May 30, 2007

Andrew Jackson Wins Duel

Andrew Jackson killed Charles Dickinson in a duel on May 30, 1806.

The duel was one of many that Jackson fought, ostensibly to defend the honor of his wife, Rachel. The Jacksons had lived together as man and wife for 3 years before they discovered that Rachel's divorce from her previous husband had not been finalized and never completely escaped the damage to their reputations.

It appears that there were other causes at work however -- there had been a prior quarrel over a horse racing incident involving Jackson, Dickinson, and Dickinson's father-in-law, a Mr. Erwin. The quarrel had been pretty much put to rest (there had been some blows exchanged) when Jackson's enemies managed to reinvigorate it -- Dickinson was known as the best shot in Tennessee, and it looked like a pretty fool-proof way of getting Jackson out of the picture.

Dickinson fired first, his bullet entering Jackson's body and lodging about an inch above his heart, breaking two ribs in the process. Jackson put his hand to his chest, but showed no immediate signs of distress -- bystanders did not even realize that he'd been hit. Since Jackson had not fired yet, it was now his turn to take aim at Dickinson. Dickinson reportedly panicked and ran, but was ordered back by the seconds, and forced to stand still, only 24 feet away from Jackson. Jackson took slow and deliberate aim, fired, and hit Dickinson in the groin. Dickinson died a slow and painful death.

Although the duel was legal -- the principals had crossed the border from Tennessee into Kentucky, where dueling was still legal -- and conducted within the code of dueling, the incident still did considerable damage to Jackson's reputation, at least in the short term. It was looked on as a cold-blooded killing.

Jackson's wound never healed properly, and gave him some trouble over the remainder of his life. The bullet, being too close to his heart, could never be removed and abscesses repeatedly formed around it.

Another of Andrew's Jackson duels had a more humorous outcome. John Sevier, governor of Tennessee, crossed Jackson's path when Jackson was serving as a circuit judge for Tennessee's Superior Court. Sevier had once referred to Jackson as a "poor pitiful pettifogging lawyer", and Jackson had later investigated Sevier for land fraud and bribery. When the two men met in Knoxville in 1803, words were exchanged. Jackson defended his service record, and Seville replied, "I know of no service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man's wife!"

Needless to say, Jackson did not take kindly to those words. He attacked Sevier with his walking stick, and the following day challenged him to a duel. When the two men met, with their seconds, on the field of honor, Jackson started threatening to cane him again, waving his stick around in the air. This spooked Sevier's horses, who ran away with Sevier's pistols. At this point, the unarmed Sevier hid behind a tree, but Sevier's second, his son James, took aim at Jackson. Jackson's second aimed his pistol at James. The horse kept carefully out of range.

The four men finally agreed not to kill each other, but Jackson and Seville were never completely reconciled.

Illustration: Andrew Jackson, engraving by James Barton Longacre, created sometime between 1815 and 1845. Public Domain

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