Described as a tall and lanky man with fiery red hair and piercing blue eyes, Andrew Jackson was famous for his short temper, fearlessness, and quickness to violence. What is the most famous example of this?
Like many American men in the early 1800s, especially in the South, Andrew Jackson viewed dueling as a sacred tradition and the noblest way of defending your own, as well as your family’s, honor. The number of duels Jackson is said to have participated in varies widely (from less than a dozen to 103), depending on various sources. Jackson carried two bullets in his chest until his dying day from these encounters, and he nearly lost his left arm to amputation as the result of a gun battle on the streets of Nashville.
As a result of his temper, as well as his political ambitions, Jackson challenged others to duels and was challenged many times. His most famous and well-documented duel occurred on May 30, 1806, against a neighbor and political rival named Charles Dickinson.
Dickinson (26) and Jackson (39) were horse breeders and planters with a long-running hatred of one another. Dickinson, hoping to eliminate Jackson as a political opponent (by killing him in a duel), had accused Jackson of reneging on a horse bet, called Jackson a coward, and even insulted Jackson’s wife by calling her a bigamist. Dickinson went as far as publishing a statement in the National Review, calling Jackson a worthless scoundrel. In anger, Jackson finally challenged Dickinson to a duel.
The two Tennesseans met in Kentucky, where dueling was legal, to settle the matter. Dickinson, an experienced marksman, was said to have killed 26 men in previous duels, and he undoubtedly expected to make Jackson number 27. The two men stood 24 feet from one another with .70 caliber pistols in hand and waited for their signal.
General John Overton had been chosen to oversee the duel, and he gave the signal to fire. Dickinson swiftly squared himself and aimed at Jackson’s heart. The pistol roared, and a wave of smoke billowed from Jackson’s coat. Jackson’s left hand rose and clutched his chest to staunch the flow of blood, and his feet remained firmly in place.
A terrible marksman, Jackson had determined that his only chance at putting down Dickinson was to wait and take the second shot. As Jackson steadied his nerves and raised his pistol, Dickinson reportedly said, “My God! Have I missed him?”
The “gentlemen” rules of decorum regarding dueling stated that Dickinson had to remain firmly in place while Jackson took aim and returned fire. Jackson pulled the trigger, but the flint hammer jammed. Jackson cocked the weapon and took aim a second time. The pistol ignited, firing a bullet which struck Dickinson in the chest and sent the antagonist to the ground.
The bullet Dickinson received proved fatal, and he died later that night. Jackson, the clear underdog in the fight, survived, but would suffer chronic pain from the injury for the remainder of his life. The bullet busted two ribs and lodged very near Jackson’s heart. As a result, Jackson’s surgeon advised that it not be removed.
Of the bullet Jackson received, the surgeon noted, “I don’t see how you stayed on your feet after that wound.” Jackson, always full of fire, responded, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.”
The bullet to the chest in the Dickinson duel was one of many brushes with death for Jackson that would have likely killed a weaker or less stubborn man. Yet, Jackson’s survival could also be attributed to a bit of luck. His opponent, an expert marksman, had indeed taken aim at Jackson’s heart, but Jackson’s lean frame, sideways stance, and loose-fitting coat likely played a role in helping the bullet miss the mark.
Jackson’s recovery took several months, and his reputation suffered immensely as a result of his actions. Many locals were outraged that Dickinson had to stand defenseless while Jackson re-cocked, took aim, and fired a second time. Jackson argued that Dickinson intended to “kill the genl (general)” and that he was justified in shooting to kill as well.
Since he technically did not violate the rules of a duel, Jackson was not prosecuted for murder. However, the mounting pressure and resentment from the general public did cause Jackson to retreat to his home at The Hermitage. In his later quests for high political office, Jackson’s conduct in the duel with Dickinson would be brought into question. However, it would not be the shooting of Dickinson that would cause Jackson and his campaign the most stress, but a persistent moral issue of the era that Dickinson had referred to when he insulted Jackson’s wife.