This Day in History 5/30 – The 1806 Duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickenson

Jackson DuelSome epithets seem custom-made for their people they describe.

Father of his country, Great emancipator, Great Soul…hell, any permutation of “the Great”, or “the Terrible”, or “The Magnificent” and so on.  These monikers may, or may not suit their real-life examples perfectly.

Yet for some reason, the term “ornery son of a bitch” just fits Andrew Jackson like a glove.

Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, killer of Seminoles in Florida, and seventh President of the United States, had what we today would call an anger issue.  Andy was pissed, at just about anything.

He was pissed at his parents for not settling in Philadelphia, where they landed from Ireland, and opting for a lawless wilderness called the Waxhaws between North and South Carolina.

He was pissed at the British for killing his Mom, his brothers and for slashing him with a sword during the American Revolution.

He was pissed at Native Americans for supporting the British, for supporting their independence and way of life, heck for even existing.

Most of all, he was pissed at anyone who slandered his wife’s good name.

Andrew Jackson met Rachel Donelson Robards when he first moved to Nashville in 1788.  Robards was in the process of divorcing her difficult husband, and Jackson couldn’t wait to marry her.  When they did wed, in 1790, he thought the divorce was finalized.  It so happened that the divorce was never finalized, making Jackson’s marriage bigamous and invalid.  In fact, some records show Rachel living with Andy AS MRS. JACKSON before the ink was dry on the paperwork.  Even though they remarried legally in 1794, it made Rachel look like a two-timing hussy, and Andrew would be the first to fight for his wife’s honor.

In 1805, a fellow horse trader and plantation owner named Charles Dickinson started to get under Jackson’s skin about his business dealings.  Specifically, Dickinson had issue with a horse race between Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law.  The war of words would escalate from a simple bet on a horse race to a full-fledged public attack on Rachel Jackson’s character.

At first, the original dispute was settled.  Then, Jackson started telling his own twist on the affair, and Dickinson sent a friend to smooth things over.  Jackson then beat the shit out of the friend with his cane, since he was already pissed at dealing with a meddler and an interloper.  Both Dickinson and his friend sent letters calling Jackson a coward.  Jackson responded in a newspaper that the friend was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard.”

This last insult sent Dickinson over the edge.  Since his Facebook page wasn’t available, he publishes an attack in a newspaper calling Jackson a “poltroon and a coward.”Now a casual look at Webster’s would show that Dickinson is being redundant: “poltroon” means a spiritless coward.  However, looking closer, “poltroon” was also meant to describe Jackson as not only cowardly, but evil as well.  This was a sly reference to Jackson’s relations with his wife, which many still saw as somewhat sinful.

Jackson, as ornery SOBs tend to do, demands satisfaction, challenging Dickinson to a duel in nearby Kentucky (Tennessee outlawed dueling).  On May 30, 1806, both combatants met in the Adairville area near the border between the two states.  Dickinson was confident: he was an expert shot and never stopped showing off his skills along the way.  Jackson, knowing his opponent’s skill, thought Dickinson should fire first, as he might be too excited to aim accurately.  If he missed, then Jackson could calmly aim and fire.  Of course, there was the little problem of Jackson dying from his wound, but that was another matter.

As the two men took their places on the ground, they stood slightly angled to each other, so as to give the smallest target possible.  Dickinson, as planned, fired first.  He hit Jackson square in the chest, within an inch of his heart.  Somehow, it could be through adrenaline, stubbornness, or just plain backcountry hate, Jackson manages to stand still, level his pistol, and fire.  The first shot was faulty, as the cock of the pistol only went halfway, so under the rules of dueling Jackson was allowed to recock his pistol and try again.

This time, he hit Dickinson in the chest.  He wasn’t so lucky.

People of the time were shocked, and criticized Jackson for not simply wounding Dickinson and thus settling the affair without loss of life.  Jackson lived through a lifetime of hate; there was no way he was not going to shoot to kill.  Besides, he rationalized that Dickinson was clearly aiming to kill him, so it was only proper to repay the favor.

Jackson was a social outcast after the duel.  It didn’t last long—pretty soon, a few Indian wars and scuffle with the Redcoats in New Orleans would make him a national hero. He would become President, and survive an assassination attempt—even beating the shit out of his would-be assassin with his cane. Yet the rumors about his wife never let up, even after Jackson killed a man for slandering her.

It’s amazing what a life force hate can be.  Can anyone ever be that pissed nowadays?

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