Monday, May 1, 2023

John Sevier and Andrew Jackson's Duel

Very soon, I am going on a much looked forward to road trip through the Smoky Mountains and into Tennessee. And, since I will be in the land of one of my more famous ancestors, John Sevier (first Governor of Tennessee and Revolutionary War hero) I thought I would do some research about him before I go. What really peeked my interest was an account of a duel between John Sevier and, of all people, Andrew Jackson! They had been bitter rivals over the years, but a duel? I went on to read several accounts, all different. The following is my take on what really happened... 😊

Nolichucky Jack and Old Hickory in the Duel That Never Was... 

It’s hard to imagine today a scene where a governor of a state and a state supreme court judge would have a slugfest on the steps of a capitol building. But that's what happened on October 1, 1803 between the then Governor John Sevier and the future President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, on the steps of the old Knoxville County Court House in Tennessee. They had been sometimes bitter rivals, sometimes allies over the years competing for high office and military leadership, each seeing the other as a threat to their aspirations. Insults and accusations were traded over the years but came to a head that day when Jackson accused Sevier of illegal land grabs and Sevier countering with accusing Jackson, among other things, of adultery (Jackson having married his wife before she was divorced). Many other people had alluded to this fact, which had even been published in the papers. However, Sevier said it to his face. It’s not known who threw the first punch, but I imagine, Jackson, enraged over the insult to his wife and notorious for his hair trigger temper, would have been the one. 

Dueling was a way for gentlemen to sometimes settle disagreements between each other, especially over an insult. Jackson, macho to the core, had so many duels they were hard to keep track of. So, he naturally challenged Sevier to a duel. Now, you have to remember that at this time Sevier was 58 years old and Jackson was 36 and it could very well be surmised that Sevier had no desire to duke it out with pistols or anything else at his age. Letters flew between the two with Sevier obviously stalling, hoping Jackson would cool off and come to his senses.

But Jackson wouldn't leave it alone. Dueling was outlawed in Tennessee, so knowing that Sevier and a party would cross state lines on their way to a conference with the Cherokee, he was there waiting for him. Documented accounts from both sides had wildly different versions of what happened that day, and one has to wonder, did they even see the same event? Jackson's side has Sevier cowering behind a tree until Jackson gave up and left.  Sevier's side said John had just dismounted his horse when Jackson charged at him on his horse like Don Quixote using his cane as a lance! If this caused Sevier to take refuged behind a tree, I don’t blame him. Jackson was out of control. After all, the duel was with pistols, not bludgeoning with canes. Again, companions from both sides calmed everybody down and then it was over.

I have read several versions of that day and not one of them are the same. Whatever the truth is, I think the whole incident dissolved into a comedy of blustering and posturing and in the end, everybody went away thankful it was over with their own version to save face and make the other look bad.

This painting of Sevier was done by the same artist who painted portraits of George Washington and John Adams. It is a stylized likeness. The bronze bust is more accurate.