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Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Andrew Jackson and … duels? That’s right—the seventh president of the United States had a predilection for old-fashioned fights of honor. Bertram Wyatt-Brown explores just why Old Hickory was involved in so many duels (up to 103 in his lifetime).

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Wyatt-Brown sees Jackson’s many duels as an expression of his deep sense of what he calls “the principles of honor”: values that made societal ranks clear and that created strong bonds of friendship and kin. By playing out these manly values in dramatic form, writes Wyatt-Brown, Jackson didn’t just show the better angels of his nature—he “shed light on his deepest flaws.”

Though the conventions of duels came from the Middle Ages, Wyatt-Brown sees Jackson’s conflicts as distinctly American: radical, performative, personal, political. In 1806, Jackson became embroiled in a conflict with Charles Dickinson, a fellow horse breeder who accused him of going back on his word in a bet on a horse. When Dickinson accused Jackson’s wife of infidelity, Jackson was furious but let the matter drop. But when Dickinson took his argument with Jackson to the local papers, claiming that the future president had refused to give him the satisfaction of a duel, Jackson had had enough.

On May 30, 1806, Jackson shot Dickinson while defending his honor—a controversial act that Wyatt-Brown writes made Jackson a temporary political liability. Still, he writes, “by ritualizing violence in a punctilious grammar of honor, as it were, duels were supposed to prevent potential chaos” by staving off destructive blood feuds and giving gentlemen an arena in which to settle their differences.

By making the personal political, notes Wyatt-Brown, Jackson not only aired his dirty laundry in a manner grudgingly accepted by his peers, but he reaffirmed his position among America’s elite with a shot of the pistol. “Jackson drove away his own dread of anonymity and emptiness by embracing both love of friends and undying vengeance against enemies,” writes Wyatt-Brown … a preview of how one of America’s most hardheaded and brutal presidents would behave while in office.


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Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-36
University of Pennsylvania Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic