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Presidents Who Dueled
History of Duels
Have you seen an old western where cowboys take a few steps, turn, and fire? Hollywood loves a good duel, but duels were actually quite real and more common than you might think. While Hollywood has popularized pistol duels, sword duels were actually more common up until the 18th century. In fact, fencing duels were still prevalent, along with pistol duels, throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Duels were largely based on a code of honor, with reputation restoration as the primary goal rather than killing the opponent. Duels were largely reserved for nobility in Europe and upper classes in America. Surprisingly, duels were often socially accepted, and they seldom resulted in legal prosecution.
Traditional duels resulted when one party wished to demand satisfaction of the other party. Once accepted, each party would name a trusted representative, known as a second. Seconds would determine a suitable field of honor and check weaponry to make sure they were equal, and the duel was fair. Duels typically demanded similarity of weapons such as guns, swords, etc.
The following presidents participated in, were challenged to, or narrowly missed a duel:
Martin Van Buren
"I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him. If I should do another such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done. I place my opposition to dueling on higher grounds than any here stated. No doubt a majority of the duels fought have been for want of moral courage on the part of those engaged to decline."
- Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)
George Washington Duel
While George Washington regularly encouraged his officers to avoid duels, he almost participated in one, narrowly escaping a duel with William Payne in 1775. Washington, a 23-year-old colonel at the time, had adamantly supported Mr. Fairfax for the House of Burgesses. William Payne, Mr. Fairfax’s opponent, was outraged by this. Payne and Washington exchanged heated words in the market square. Payne, a hot-tempered, small man, struck Washington with a hickory stick, and Washington fell to the ground. Troops rushed from the barracks, ready to pounce upon Payne, but Washington pacified them. Witnesses believed a duel was imminent, but Washington had a night to cool down and reflect on the events. The next morning, Washington sent for Payne by requesting his presence in a nearby tavern. Payne entered the tavern expecting pistols or swords to be the choice of weaponry for the duel but instead found a decanter of wine and two glasses on a table. Washington reportedly said, “Mr. Payne, to err is human. I was wrong yesterday, but if you have had sufficient satisfaction, let us be friends.” Payne was reportedly taken by this gesture and called it true manhood. The two men had a lasting friendship after this occurred. In fact, William Payne died in 1800, merely four months after being a pall-bearer at George Washington’s funeral.
James Monroe Duel
Aaron Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton is perhaps one of the most famous events in American history. Burr has long been referred to as the villain for his slaying of Hamilton. Few people talk about other duels Hamilton had prior to his demise. In fact, Hamilton was involved in no fewer than ten duels where no shots were fired. One of these duels occurred in 1797, with James Monroe being the opponent.
Aaron Burr defeated Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law and took his seat in office. This outraged Hamilton, as did many things. Six years later, Hamilton found himself at the heart of a political scandal that threatened his career in politics. Hamilton accused Monroe of leaking the details of an extramarital affair to the press, one with Maria Reynolds. James Monroe had confronted Hamilton with rumors of his affair. At the time, Hamilton had convinced Monroe to keep quiet. The transgression ran deeper though. It was alleged that Hamilton had used government money to bribe Reynolds’s husband to keep the affair quiet. A bribe had been paid, but Hamilton said the money came from his own pocket and not the government’s purse. Monroe allegedly broke his promise in 1797, and Hamilton was forced to give a public apology for his extramarital transgression, thus causing him to lose face. His honor was at stake, and he demanded satisfaction. He challenged his accuser, James Monroe, to a gunfight duel. At the time, Monroe was a prominent Congressman from Virginia. Monroe chose Burr as his successor should he die in the duel. Luckily, an agreement between Hamilton and Monroe was reached, and the duel never occurred. In a twist of irony, Burr is often credited with resolving the dispute and negating the need for a duel between Hamilton and Monroe. In an even bigger twist of irony, historians have since stated that James Reynolds actually encouraged his wife to seduce Hamilton in an effort to secure a bribe from him.
Martin Van Buren Duel
Martin Van Buren was Aaron Burr’s second in the duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Andrew Jackson Duel
Andrew Jackson is often referred to as tough, argumentative, and physical. He reportedly had somewhere between five and a hundred duels! Records are sketchy at best, but it’s very safe to say that Andrew Jackson was a tough man. In fact, Jackson’s troops nicknamed him “Old Hickory” because of how tough he was.
Jackson and Charles Dickinson were rival horse breeders. They were both southern plantation owners, and they both had a long-standing hatred of each other. In 1805, one of Andrew Jackson’s friends became involved in a quarrel over a bet made on a horse race between Captain Joseph Ervin and Jackson. Ervin’s son-in-law, Dickinson, became incensed by something that was said, and the quarrel became more inflamed. Dickinson accused Jackson of reneging on the horse bet. Dickinson also called Rachel Jackson a bigamist, because she had married Jackson before her divorce had been finalized, unknowingly so.
Jackson got involved at this point. Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a "coward and an equivocator." Additional insults were hurled, until Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in May 1806. Dickinson called Jackson a “worthless scoundrel. . .a poltroon and a coward.” Jackson responded by challenging Dickinson to a duel, according to the customs of the south. Dickinson was known as one of the best shots in Tennessee, if not the best, and he was given choice of weapons. Predictably, he chose pistols.
On May 30, 1806, Jackson and Dickinson met at Harrison's Mills in Logan, Kentucky. Dickinson fired the first shot, which crushed two of Jackson's ribs and lodged near his heart, perhaps as close as two inches. Witnesses state that Jackson didn’t even flinch. A plume of dust emanated from Jackson’s coat; blood gushed downward and into Jackson's left boot. Jackson attempted to limit the loss of blood by putting his hand over the wound. At this point, Dickinson reportedly said, "My God! Have I missed him?" With that, he took a step back. Overton, Jackson's second, reportedly said, "Back to the mark, sir!" Jackson fired. Dickinson's seconds claimed Jackson's first shot misfired. Standard protocol demanded that the duel was over, but Jackson allegedly re-cocked his gun and fired again, in breach of duel etiquette. This shot resulted in Dickinson’s death. The duel was accepted by many but considered a cold-blooded murder by others.
Interestingly, Dickinson's shot had hit its mark, precisely. Jackson was a thin man. Standing at six feet tall, he weighed no more than 145 pounds. On the day of the duel, Jackson wore a dark blue frock coat and trousers of the same material. The coat was too large for him. Dickison aimed for Jackson's heart but misjudged where it was because of the size of the coat Jackson was wearing.
Seven years later, Jackson was involved in another altercation that resulted in bullet wounds. During a September 1813 gunfight with the Benton brothers in downtown Nashville, Jackson was hit by both a slug and a ball. The slug crushed his left shoulder, and the ball embedded against his left humerus. Jackson bled profusely. He saturated two mattresses after being moved to a room in the Nashville Inn. Every doctor in town tried to stop the flow of blood. All but one recommended the amputation of his left arm. Jackson refused. He said, "I'll keep my arm." This was the last thing he said before falling unconscious. Jackson was a tough man, and he did keep his arm. He also kept both the bullet from the Dickinson duel and the shoulder wound from the gunfight with the Benton brothers until the day he died, thirty-two years later.
Zachary Taylor Duel
Zachary Taylor was given the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" by fellow soldiers. His nickname spoke volumes about his character. Zachary Taylor was a famous general, and he was known for his toughness. Still, he was generally opposed to duels.
Brigadier General Eleazer W. Ripley resigned his commission, and the position needed to be filled. General Taylor was an outspoken advocate for his friend Thomas S. Jesup. His opposition, Colonel Daniel Bissel, also had an outspoken friend. His friend accused Taylor of being hostile towards the Colonel. Zachary Taylor responded that he did want his friend to be appointed, but he really didn’t care who got the appointment if that didn’t happen. He continued by saying that if this wasn’t enough for Bissel “the Genl might select the grounds on which we meet.” Bissel affirmed that he was satisfied by this statement, and the duel never took place. Later, Taylor was quoted as saying that Bissel had “lost his energies as a soldier.” He also said, “His morals are so bad that he ought not to have been suffered to remain in command of young officers.” However, he also said that Bissel “has sunk so low, that he is rather an object of pity than contempt.” Regardless of Taylor’s disdain for Bissel, the duel had been averted.
Abraham Lincoln Duel
Abraham Lincoln is remembered for many things, but dueling isn’t one of them. However, Lincoln was involved in a dispute, with James Shields, that resulted in a duel. Lincoln once said, "If all the good things I have ever done are remembered as long and as well as my scrape with Shields, it is plain I shall not be forgotten."
Shields was scrutinized by anonymous letters published in the Sangamo Journal of Springfield. A person or people claiming the pseudonym "Rebecca" wrote letters that openly criticized Shields for signing some proclamations with which most of the general public disagreed. One of the aggressive letters belittled Shields's Irish ancestry. It demanded, "Go back to the place from whence you came. Perhaps there you can succeed; but here you cannot." Another letter showed disdain by attacking his lack of courage. Historians largely believe that Mary Todd, Lincoln's future wife, wrote the letters. Some even think that Lincoln wrote the letters, but ultimately, the author’s true identity is still unknown. While Todd and Lincoln weren’t the only two suspects, Lincoln received the bulk of the blame. Consequently, Shields challenged him to a duel. Because of a law passed in 1839, dueling was illegal in Illinois. That didn’t really matter to either of the participants though, and the duel was still planned. Duel protocol allowed Lincoln the privilege of selecting the terms of the duel since he had been challenged. Lincoln selected the broad sword. He also selected a field of honor, about three miles from Alton, Illinois, on the opposite side of the Mississippi River, in Missouri.
On September 22, 1842, both men crossed the river and attempted to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Shields had a hot temper and refused to yield. As the duel began, Shields realized that he was outclassed. Lincoln had outwitted Shields by selecting a weapon that took advantage of his superior reach, a sword. Lincoln was a giant, standing at six feet four inches tall. Lincoln’s reach became all too apparent to everyone when he reached far overhead and cut off a willow branch with one lightning-quick stroke. Shields backed down and made peace with Lincoln. Lincoln and Shields had a friendly relationship after their duel.
Andrew Johnson Duel
Andrew Johnson is best known for being the first president ever to be impeached, though not removed from office. Few people remember the challenge he received from a prominent Whig lawyer named Thomas T. Smiley. Johnson was running for re-election for governor in 1855. The campaign was heated, and multiple debates resulted in increased tension. While Johnson was ultimately victorious, it was a very close contest. Johnson gave a speech that denounced both the Know Nothing Party and Smiley. Smiley was outraged and offered a duel. The duel never came to fruition because of outside intervention by Washington Burrow and Benjamin F. Cheatham.
Theodore Roosevelt Duel
Antoine Amédée Marie Vincent Manca de Vallambrosa, generally called by his title, the Marquis de Morès, was an entrepreneurial Frenchman, often a schemer, who lived in the North Dakota badlands in the 1880s. He and Theodore Roosevelt conducted business on several occasions. Twice, they had disagreements over land rights. On one separate occasion, Roosevelt backed out of the sale of some of his cattle, because the Marquis lowered the price from the agreed upon 6¢ to 5.5¢ per pound. The Marquis was accused of killing Riley Luffsey, though acquitted later. During his trial, he was in jail, and he sent a letter to Roosevelt on September 3, 1885. The letter expressed deep concern that Roosevelt’s employee and friend Joe Ferris had been “very active against me and has been instrumental in getting me indicted.” He asked Roosevelt, “Is this done by your order?” The letter also contained a threat, "If you are my enemy I want to know it...between gentlemen it is easy to settle matters of that sort directly." “Directly” clearly implied a duel.
Roosevelt carefully responded with a letter, as a duel seemed eminent. Without mentioning it to the Marquis, Bill Sewall offered to be Roosevelt's second in the duel. Roosevelt didn’t want the duel and wrote, “Most emphatically I am not your enemy; if I were you would know it, for I would be an open one, and would not have asked you to my house nor gone to yours." Roosevelt closed his letter by saying that he was "ever ready to hold myself accountable for anything I have said or done." The letter worked wonders, and a duel became unnecessary.