February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
Andrew Jackson challenged Thomas Hart Benton in a bloody frontier brawl, but they later formed a political team which left its mark on America.
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.
Thomas Hart Benton returned to Tennessee, learned of all of this, and concluded that Jackson had not acted as an old friend should. He said as much, Jackson heard about it, and presently Jackson sent Benton an ominously calm note asking about it: Had Benton been complaining, and, specifically, was there any truth in the rumor that he had threatened to send Jackson a challenge?
Benton sent an outspoken reply. He did not think much of Jackson’s actions in connection with the various quarrels, he thought the duel had been conducted in a “savage, unequal, unfair, and base manner,” and all in all he did not like any of it. He would not challenge, but the threat of the General’s pistols would not seal his lips. He would continue to speak the truth, neither seeking nor declining a duel.
No man could write to Old Hickory that way without getting a vigorous reply. Jackson wrote angrily: “It is the character of the man of honor, and particularly of the soldier, not to quarrel and brawl like fish women.” He defended everything he had done and announced flatly that Benton should either admit error or demand satisfaction.
Inevitably, for neither Jackson nor Benton ever reacted in a halfway manner, this led to a duel. Yet the duel that at last was fought bore no resemblance to the formal, courtly affairs specified in the romantic code. Rather, it looked more like an outright frontier brawl, utterly without formalities: a savage collision between two angry men each determined to do the other all the bodily harm possible.
After the exchange of letters between Jackson and Benton, talebearers continued their work until Jackson announced that he would horsewhip Tom Benton on sight. His opportunity finally came on September 4, 1813, when the Benton brothers arrived in Nashville on business. They stayed at a hotel not frequented by Jackson in order, in Benton’s words, to avoid “a possibility of unpleasantness.” Word of their presence spread quickly, and soon Jackson, Colonel John Coffee, and Stockley Hays arrived at the Nashville Inn. Both Coffee and Hays were gigantic men, a fit palace guard for their smaller but more aggressive leader. Each of the Bentons carried two pistols. The Jackson war party was equally well armed, and in addition Jackson, meaning to fulfill his pledge, carried a riding whip.
Jackson and Coffee first strolled to the post office, passing near Talbot’s tavern, where the Bentons were standing on the walk. Returning the same way, they saw Jesse Benton step from the pavement into the hotel. Jackson unhesitatingly assumed the role of aggressor by following Jesse into the hotel. Jesse had disappeared, but Thomas was standing in the doorway of the hall leading to the rear porch. Brandishing the whip, Jackson advanced upon Thomas Benton: “Now defend yourself, you damned rascal!” Benton reached for his pistol, but Jackson’s draw was quicker. Looking into the muzzle of Jackson’s pistol, Thomas Benton slowly retreated, with Jackson following step by step. Jesse Benton, meanwhile, slipped through a doorway behind Jackson, raised his gun, and fired. At the same moment, Jackson fired twice at Thomas Benton, who fired back twice in return. Jackson fell with his left shoulder shattered and a ball imbedded in his arm. The blast from Jackson’s gun had burned a hole in Thomas Benton’s sleeve. At this moment tall John Coffee came charging through the smoke, fired at Thomas Benton, missed, and attacked with the butt of his pistol. Fortunately the carnage was limited by the act that the Colt six-shooter had not yet been invented; the fire-belching smoothbore pistols the antagonists used were not particularly accurate and, once fired, were useless. Jackson’s friends, however, by now reinforced, almost finished their leader’s mission. Wielding daggers, Coffee and Alexander Donelson managed to wound Thomas Benton in five places. Stockley Hays stabbed away at Jesse with a sword cane, and only a large and strong button which broke Hays’ blade saved Jesse from being perforated. Jesse placed the muzzle of his remaining pistol against Hays’ chest and pulled the trigger, but in a fair exchange of mishaps the charge failed to explode. Thomas Benton, meanwhile, in his efforts to parry the dagger thrusts of Coffee and Donelson, fell backward down a flight of stairs. The obviously serious plight of the bleeding Jackson brought the melee to an end. Friends carried the General back to his hotel, where he soaked two mattresses with blood. An ordinary man would have died, but iron-willed Andrew Jackson had not yet decided to expire. He had been defeated, however, and battered Thomas Benton sealed the victory by breaking Jackson’s sword across his knee in the public square.
Fighting one’s commander was no step to fame. Thomas Benton still hungered for military glory, but the battle with Jackson was to be his only victory in the War of 1812. Benton was an excellent recruiting officer, and Jackson used this fact for a subtle revenge. On the eve of the great Battle of Horseshoe Bend and again just before his final march to immortality at New Orleans, Jackson ordered the Colonel back to Nashville for recruiting. On the second occasion Benton pleaded for a chance to fight as a private in the ranks, but Old Hickory was adamant. Wishing to see his other “brave officers at the head of their respective commands where fresh laurels await them, and finding that they cannot fill their companies here,” the General stood by his order. Benton finally wangled an assignment to Canada, but it came after the peace treaty and Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. Leaving the army early in 1815, Benton could see only a blighted future as long as he remained in the same state with Jackson, so he decided to seek out a new career in the vast land beyond the Mississippi.
In December, 1823, almost ten years later, the newly elected Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee arrived at the capitol to take the one conspicuously vacant seat in the Senate chamber. Next to him sat Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, if anything bigger and more irritatingly self-assured than ever. They had not met since 1813. Fearing a possible explosion, several senators offered to exchange seats with them, but both men declined, taking no notice of each other.
The air about the two savage lawmakers remained charged for several days until they were assigned to the same committee with Jackson as chairman. Old Hickory finally broke the ice. Facing Benton squarely one day, he said, “Colonel, we are on the same committee; I will give you notice when it is necessary to attend.”
The younger man was equal to the occasion: “General, make the time to suit yourself.” After a session in committee together they exchanged queries as to the health of their respective wives, and a few days later Jackson left his card at the Benton lodgings: “Andrew Jackson for Colonel Benton and lady.” Finally Colonel and Mrs. Benton found themselves with Senator Jackson at a White House dinner. Benton made the first bow, accepted Jackson’s extended hand, and introduced Mrs. Benton. Civil relations were restored.
Shortly afterward Senator John Eaton wrote the always-worried Mrs. Jackson a reassuring letter: The General was now reconciled with his enemies, including “what you would never have expected, Col. Benton.” Jackson himself added a benign postscript: “It is a pleasing subject to me that I am now at peace with all the world.”
Peace, however, was not a normal state for Andrew Jackson, and it did not continue long enough to affect his character seriously. Running for President in 1824, the General received more popular votes than any other candidate but not the required majority of the electoral votes. He lost the election to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. From that point Benton was again Jackson’s man and played a leading role in 1828, when Jackson became President.
Jackson’s eight-year reign was a long succession of fierce political struggles involving personalities as often as principles. Old Hickory emerged as the champion of equality of opportunity in American life, opposed by the older economic aristocracy. In every battle Benton led the Jackson forces in the Senate.
The high point of Benton’s personal devotion to Jackson followed a harsh Senate resolution charging Jackson with improper and unconstitutional conduct in removing government funds from the control of the Bank of the United States. Benton answered with a public avowal never to rest until the Senate should “expunge” the resolution from the official record.
For three years, in every session of Congress, he sang the President’s praises and demanded his vindication, until the matter became a national issue. In 1836, when the Administration’s followers finally won a clear-cut majority in the Senate, Benton launched the battle to clear Jackson’s name.
Even with a majority, such a precedent-breaking action required careful planning. On the appointed day Benton prepared for a marathon session by stocking a committee room with “cold hams, turkeys, rounds of beef, pickles, wines, and cups of hot coffee.” When opponents kept making speeches in hope of adjournment, the “expungers” were ready. As, with the passing hours, tempers began to wear, the delights of the banquet room were offered to the opposition; some accepted, but others haughtily refused. To Calhoun the expunging was a deed worthy of “Caligula and Nero"; to Clay, “like the blood-stained hands of the guilty Macbeth,” it would never wash out; and to Webster it was a “ruthless violation of a sacred instrument.” Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, and their many followers, had been bitterly humiliated by Jackson’s victory over the Bank, and the expunging was the final rubbing of salt into raw, gaping wounds. By midnight the lobbies, the galleries, and the floor itself were jammed with excited people, and a few senators sent for arms to protect themselves from possible violence. Amid a mixture of cheers, groans, and hisses, the expunging resolution passed by a vote of 24 to 19.
The senatorial censure had been a sore spot for the tired old man in the White House, and this final victory over his most dedicated enemies was sweet. He assured Benton of “my high regard, and exalted opinion of your talents, virtue, and patriotism.”
There was a final sequel. Senator Benton lived to write a history of his times, and the major theme of its huge first volume was the greatness of Andrew Jackson. If the making of a great man depends in part upon the historian, Benton made a significant contribution to Jackson’s fame, because later scholars drew heavily upon Benton’s work.
What was the importance of this friendship for the two men and their America? In 1812 Jackson’s powerful enemies were eager to stifle his ambitions. The opportunity for the military fame which made Jackson President came because in a time of crisis Jackson had already mobilized an army which could not be ignored. The ideas and much of the work that went into creating this army came from recruiting officer Benton. An extensive poll of historians in 1948 judged Jackson to be one of America’s six great Presidents because he planted his ideas and policies permanently in the life of America despite the most determined efforts of able and powerful opponents. And the victories supporting Jackson’s claim to greatness usually found Benton leading the charge. Ironically enough, Benton’s own career may have been furthered most by the quarrel and fight with Jackson because it caused his removal to the new frontier territory of Missouri, where the opportunities were greater and the competition less than in Tennessee.
The American people took Old Hickory Jackson and Old Bullion Benton to their hearts, indicating perhaps that they were truly representative of their America. Both men—by turns generous, kind, suspicious, openhearted, proud, gentle, jealous, violent, and tender—were capable of profound love and unrelenting hatred, the highest creativity and the most destructive ruthlessness. Occasionally disagreeable, they were never weak, cowardly, or dull. They sometimes personified the worst, but often the best, of young America in its great age of growing pains, and never more so than in their relations with one another.