Soon, Paste will be running a feature on why former U.S. president Andrew Jackson was a pretty awful guy, and why it’s awesome that Harriet Tubman will be the new front face of the $20 bill (contrary to earlier reports Jackson’s image will remain on the reverse side). That is not the purpose of this post, so Jackson haters be warned—this post is about the time he killed a man in a duel, and how f***ing crazy it was.
I came across this story last night while doing some cursory research on Jackson, who I always vaguely knew was kind of a dick, but who also stood up to the big banks and can be seen as an economic predecessor to future, less dickish presidents like FDR. None of that matters now, because like a good American journalist, I was immediately distracted by a story that I still can’t quite believe—the May 1806 duel between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson.
For those who aren’t familiar with dueling culture, the practice was a tried-and-true method of resolving disputes of honor. Basically, if you pissed someone off, he could challenge you to a duel, at which point you could choose the weapon, and the two of you would meet with a bunch of assistants called “seconds,” stand a few feet apart, and shoot at each other with pistols, or have a sword fight, or something. Sometimes the duel was mostly symbolic, and both parties would shoot their guns into the air, and everyone would go home happy. Other times, they killed each other. You know—basic brutal madness.
The most famous duel in American history, of course, was between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Those two men, lifelong political rivals, went to New Jersey (where authorities still turned a blind eye to dueling), and Hamilton intentionally fired a shot over Burr’s head. Burr, apparently thinking Hamilton had aimed at his head, shot and killed Hamilton in response.
Andrew Jackson’s duel with Charles Dickinson didn’t result from a serious political conflict, but from a weird argument about a horse race. The details are byzantine, but basically Jackson—a Tennessee plantation owner and horse breeder still 23 years away from the presidency, at the time—and a man named Joseph Erwin got into a small fight about a forfeit fee they’d negotiated when a horse was unable to race. As it happens, Erwin was Dickinson’s father-in-law, and when Dickinson heard a friend of Jackson’s insult Erwin, he became furious and started a fight that quickly involved Jackson. Insults were exchanged, and Dickinson eventually published a piece in the Nashville Review calling Jackson a “poultroon” (sick old-timey insult) and a “coward.” (This was apparently a time in U.S. history when newspapers would print your insulting letters just for the hell of it.)
He also insulted Jackson to his face by calling his wife a bigamist, which was a sore spot with Jackson because it was true—without knowing it, he had married his wife before she had divorced her old husband, and back then this was a big deal that threatened to hurt Jackson professionally and politically. He spent a good amount of time defending her honor, and suffering the consequences.
So, Jackson did the only thing he could think of—he challenged Dickinson to a duel, writing:
Your conduct and expressions relative to me of late have been of such a nature and so insulting that requires, and shall have my notice…I hope Sir your courage will be an ample security to me, that I will obtain speedily that satisfaction due me for the insults offered.
Dickinson quickly accepted, and chose pistols as fighting weapon.
This will only illustrate how nuts Jackson was: Dickinson, a lawyer, was considered an expert marksman, “probably one of the best in the state.” At age 26, one source claims that he had already killed 26 people in duels. Jackson, on the other hand, was considered a “terrible” marksman and had never killed anyone in a duel. And let me remind you, Jackson was the one who challenged Dickinson, which by rule allowed Dickinson to choose his favorite weapon! The whole challenge was essentially suicide, and the only kind of person who would issue such a challenge and expect to live is a ridiculous force of nature whose explosive, righteous fury overrules all sense of self-preservation. Such a man was Andrew Jackson.
If you’re going to fight a seasoned murderer on his own turf, you might as well have a plan, right? Jackson knew he was pretty much boned from the start, so he and his seconds hit on a strategy that only a batshit person who didn’t care if he lived or died would ever conceive: Let Dicksinson shoot him first.
Yup! Jackson’s big plan was to wear a huge overcoat that disguised his body, let Dickinson fire first in the duel, and hope that in his haste, he missed his shot. Again, this was the best shooter in the state, standing 24 feet away. Spoiler: Not a good plan. It was essentially like pouring out a glass of water and hoping it doesn’t hit the ground.
On the banks of the Red River in Kentucky on the morning of May 6—dueling was illegal in Tennessee, so they had to cross the border—they paced 20 feet away, and waited for one of the seconds to yell “Fire!”
Dickinson shot first, and—remember how he was an excellent marskman?—hit Jackson right in the damn chest, inches from his heart. Which should have ended the duel, because again, the dude got hit with a bullet in the chest.
Nope! You forgot one thing—Andrew Jackson was a certified lunatic. In fact, he didn’t even fall over. He just stood up straight, gasping with the pain of two broken ribs, with smoke actually coming out of his chest, to the point that Dickinson said, “My God! Have I missed him?” The bullet was so close to his heart, in fact, that doctors thought it was too dangerous to operate on, and so it stayed in Jackson’s chest for the rest of his life. It caused serious health issues, including abscesses and lung issues that had him coughing up blood in his later years.
By dueling rules, Dickinson now had to stand there while Jackson slowly took aim and attempted to kill him. Jackson fired once, but the hammer malfunctioned, so he got to try again (this may have been cheating—sources are in disagreement). This time, he took careful aim and hit Dickinson in the abdomen. Dickinson fell, and died that night from blood loss.
Haha! Good one!
Oh, you bet. When a doctor expressed surprise that he had managed to stay on his feet and fire the fatal shot, here was Jackson’s reply:
“I would have stood up long enough to kill him if he had put a bullet in my brain.”
Haha! Again with the jokes!
Jackson fought more than 100 duels in his life, and almost died when he got shot twice in the arm, rupturing an artery, when he tried to horsewhip a man who later became his good friend and top ally in the Senate. And at this point, that sentence shouldn’t surprise you at all.
What did we learn today? That history is really strange, and Andrew Jackson was a raving maniac who allowed himself to get shot by the 1806 equivalent of a military sniper because of an insult about a horse, and then killed the guy with a bullet in his chest. And while I’m fully in support of him getting the boot from the $20 bill in favor of Harriet Tubman, I still feel like this one event in his life deserves a certain amount of awe. Not respect, not approval, but just a quiet acknowledgement that this was an extreme mind we can’t begin to comprehend, and which can only be summed up with the words, “damn, dude…damn.”