Duel Personality

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, May 30, 2017. I hope your Memorial Day weekend was rewarding and reflective. On Monday, it was something quite different for a San Francisco Giants’ pitcher named Hunter Strickland.

A 28-year-old Georgia native, Strickland is blessed with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, but not much maturity. Three years ago, as you may recall, Washington Nationals’ budding star Bryce Harper tried to carry the Nats on his back in the first round of the National League playoffs. While almost every other teammate wilted under the spotlight, Harper hit .294 in the series with three home runs.

Two of the dingers came off the aforementioned Hunter Strickland, who apparently has a long memory. The Giants won the World Series that year, which would have satisfied a more philosophical young man. Instead, Strickland apparently nursed a grudge: He threw one of those 98-mile-per-hour fastballs at Bryce Harper yesterday — and hit him with it.

Harper charged the mound, which he had a right to do under the unofficial rules of the game. Bryce even remembered to throw his helmet to the side of the pitcher instead of directly at Strickland before the two traded punches and ignited a bench-clearing scrum. After order had been restored and the Nats recorded a 3-0 win, Washington broadcaster Ray Knight (a former player and manager) gave Bryce his blessing, saying his actions were “old school.”

True enough, but when I think of the truly old school method of settling disputes mano a mano, today’s date comes to mind. It was on May 30, 1806 when a future U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, killed a man in a duel on the banks of a rural riverside.

It is a matter of historical record that Charles Henry Dickinson and Andrew Jackson, rival Tennessee horse breeders and plantation owners, had little use for each other. They made that plain. But the type of insults that Americans in public life hurl at each other daily these days could get you killed in the early 19th century, which is exactly what happened to Charles Dickinson.

Jackson’s apologists would say later that Dickinson insulted Jackson’s wife Rachel — calling her a bigamist, which was tantamount to calling her a woman of loose morals. While it’s true that Rachel Jackson inadvertently was married to two men at the same time (her first husband had apparently not filed all the divorce papers), I’ve never seen any evidence that Dickinson actually brought Mrs. Jackson into the dispute — notwithstanding how many history books include this claim.

What is indisputable is that Dickinson accused Jackson of welching on a bet over a horse race, and that Dickinson did so publicly. Besmirching Andy Jackson’s reputation was a perilous undertaking, as Dickinson knew. So when Jackson challenged his tormentor to a fight, Dickinson was neither surprised nor unprepared. Tennessee had outlawed dueling by then, so each man traveled north from the Nashville area to the state line where they met on the banks of a stream known as the Red River in Logan County, Kentucky.

When their seconds gave the signal, each man fired his pistol. Dickinson’s shot struck Andrew Jackson in the chest, inches from his heart. Jackson’s own gun misfired. This should have been the end of the duel, but as he would demonstrate eight years later at the Battle of New Orleans, Andy Jackson wasn’t a man who always obeyed the established rules of combat.

He re-cocked his pistol with one hand while using the other to staunch the flow of blood from a wound that, for all Jackson knew, was fatal. Then he fired again. This shot struck Dickinson in the abdomen. He died hours later, in great agony. Jackson recovered from his own wound, overcame the ensuing scandal, kept his destined rendezvous with the British forces in Louisiana, and went on to become America’s first populist president.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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