Andrew Jackson’s Aim

Image result for andrew jackson and charles henry dickinson

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, May 30, 2018, and on this date 212 years ago, a future U.S. president shot another man to death in a duel prompted by an insult published in a newspaper. So, no, the thin-skinned nature of U.S. politicians is not a new phenomenon.

Politicians, as I noted here a few years ago when writing about this episode, were once much tougher than they are today, and the toughest of them all was Andrew Jackson, one of the participants in the May 30, 1806 duel. His opponent was prominent Nashville lawyer Charles Henry Dickinson, a marksman who never missed.

Dickinson didn’t miss on this day, either. He fired first, hitting Jackson in the chest. Old Hickory stood where he was struck, calmly cocking his pistol and shooting Dickinson through the heart. Their quarrel began over a horse race.

Andrew Jackson was born in 1767 in the Waxhaw region along the border between South Carolina and North Carolina. His father died before he was born, and the Revolutionary War destroyed almost the rest of his family. His oldest brother, Hugh, died in uniform after enlisting in a patriot regiment. Fighting as irregulars, Andy Jackson and another brother were captured and jailed. Both boys contracted smallpox; Robert Jackson died.

Their mother, while tending to sick and wounded soldiers, also took ill and perished. While a prisoner of war at age 13, Jackson refused to shine the shoes of a redcoat officer, who slashed him across the face with a saber.

An orphan and a hardened combat veteran by age 15, Andrew Jackson wore the scar the rest of his life. He was not the type of man who would accept having his wife insulted in print as a bigamist. (Rachel Jackson had apparently married Andy Jackson before her divorce was final.) Nor did Jackson appreciate being accused of welching on a wager over a horse race. To be precise, Dickinson called Jackson a “worthless scoundrel” and a “coward” and a “poltroon” and he did so in a Nashville newspaper. (That last word has fallen from usage, but Merriam-Webster lists as synonyms: chicken, craven, cur, dastard, coward, recreant, sissy.)

Jackson was none of those things. He was a fearless fighter and a willing brawler. His plan for the duel with Dickinson was to let the other man fire first, hoping his aim was off. Facing each other in a field along the Red River in Logan, Kentucky, Jackson followed through on his strategy — and was promptly struck by Dickinson’s shot. It was only off by an inch or two — Jackson had wisely stood in profile — but Dickinson’s bullet did shatter Jackson’s ribs and lodged itself inches from his heart, where it stayed for the next 39 years.

Dickinson’s death was viewed in some quarters as cold-blooded murder. Andy Jackson, who would engage in several other near-fatal fights in his long life, certainly didn’t see it that way. Neither did the voters, who after sending him to the White House in the election of 1828, nearly ransacked the place in their drunken euphoria.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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