On this day in 1806, future President Andrew Jackson slays attorney, expert marksman, gentleman of Nashville and famous duelist Charles Dickinson in a duel over Jackson’s honor. According to a contemporary account, “A friend of Jackson’s deprecated the manner in which Captain Joseph Erwin had handled a bet with Jackson over a horse race. Erwin’s son-in-law, Charles Dickinson became enraged and started quarreling with Jackson’s friend which led to Jackson becoming involved.” Such operatic cone-pone is de rigueur in certain circles.
As the account of genteel Southern douche-baggery continues, “Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a ‘coward and an equivocator.’ The affair continued, with more insults and misunderstandings, until Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in May 1806, calling Jackson a ‘worthless scoundrel, … a poltroon and a coward.’” Everybody got that?
The doomed Dickinson was born at Wiltshire Manor in Caroline County, Maryland, the son of Elizabeth Walker and Henry Dickinson, the grandson of Sophia Richardson and Charles Dickinson (1695–1795), and the great-grandson of Rebecca Wynne (daughter of Dr. Thomas Wynne) and John Dickinson; Southerners are big on lineage and bloodline. He studied law under U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote formal letters of introduction and recommendation for his student.
Dickinson owned a fine house in Maryland for three years before moving to Tennessee, where he became a successful horse breeder and plantation owner. Within two years of his arrival in Tennessee, he courted and married the daughter of Captain Joseph Erwin, which was good. Unfortunately for Dickinson, he also ran afoul of fellow plantation owner and horse breeder, Andrew Jackson, which was bad.
As for Jackson, as a young boy he was known to be easily offended and was considered something of a bully. After reading for the law and passing the bar, Jackson moved from the nether-regions of “Waxhaws,” somewhere between the Carolinas, to Nashville. There, taken by the wiles of his landlady’s daughter, Rachel, Jackson unwittingly became a bigamist for a time, as Rachel was still married; the sting of this scandal stayed with him for years.
Soon enough, Jackson prospered as planter, slave owner, merchant, lawyer and politician, owning as many as 300 slaves who were housed up to 10 folks per 20 square-foot cabin. In efforts to reclaim a fugitive slave in 1804, Jackson advertised a reward of “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.”
The controversy surrounding his marriage to Rachel remained a deeply sore spot for Jackson, who deeply resented deep attacks on his wife’s honor. By May 1806, Dickinson, who, like Jackson, raced horses, had published the attack on Jackson in the local newspaper, which resulted in the written challenge from Jackson to a duel. Since Dickinson was considered an expert shot, Jackson determined it would be best to let Dickinson turn and fire first, hoping that his aim might be spoiled in his quickness; Jackson would wait and put a patient bead on poor Dickinson.
Dickinson did fire first, hitting Jackson in the chest. The bullet that struck Jackson was so close to where his heart should have been, it could not be removed. Under the rules of dueling, Dickinson had to remain stock-still as Old Hickory himself slowly took aim, fired, and killed him. Jackson’s behavior in the duel even outraged other gentlemen of Tennessee, who called it a brutal, cold-blooded killing and saddled Jackson with a reputation as a violent, vengeful man.
Whilst Jackson became a social outcast, his subsequent service in the War of 1812, his triumph at the Battle of New Orleans and his particularly ruthless “Indian eradication” rehabilitated him all the way to the U.S. Senate, two terms in the White House, and a treasured place on the “20” and in the heart of one Donald J. Trump.
And here endeth the lesson.