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American Politics at Ten Paces
Strict codes of conduct marked the relationships of early American Politicians, often leading to duels, brawls, and other—sometimes fatal—violence
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
One of these opponents, Robert Watkins, met Jackson on the street in Augusta and accused him of heading “a damned venal set or faction which has disgraced their country [Georgia].” Jackson smashed him in the face with his cane; Watkins drew blood with a blow to Jackson’s head. Jackson pulled out a pistol and fired point blank, but someone struck up his hand. In a wild wrestling match, Watkins got on top of Jackson and tried to gouge out his eyes with his thumbs. Jackson bit Watkins’s fingers; he rolled away screaming, producing a pistol with a small bayonet on it and stabbing Jackson, missing his heart by inches. At this point friends dragged them apart, but both vowed eternal enmity.
Several more exchanges of insults drew a formal challenge from Jackson in 1802. The two men each fired four shots with no hits, but a fifth exchange sent a bullet through Jackson’s body just above his right hip. Swaying on his feet, he insisted he could manage another shot. But Watkins said he was satisfied, and the two men shook hands with the greatest cordiality, declaring their enmity to be at an end.
The hot-tempered Jackson learned nothing from this close call, continuing to fight many more duels with anyone who challenged his opinions. While he served in the U.S. Senate, those who did not want to hear bullets whistle were careful not to anger him. When Senator DeWitt Clinton of New York heard Senator Jackson starting to speak about him in menacing tones, he hastily apologized for everything and anything he might have said recently. The violence spread to the House of Representatives, where behavior was less decorous than in the Senate.
On January 30, 1798, a hot-tempered Irish-born Jeffersonian, Matthew Lyon of Vermont, began exchanging insults with Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut, eventually spitting tobacco juice into Griswold’s face. Federalists tried to expel Lyon but could not muster a two-thirds majority; Griswold decided he would settle the matter in person.
Two weeks later, Griswold strolled over to Lyon as he sat writing letters at his desk, and began beating him on the head and shoulders with a yellow hickory cane. Lyon reeled over to a fireplace, seized a pair of tongs, and countered his attacker. Within minutes they were trying to strangle each other on the floor, while the speaker called for order and their respective partisans cheered. The combatants were finally separated, but the spectators were so inflamed that brawls broke out throughout the rest of the day. Griswold pronounced himself satisfied; Lyon avoided provoking him again.
The West was almost as dark and bloody a ground for duels as was the South. The best known pistoleer by far was Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. By the time he became president, Jackson had stood at 10 or 12 paces at least 13 times. Wags claimed that he “rattled like a bag of marbles” from all the bullets in his body. Fellow Tennessean Charles Dickinson provoked Jackson in 1806 by asserting that his wife had not been divorced before he married her. That charge cast Jackson as an adulterer, his beloved wife as a bigamist, and him as unelectable by the standards of the day.
Jackson challenged Dickinson, considered the best shot in Tennessee and possibly the whole nation. The antagonists met near a mill on the Red River in Kentucky. Jackson had decided that his only chance was to let Dickinson fire first, betting that the wound would not be mortal. Jackson arrived in a loose cloak that made it difficult to target a specific part of his anatomy. Nevertheless, Dickinson’s bullet smashed into Jackson’s chest and broke several ribs. Somehow Jackson stayed on his feet, took careful aim, and shot his trembling adversary dead. “If he had shot me through the brain, I still would have killed him,” Jackson later said.
Among Virginia’s most famous duelists was the tall, shrill John Randolph of Roanoke, whose hot temper, sharp wit, and extreme opinions made him a party of one on Capitol Hill. In his estimation, President John Adams was “a traitor,” Daniel Webster “a vile slanderer,” and Congressman Edward Livingston “the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs.”
The House of Representatives infuriated Randolph when it elected John Quincy Adams president in 1824. When Adams had failed to pull in a majority of the popular vote, he had made a backroom deal with candidate Henry Clay of Kentucky, who ordered his supporters to back Adams. In exchange Clay became Adam’s secretary of state. This “corrupt bargain” brought down torrents of abuse upon Clay’s head. In one overheated debate, Randolph called the political partnership a combination of “the Puritan and the blackleg.” The latter was a term for a cheat at cards, popularized by Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones. Everyone knew about the secretary of state’s fondness for late-night card games.
Clay called upon Randolph to apologize or fight. Randolph of course accepted pistols, and Clay’s friends feared the worst: Randolph was a dead shot. But the eccentric Virginian confessed to several friends that he did not want to kill Clay, who had a wife and child. It would have proved political suicide for Randolph. He intended to give Clay the first shot and then fire into the air. But Randolph testily added that he might change his mind if he saw “the devil” in Clay’s eyes.