It’s Presidents Day, and since I like to focus on the dark, disturbing, and deadly, you know I’m going to talk about a man who is probably the most violent man to ever sit in the White House: Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States.
Of course, most of our previous presidents were war veterans, and so had most certainly taken lives on the battlefield. You could also say that most of our modern presidents have been responsible for thousands of deaths, though indirectly, by declaring war or other military actions. And one president, Grover Cleveland, as part of his duties as sheriff of Erie County, New York, personally executed two criminals.
Andrew Jackson, however, killed an untold number of people as both a soldier and as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces — and one man, he shot for insulting his honor.
The son of poor Irish immigrants, Jackson was known from an early age for being “wild” and having an explosive temper.
He had received a modest inheritance when he was 15, but quickly gambled and drank it away. Later, he would rebuild his fortune on the backs of enslaved people — not only as workers on his plantation, The Hermitage, but from buying and selling them for profit.
He also enjoyed breeding horses for racing, and gambling on the outcomes. It was this hobby that led to the murder he is probably best known for: the shooting death, by duel, of Charles Dickinson.
It’s important to point out that duels of that time weren’t like what the Hollywood Westerns depict, where two men take 10 paces then turn and fire. In reality, they were more like tests of courage, where often, simply having the guts to show up meant you could claim your honor was unstained. If the duel came to shots — which was rare — they were more like high-stakes games of chicken, where duelers would often fire in the air or near their opponent with the goal of getting them to flinch. Actual to-the-death duels were rare.
On May 30, 1806, Jackson squared off against Charles Dickinson, a fellow horse breeder and renowned marksman. Their dispute was over a horse-racing debt Dickinson claimed Jackson hadn’t paid, and, worse, Dickinson accusing Jackson’s wife of infidelity (which was, technically, true, as his wife was still married to another man when the two eloped).
Surprisingly, Jackson hadn’t taken up the gun right away, but when Dickinson took his accusations to a local paper, demanding a duel, Jackson quickly obliged.
In fact, Dickinson — as was agreed beforehand — landed the first shot. The bullet shattered and the pieces lodged right next to Jackson’s heart, breaking two ribs and collapsing a lung. But Jackson didn’t die from the wound. Instead, he carefully took aim and shot Dickinson, killing him.
Though this was perhaps his best-known act of violence, it was far from his last. He went on to participate in more than 100 more duels in his life. He had so many bullets permanently lodged in his body, he was said to “rattle like a bag of marbles.”
And yet, this single act of relatively-consensual homicide pales in comparison to the violence he would engage in throughout his life.
Jackson had a long military career, serving from the War of 1812 on. He earned a reputation for being a particularly ruthless fighter and commander in that conflict, even shooting some of his own soldiers for deserting. He went on to wipe out the pro-British Creek fighters at The Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which enabled the US to seize about 200 million acres of land in present-day Alabama and Georgia.
He continued his brutal fighting against Native Americans in the Indian Wars that followed. These weren’t “wars” in the modern sense of two armies fighting each other, but wars of conquest. In the First Seminole War, for example, troops under Jackson’s command raided Seminole territories in Florida — which was under the flag of Spain — in order to recapture runaway slaves. During those raids, the soldiers — including Jackson — burned down their villages and killed women and children.
It also may have been his hatred for Native Americans that inspired him to sign, as his first major piece of legislation as president, the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act would force the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and other nations from their homes in the southeastern US so that white settlers could seize their land.
The Cherokee took their case to the courts, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. But, infamously, Jackson is reported to have said, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it.” Sources differ on whether this is an actual quote or simply a myth. But the sentiment was indeed true.
Jackson defied the Supreme Court and ordered the removal of the Native peoples in a tragedy now known as the Trail of Tears. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children were forced from their homes at gunpoint, some not allowed to take anything with them but the clothes on their backs. White settlers often came right behind the soldiers, looting the Native Americans’ homes. The Native peoples were marched under armed guards — and sometimes, in chains — to the newly named “Indian Territory,” now known as Oklahoma. Thousands died from exposure, disease, and starvation.
There were many other troubling aspects to his presidency — such as operating a “spoils system” where political cronies were given important government jobs, firing of multiple Secretaries of State and Treasury, and the titanic financial mismanagement that caused the economic panic of 1837. But it is his furious temper and penchant for violence that makes Andrew Jackson one of the darkest presidents in US history.