Jim Webb Wouldn’t Be the First President to Have Killed a Man

If the Democratic candidate were to become president, he’d join these other leaders in having once taken a life.

Jim Webb killed one man and maybe more.

That is the one fact Americans will likely remember about him after the Democratic presidential primary ends next year, and he fades from obscurity into oblivion. (Like most people who’ve killed a man, he will never be president.)

Toward the end of Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, each candidate was asked to reveal which enemy they are proudest to have made. Webb took the question literally.

“I’d have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me,” Webb, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps during Vietnam, said, flashing a sheepish grin, “but he’s not around right now to talk to.”

The citation for Webb’s Navy Cross explains how when his platoon discovered a complex of three bunkers in July 1969, Webb almost single-handedly apprehended the first one’s occupants; detonated a Claymore mine in the second, accounting for two enemy casualties; and then saved his fellow Marines in what reads like a scene from Rambo.

“[Webb] approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker.”

Although the former Marine is a longshot for the presidency—polling at less than 1 percent—one has to wonder: How many presidents have killed someone?

Every president has technically killed someone by acting as the commander-in-chief during various conflicts abroad, but at least three presidents have directly killed another human being.

In May 1806, Andrew Jackson shot and killed attorney Charles Dickinson in a duel stemming from insults Dickinson published about the future president’s wife, a divorcée, in relation to horse-racing debts.

According to the Library of Congress, Jackson purposely wore a large coat in the hopes that Dickinson would miss his heart. He also let his rival shoot first so that he could take the time to aim a return shot. Dickinson successfully struck Jackson in the ribs, causing excruciating pain, but Jackson returned fire and struck his doomed opponent in the gut, killing him within hours.

In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt led the famous Rough Riders cavalry up Cuba’s San Juan Hill. The two-term president’s Medal of Honor citation (awarded 103 years later) explicitly states that he was “the first to reach the enemy trenches, where he quickly killed one of the enemy with his pistol.”

Grover Cleveland personally executed two convicts while serving as the Sheriff of Erie County, New York. In July 1912, The New York Times reported that upon assuming office, Cleveland somberly took over hanging duties from his deputy because, ever the gentleman, he insisted “he had no moral right to impose upon a subordinate the obnoxious and degrading tasks that attached to his office.”

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(Two-time presidential nominee and grandson of Cleveland’s vice president, Adlai E. Stevenson, accidentally shot and killed a 15-year-old female relative when he was 12 years old.)

According to columnist Cecil Adams, George Washington oversaw and likely partook in the killing of at least 10 French soldiers in 1754. In what many consider the first battle of the French and Indian War, Washington led the colonial Ohio Company militia in an ambush on Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville’s encampment near modern-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

When Washington was later captured during the same war, French officials forced him to sign an admission that he had ordered the “assassination” of military officer Jumonville. While no one has recorded that Washington directly killed anyone, it’s safe to assume his rifle or bayonet felled another man during the more than 10 battles he saw in his lifetime.

James Monroe served under Washington as an 18-year-old lieutenant during the Revolutionary War. Monroe led the Continental Army’s infantrymen into the Battle of Trenton, killing 22 Hessian soldiers, and suffering a near-fatal wound himself. Monroe’s proximity to the pivotal fight has led many to assume it an inevitability that he killed others.

William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses Grant all served as ranking officers in major wars. Although there is no official record of them directly killing another person, it’s a safe assumption.

Such speculation can also be applied to the 20th century presidents who saw direct combat in their lifetime.

Harry Truman served as a battery commander in World War I, participating in multiple assault barrages, likely killing men with his weapons in the process.

As a bomber pilot during World War II, George H.W. Bush flew nearly 60 missions. Due to the nature of his operations against the Japanese in the Pacific, it is highly likely his aircraft killed a few enemy combatants.

After John F. Kennedy’s patrol boat PT-109 was wrecked in the Pacific, he took control of the PT-59, which was refurbished as a gunboat with multiple anti-aircraft and machine guns. The boat participated in the raid on Choiseul Island, rescuing 50 Marines; it is unknown whether Kennedy fired at and killed any Japanese combatants.