You’ve Got to Fight For Your Right to (Lead a Political) Party
It’s a small group, but a feisty one: U.S. presidents who have punched, wrestled, or otherwise fought with another grown man at some point in their adulthood. With fists clenched we are proud to bring you: Presidents Who Slugged Someone.
TEDDY ROOSEVELT remains the only president to have duked it out in a Wild West bar fight. In 1884, despondent from the deaths of his wife and his mother, Roosevelt left New York politics and moved to a cattle ranch in the Dakota territory. A smallish man, with spectacles and an Eastern accent, he cut an unusual figure on the prairie.
One night while entering the bar in a small hotel, Roosevelt was accosted by a drunken gunman. As Roosevelt told the story in his autobiography: “As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said ‘Four eyes is going to treat.'” Roosevelt sat down and tried to laugh it off, but when the drunk waved his guns and persisted, Roosevelt took action: “As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out and then again with my right… when he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head.”
Knocked cold, the bully was dragged out of the bar and later skipped town on a freight train. Roosevelt returned to his dinner and then went to bed.
Even after he became president in 1901, Roosevelt continued sparring in the White House for exercise, often with much younger men. He was finally forced to quit when the sight in his left eye was damaged by a heavy punch.
As president, ABE LINCOLN was a thoughtful and even melancholy man. But in his prairie days Lincoln was a top-notch “wrassler” who would take on all comers.
Carl Sandburg describes several such battles in his biography of Lincoln, including one case where his opponent, a local champion named Armstrong, cheated by stomping on Abe’s instep with his boot heel. “This exasperated Lincoln so that he lost his temper, lifted Armstrong up by the throat and off the ground, shook him like a rag, and then slammed him to a hard fall, flat on his back.”
Sandburg describes another incident during Lincoln’s first run for Congress, when he was mounting a box to speak just as a fist fight broke out in the crowd. Lincoln “stepped off the box, shouldered his way to the fight, picked a man by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the breeches, and threw him ten feet for a fall.” Lincoln then returned to his box and made his speech.
Who didn’t this guy fight? The punchiest of the presidents, ANDREW JACKSON was such a roughneck that a 1906 biography by Cyrus Brady needed two chapters on the topic: “Pugnacity and Patriotism” and “Duels and Quarrels.”
Brady described a typical Jackson encounter in Jonesboro, Tennessee: a fire had broken out downtown and Jackson was organizing an old-fashioned bucket brigade when a “drunken coppersmith named Boyd” began to shout orders of his own. Jackson grabbed a bucket by the handle, swung it and cold-cocked Boyd, knocking him flat. Jackson then returned to the fire, “giving his orders as coolly as before.”
At other times Jackson went well beyond slugging. Most famously, he killed Charles Dickinson in an 1806 duel after Dickinson had allegedly insulted Jackson’s wife. Dickinson shot first, hitting Jackson in the ribs, but Jackson still managed to take aim and hit Dickinson with a deadly shot full in the belly. Yikes!
Jackson seemed to attract both violence and luck. As president he even survived an assassination attempt when a house painter attacked him at point-blank range with two pistols — and both misfired.