On this day in 1806, future President Andrew Jackson kills Charles Dickinson in a duel.
Jackson participated in many duels during his day, although the exact number is disputed. Perhaps it is amazing that he killed only one man—or that he was not killed himself?
Jackson was married to a divorced woman, which was somewhat controversial back then. Rachel Donelson Robards was in an unhappy (possibly abusive) marriage when Jackson met her. Possibly thinking she was divorced, Rachel married Jackson. Unfortunately, her divorce had not been finalized. You won’t be surprised to hear that there is some dispute about what Jackson and Rachel knew about her marital status—and when they knew it.
Either way, Rachel’s actions enabled her husband to claim that Rachel had committed adultery and bigamy. He got his (real) divorce. Rachel married Jackson for a second time.
Jackson’s enemies had a field day with such a story! Maybe you can see why Jackson was involved in so many duels: He was defending Rachel’s honor. Dickinson would have known this history and Jackson’s feelings about it. Indeed, he’d come close to provoking a duel before when he cast insults at Rachel.
Matters between the two men came to a head when a horse bet went awry. Making matters worse, Dickinson published an article in which he called Jackson a “worthless scoundrel” and a “coward.” Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel. The meeting between the two men was set for the morning of May 30.
Jackson was at a disadvantage. Dickinson was well-known for his good marksmanship. Would Jackson be able to get off a good shot as quickly? After discussing it with his second, Jackson decided to let Dickinson take the first shot. If Jackson survived it, then he would then be able to make his own shot more carefully.
And Jackson was determined to make this happen! “I should have hit him, if he had shot me through the brain,” Jackson later said.
Can you imagine how hard it must have been to stand still, allowing that first shot to go off? As Dickinson took his shot, witnesses saw dust flying from Jackson’s coat. Jackson’s hand went to his chest for a second. Yet he still stood there, acting untouched. Reportedly, Dickinson fell back, gasping: “Great God! Have I missed him?” Jackson’s second called Dickinson back to his mark. Dueling practices required that Dickinson now accept a shot from Jackson.
What happened next was controversial. Apparently, the gun’s trigger got caught during Jackson’s first attempt to fire: The gun had been only half-cocked. Jackson recocked the gun and tried again. The second attempt was successful, delivering a mortal blow to Dickinson.
In the aftermath of the duel, some objected that Jackson did not have the right to recock his pistol. Misfires in duels typically counted as shots, and it would have been considered dishonorable to take a second shot. Was the miscock a misfire, or something else? The matter was contentious, but the seconds to the duel submitted statements certifying their belief that the duel had been conducted fairly. Nevertheless, Jackson’s reputation suffered—as did his health.
Jackson had been more seriously injured than anyone realized. Dickinson’s bullet had landed close to his heart, breaking a few ribs. Jackson’s recovery was slow. Even then, the bullet remained in his chest and caused him much pain and discomfort in later years.
Jackson’s story doesn’t end on that dueling field with Dickinson, of course. His reputation would be rehabilitated during the War of 1812. Naturally, that is a story for another day.
H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005)
James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson: In Three Volumes (1860) (Vol. 1)
Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008)
Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 (1998)