“Now Defend Yourself, You Damned Rascal!”


As the chanting of his slaves announced the approaching death of Andrew Jackson, on a June day in 1845, the old warrior spent part of his last conscious moments dictating farewell messages to men whose love he had valued—Francis P. Blair, Sam Houston, and Thomas Hart Benton. The appearance of Benton on this list was natural, for he had become the old general’s most devoted partisan; but thirty years earlier it would have caused great surprise, for Benton and Jackson had been the bitterest of enemies and had once tried their level best to kill one another. The strange duel they fought—it took place during the War of 1812—was one of the odd landmarks of American political history.

The two had become acquainted shortly before that war began. Jackson was the elder by fifteen years, and his famous fight with Benton was only one of a number of violent episodes in his long career. He had fought two duels (one of which ended fatally for his opponent), had caned various enemies, and had sent numerous challenges that went unaccepted. He tangled twice with Governor John Sevier of Tennessee, once trading shots with him in a crowd—a slightly wounded bystander was the only casualty—and once meeting him more formally, but very anticlimactically, on the dueling ground; Sevier’s horse ran away with the pistols, and both men were led away, swearing at each other until out of earshot. Benton also had a high temper. At sixteen he had initiated a pistol duel with a schoolmate, and only the vigilance of a professor had averted bloodshed.

Physically, the two men were in contrast. Jackson was tall and thin; the irreverent said that he was skinny. Equally tall, Benton was built along the general lines of a modern professional football tackle—broad, thick, and heavily muscled. In education and intellect, Benton was the superior; in capacity for blind fury, utter recklessness, and iron-willed determination, neither man had a superior.

As so often happened in that era of hot tempers and the violent settlement of disputes, their famous duel grew out of a close friendship.

Shortly before the beginning of the War of 1812, Benton was a struggling young attorney, cursed by ill health. His father and three sisters had died of tuberculosis, and Benton himself, suffering from a fever and a racking cough, saw his own end at hand. But the arrival of the war with England brought him a chance to escape from obscurity and ill health alike. In February, 1812, when war seemed imminent, he conceived a plan for recruiting three regiments of volunteers and rode off through thirty miles of rain and mud to present it in person at the Hermitage. Jackson was impressed; with Benton’s help he raised a force of more than 2,000 men and by early January, 1813, was leading them down the Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers on flatboats to defend New Orleans. Benton was colonel of one of the infantry regiments and doubled as Jackson’s principal aide.

Nothing went right—except that the outdoor exercise and fresh air restored Benton’s health and ended his apparent predisposition to tuberculosis. At Natchez the War Department punctured the leaders’ dreams of glory by ordering Jackson to disband his army and turn all public property over to General James Wilkinson. Jackson daily refused to let his men join Wilkinson’s regulars and announced that he would lead them home on his own responsibility. Benton stuck with him, although he did say that Wilkinson was legally his superior and that if he were ordered to take his regiment and fight under him he could not refuse. As it happened, this did not become an issue.

Back to Nashville, 800 inglorious miles, went the volunteers. Jackson had spent a good deal of his own money on the expedition, and he needed reimbursement; it was agreed that Benton would go to Washington and present his claims. This Benton did, winning governmental approval of Jackson’s expense vouchers and incidentally wangling a commission as lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army for himself. But during his absence there was a development that led to an abrupt souring of the friendship between the two men.

A challenge for a duel had passed between two officers in Jackson’s army, Major William Carroll and Ensign Lyttleton Johnston; Benton’s younger brother, Jesse, was acting as Ensign Johnston’s second. Andrew Jackson intervened to make peace, but peacemaking was never Old Hickory’s long suit, and while the original cause of action did get settled Jesse Benton somehow became involved in an argument with Major Carroll and wound up committed to fight a duel with him. And Major Carroll’s second was Jackson himself.

The actual duel turned out to be a fiasco that gave Tennesseeans cause for laughter for years to come. Carroll was a notoriously poor shot with a pistol; therefore it was arranged that the duelists would stand back to back, ten feet apart, and on the signal would wheel and fire. Jesse Benton protested these arrangements—which seem to have been devised by Jackson—but got nowhere. When the duel was fought, he wheeled in a squatting position in order to reduce the target area—and promptly got a painful wound in the seat of his pants.