The story of Andrew Jackson, Robert Stuart Castelreigh, and George Canning’s left buttock
by Erik James Olsrud
History is a complex web of events and personal actions. The events of history compound and shape one another in ways that confuse and amuse us simultaneously. The interactions of three great men and one small round lead projectile can alter the course of nations. Be warned that this story gets confusing first, and amusing later on.
Those inclined to read this newsletter are no doubt aware of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British force sent to capture New Orleans in January, 1815. The news of this spectacular victory buoyed the spirits of Americans weary of a costly and unsuccessful war, and greatly elevated Jackson’s popularity. The arrival of the Treaty of Ghent provided an end to hostilities when Jackson reigned as our national hero, and he strode into the White House thirteen years later.
The elevation of Jackson to national prominence and the coinciding arrival of the peace treaty need not have played out as they did. Events beyond Jackson’s control could well have lengthened the war and altered the timing and conditions of the peace treaty. To discover these events, and to explain why George Canning’s left buttock has anything to do with Andrew Jackson, we turn to the political arena of Great Britain in 1809. Two mighty political figures struggled to control the course of British wartime foreign policy. An introduction is in order.
George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, rose from modest stock, born of an Irish actress and educated by his uncle. His skill lay in able administration and exceptional, fiery oration. He generally opposed diplomatic alliances with the powers of Europe, and can safely be considered a “hawk”. Robert Stuart, Viscount Castlereigh, held the office of Secretary of War in 1809, but would serve as Foreign Secretary during the negotiation of the Treaty of Ghent. He was the son of the Irish Marquis of Londonderry. Noted for his calm dignity, cautious judgment, and formidable experience in foreign affairs, Castelreigh was the man who held the Allied Forces together in the face of Napoleon’s armies. In 1809 Castelreigh sent an expedition to capture Napoleon’s naval base at Antwerp. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the troops were left stranded on Walcheren Island where they died ignominiously from typhoid. Canning exploited this disaster in a campaign to remove Castlereigh from his position as Secretary of War, and secretly passed inflammatory papers to members of the government urging his ouster.
The Prime Minister, the elderly and not particularly keen-minded Duke of Portland suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1809 and stepped down (or fell down, as it were) from office. During the subsequent shake-up of government Spencer Perceval became Prime Minister and Canning’s cunning secret plots were exposed.
While Castlereigh knew full well of Canning’s opposition to himself, he took great offense at the secrecy covering Canning’s attacks. His honor and his office injured, Castlereigh challenged Canning to a duel that had ramifications reaching beyond the range of their pistols. The first exchange of shots produced no effect. Castlereigh demanded a second volley. Canning’s ball took a button off of Castlereigh’s coat, sparing his life by mere inches. As you have now presumed, Castlereigh shot Canning in his hindquarters. Both men resigned from their posts.
Castlereigh returned to power shortly, in Canning’s former position as Foreign Secretary. In this role, he presided at the Congress of Vienna where he pursued a reconciliatory course aimed at providing all nations an opportunity for peace, stability, and growth. In his own words, “The avowed and true policy of Great Britain in the current state of the World is to secure if possible, for all states a long interval of repose.” Within this view, it was worthwhile to make a generous peace with the United States. The Treaty of Ghent, restoring North American borders to pre-war status, arrived shortly after Jackson’s triumph. He stood as the final and greatest American hero in the war.
Had events transpired differently at Putney Heath at 6:00 am on Sept. 21, 1809, both British and American politics may have taken considerably different courses. If Canning had dispatched Castlereigh instead of a coat button, Canning might well have presided over the peace talks and driven a harder bargain, if not at least protracted the negotiations. A delayed and harsher peace could have diluted the euphoria over Jackson’s great victory. If Castlereigh had struck a more vital target, Canning would have lost his lifetime goal of serving as Prime Minister, which he achieved in 1827. But, as the duel turned out, the United States received its generous peace, and both Jackson and Canning rose to govern their respective nations. George Canning died after only six months as Prime Minister in August 1827. Robert Stuart Castlereigh, suffering from depression and paranoia, died by his own hand in August of 1822.