January 29, 2009
I'm doing final edits for my book (tentatively called Founding Fictions and forthcoming in 2010 from the Rhetoric, Culture& Social Critique Series at the University of Alabama Press) and I'm experiencing waves of loss from having to cut large chunks of text. Here is a story that won't make my book, but was researched with care and written with love, enjoy!
Americans loved to tell tales of Andrew Jackson’s heroism, adventure, and violence. One of his most famous duels, for example, involved fellow Tennessee lawyer Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson foolishly antagonized Jackson, who was then Major General of the Tennessee Militia, by publishing in the May 21, 1806 Nashville Impartial Review that Jackson was “a worthless scoundrel, ‘a poltroon and a coward’—a man who, by frivolous and evasive pretexts avoided giving the satisfaction which was due to a gentleman whom he had injured.” Jackson replied in the same paper three days later that he hoped to “obtain speedily that satisfaction due me for the insults offered.” In other words, a duel was on. Dickinson was known as an experienced dueler who fired quickly and had already bested many opponents—Dickinson was so sure of himself that he reportedly placed a $500 bet on his duel. Jackson knew that he could not out draw him, so he resolved to let Dickinson fire first, accept the hit, and then fire at his leisure. James Porton, who claimed to have gotten the story directly from someone who heard the story from Jackson’s second Thomas Overton wrote in 1860 that Dickinson shot and Overton “saw a puff of dust fly from the breast of [Jackson’s] coat, and saw him raise his left arm and place it tightly across his chest.” “Erect and grim as Fate,” Jackson stood, “his teeth clenched, raising his pistol.” Then, “Jackson took deliberate aim, and pulled the trigger…Dickson’s face blanched; he reeled; his friends rushed towards him, caught him in their arms, and gently seated him on the ground, leaning against a bush.” Jackson was seriously wounded, but his friends would not discover it until they had “gone a hundred yards” and Jackson’s doctor noticed that his shoe was soaked in blood. Upon inspection Jackson’s friends found that “Dickinson’s aim had been perfect. He had sent the ball precisely where he supposed Jackson’s heart was beating.” Jackson reportedly walked back to his lodgings, drank a cup of fresh buttermilk, and dressed his wounds. When asked how he had had the fortitude to withstand a direct hit to his chest and still manage to shoot Dickinson dead, Jackson pronounced “I should have hit him, if he had shot me through the brain.”