­– as he may think that I will have nothing to do with him, and in this way get off.

At this point, the letter takes a hard right into Andrew Jackson’s personal fantasy that Eaton’s opponent might change his mind and challenge Jackson himself to a duel, believing Jackson would not accept the challenge.

Should he (by way of example sake) just close with him. I then have a right to choice of distance. Take him at seven feet, placed back to back, pistols suspended, until after the word fire, and I will soon put an end to this troublesome scoundrel. It is possible from what I have heard that he may attempt to take this ground and I charge you agree on my part without hesitation.

Maybe there is strategy here. I wonder if this could be Jackson’s shrewd way of scaring Erwin away from the duel, or encouraging him to go through with the duel against Eaton for fear of dueling Jackson? But it sounds like Jackson just wants to duel so bad it hurts.

He is a man I cannot challenge, but if a villain will run from one danger and hold out ideas of bravery – they ought always to be taken in. I pledge myself on the foregoing terms. If my pistol fires ­– I kill him—

A.J.

He ended the letter there, either exhausted from the climax of his hate-fueled fantasy or super smug that he wrote such a sweet closing sentence. If telephones were around in Jackson’s time, I bet he would have ended most calls not with “Goodbye” but with “I kill him.”

This letter captures much of what I understand about Andrew Jackson. It’s got solid practical advice based on unquestionable experience, and it shows some of the precision of a trained legal mind. But it also has Jackson’s trademark mix of paranoia, strongly-held opinion, and bluster about courage.

And then, much like Jackson’s life and presidency, it becomes ultimately driven by his own insatiable desire for revenge against those he feels have wronged him.

 


Sources:

The Papers of Andrew Jackson: Volume IV, 1816-1820 Editor: Harold D. Moser, David R. Hoth, and George H. Hoemann

Ben Franklin’s World podcast episode 034: Mark R. Cheathem, Andrew Jackson, Southerner

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