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Andrew Jackson

On This Day: Andrew Jackson Kills Charles Dickinson in a Duel

May 30, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 30, 1806, future president Andrew Jackson killed a rival horse breeder who had insulted him and his wife, but also suffered a shot to the chest.

Jackson Survives Duel

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Former Congressman Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson were prominent lawyers and plantation owners in Tennessee. They were also known for their dueling proclivities; Dickinson was renowned as “the best pistol shot in all of Tennessee,” according to The Commonwealth of Kentucky Web site, while Jackson would allegedly fight in more than 100 duels over his life.

Jackson and Dickinson were contending horse breeders, and Dickinson had called Jackson a “coward and an equivocator” because of a scuffle involving a bet. Dickinson also referred to Jackson’s wife Rachel as a “bigamist,” as Rachel’s earlier divorce had not been complete by the time of her new marriage.

Jackson then challenged Dickinson to a duel, and Dickinson chose pistols. They met in Kentucky so as to avoid notoriety in their home state. Dickinson fired first, hitting Jackson above the heart and breaking some of his ribs.

Jackson did not fall, but held his ground and fired his pistol. It misfired, so he pulled the trigger again and this time the ball of his gun pierced Dickinson’s abdomen. Dickson would painfully bleed to death that night.

The duel cast an aspersion over Jackson’s character for the rest of his life and many people in Nashville thought he was “dishonorable” for not concluding the duel once he misfired.

The pain from Jackson’s wound persisted until his death. Historian Paul Clements said, “The ball that Charles Dickinson shot into Jackson, it was only about an inch or two from his heart. Clearly, it was a matter of inches that American history unfolded the way it did.”

The History of Dueling

Dueling is an ancient practice that was originally a legal means to settle disputes in barbarian Germanic tribes, writes George Washington University librarian Jennie C. Meade. The use of “judicial duels” spread through Europe and remained in use as late as the early 19th century, though by this time the most common form of duels were “duels of honor,” which emerged after the medieval period.

Duels of honor, fought primarily between noblemen, were an extralegal means to defend one’s honor against personal insults. These duels were governed by codes, the most famous of which is the Code Duello, a list of 26 rules drafted in 1777 by Irish duelers. An American version of the code was drafted in 1838 by South Carolina Gov. John Lyde Wilson.

Under the code, a duel was negotiated through companions of the two duelers, known as “seconds.” The offended party would issue a challenge; the challenger could either apologize or accept a duel using the weapon of his choice (usually pistols, but swords were also allowed).

In America, duels were most prevalent in the South, particularly among upper-class gentlemen. Men who were challenged to a duel were expected to accept; those who refused faced public embarrassment. One South Carolina general, recalling a duel in his youth, remarked, “Well I never did clearly understand what it was about, but you know it was a time when all gentlemen fought.”

Even those who opposed dueling, such as Sam Houston, Henry Clay and Alexander Hamiliton, participated in duels due in large part to the social pressure. “For a man who wanted a political future, walking away from a challenge may not have seemed a plausible option,” writes Ross Drake in Smithsonian Magazine.

Though some states had laws against dueling, they were rarely enforced by the law enforcement or the courts. PBS explains that a shift in public opinion, rather than legislation brought about a decline in dueling in the decades leading up to the Civil War. After the war, dueling was no longer popularly accepted in American society.

The code of honor had lost much of its force, possibly because the country had seen enough bloodshed to last several lifetimes,” writes Drake. “Dueling was, after all, an expression of caste—the ruling gentry deigned to fight only its social nearequals—and the caste whose conceits it had spoken to had been fatally injured by the disastrous war it had chosen. Violence thrived; murder was alive and well. But for those who survived to lead the New South, dying for chivalry’s sake no longer appealed.”

Biography: Andrew Jackson

The Hermitage, the museum and home of Andrew Jackson located in Nashville, Tenn., provides a biography of the man, who was a hero of the War of 1812 and two-term president of the United States.

“He strengthened the power of the presidency, defended the Union, gained new respect for the United States in foreign affairs, and extended democracy to more citizens,” according to the Hermitage Museum.

Famous Duels in American History

Hamilton-Burr
The most famous duel in U.S. history was fought between former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, and Vice President Aaron Burr, a Democratic-Republican. The two New Yorkers had been political enemies for more than a decade, and Hamilton had played a key role in keeping Burr from winning the presidency in 1800. Four years later, Hamilton vigorously campaigned against Burr’s bid for New York governor, prompting Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel.

On July 11, 1804, at the dueling grounds in Weehawken, N.J., Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach. Hamilton died the next day. Burr was charged with murder, though he was never tried. His image was forever tainted and his political career was destroyed.

Lincoln’s Near Duel
Abraham Lincoln nearly fought in a saber duel in 1842. After a disagreement regarding the state bank in Illinois, Lincoln humiliated his fellow state legislator, James Shields, in a letter to the editor of a newspaper. When Lincoln refused to retract the letter, Shields challenged him to a duel. The two arrived at the dueling grounds prepared to fight, but their seconds helped settle the dispute before the duel.
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