There was a time in American history when insults and verbal jabs could not just be hurled willy-nilly because one might have to dodge bullets instead of just words. In the early 1800’s, dueling was a declining, but still accepted practice in America, especially in the southern and western states.
On May 30, 1806, Tennessee planter, lawyer, former militia general, former congressman and future president Andrew Jackson, often called “Old Hickory” because of his toughness and resilience, met attorney Charles Dickinson on the “field of honor.” The result would be a lingering, lifelong injury for Jackson, and death for Dickinson.
The incident that precipitated the famous duel between Jackson and Dickinson was a horse race.
A race between Jackson’s horse, Truxton, and Captain Joseph Erwin’s horse had to be cancelled due to Erwin’s horse becoming lame. Erwin had to pay Jackson to cover the bet that had already been placed. There was a brief scuffle over payment of the forfeiture, but it was settled fairly quickly between Jackson and Erwin. However, Erwin’s son-in-law, Charles Dickinson, couldn’t let things go.
Dickinson proceeded to insult Jackson, calling Jackson a “poltroon,” an “equivocator” and a “coward.” These were terrible insults in the early 19th century. Jackson didn’t refrain from throwing back sharp words, and the public fight escalated.
Worse than the simple name calling, was Dickinson’s attack on Jackson’s marriage to his wife, Rachel.
Dickinson made an offhand, presumably drunken comment about Jackson and his temporarily bigamous marriage to Rachel. While Jackson was in fact in a bigamous marriage at one point, it was caused by Rachel Jackson’s first husband, who was a bitter man that intentionally refrained from sending in legal documents after filing for a divorce. Andrew and Rachel Jackson had no idea that they were in a bigamous marriage.
Dickinson reportedly apologized to Jackson for his remarks and Jackson, for the most part, accepted the apology. However, the feud wasn’t over and the bad blood lingered.
Eventually, after a few more choice words between the two Tennesseans and some incredibly caustic public articles published by both parties, Jackson demanded “satisfaction” from Dickinson, which was a challenge to a duel of honor.
Dickinson accepted the challenge from Jackson, and both men decided to meet with their “seconds” and a moderator in Logan County, Kentucky.
Seconds were necessary in a duel in order to keep both sides honest. They were partners that would shoot a cheating duelist that broke the rules.
Murder was still illegal, as was shooting people, regardless of whether or not it was in a duel. Both Jackson and Dickinson were prominent men in Tennessee, so they held their duel in Kentucky to avoid any potential legal complications.
To duel Dickinson was an incredibly bold risk for Jackson. While most duels in the early 19th century did not end with death or even wounds, this particular affair of honor was different. The bitterness of the feud, along with fact that Dickinson was one of the best pistol marksmen in the state, meant that Jackson was at least going to take a bullet somewhere.
“I knew Dickinson to be the best shot with the pistol I ever saw. I therefore went upon the ground expecting to be killed,” Jackson said after the duel.
The legend goes that Jackson wore loose fitting clothes which would hide his slender, six foot, one inch, 135-145 lb. frame. Old Hickory planned on letting Dickinson fire first. Jackson would take his time, aim and then carefully fire a shot at his foe.
Dickinson fired the opening shot and hit Jackson in the chest, mere inches away from Old Hickory’s heart. However, Jackson remained still, collected and standing. Jackson carefully took aim and pulled the trigger, but it didn’t fire because it stopped at half-cock. Jackson re-cocked his weapon and fired again, hitting Dickinson with a fatal shot through the hip.
Jackson walked off the field of honor without letting the bloody, dying Dickinson know that the first shot had hit its mark.
The bullet from the duel would remain lodged in Old Hickory’s chest for the rest of his life, causing debilitating pain and sickness as he aged.
Dickinson learned what the British, Seminole and Creek Indians, political opponents in the Whig Party, the president of the Second National Bank, and the nullifiers of South Carolina had during the course of Jackson’s life: Don’t anger, insult or attack Old Hickory if you weren’t willing to bear the brunt of a relentless foe or stand at the other end of a gun, and most certainly, don’t insult his wife.