Odds that a president of the United States has killed a man in a duel: 1 in 43.*
Archaeologist Dan Allen announced in August 2009 that he is “beyond certain” that he has just solved a 200-year-old mystery. Where was the body of the only man Andrew Jackson killed in a duel? In the front yard of a house on a dead end street in Nashville, Tennessee, it turns out. Allen discovered maps and deeds that pinpointed the lot containing Charles Dickinson’s grave but had to rely on his instincts honed over decades of finding graves to find the exact spot. In the first hole he dug, he found bits of coffin and bone, sparing the homeowners further excavation. Thus, Allen puts to rest the question of the final resting place of Dickinson, who discovered in 1806 to his sorrow that Jackson was not a fast shot, but he was a determined killer.
Though “Old Hickory” was rumored to have fought 100 duels, that number has now been whittled down to 14. Most of the “affairs of honor” had to do with slanders against his wife, Rachel. The relationship between Andrew Jackson and Rachel first came to public notice in 1790 when her husband Lewis Robards petitioned for divorce on the basis that Rachel was having an affair with Jackson. Though Jackson would challenge anyone who dared insinuate such a thing, his biographer, Jon Meacham, asserts in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, that “their passion for each other was apparently deep enough” that they chose “to live in adultery in order to provoke a divorce from Robards.” Believing that Rachel was free, the couple married, only to discover Robards had not gone through with the divorce. Surrounded by scandal that would dog them the rest of their days, they were at last legally married in 1794.
Nine years later, Governor John Savier remarked to Jackson about having taken “a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife.” “Do you mention her sacred name?” Jackson bellowed. Shots were fired; fortunately no one was killed.
Charles Dickinson and Jackson got into an argument over a horse race, but there is strong speculation that there must also have been a slur against Rachel for pistols to have been drawn. Whatever the provocation, Jackson labeled Dickinson a “worthless scoundrel” and demanded “that satisfaction due me for the insults offered.” Dickinson was younger by 17 years and considered the best shot in the country; he was glad to oblige. On the way to the dueling field, he shot a string from 24 feet away, calling out as he rode away: “If General Jackson comes along this road, show him that.”
The men faced each other May 30, 1806, eight paces apart. Dickinson had the right to fire first. He aimed at Jackson’s heart. “Great God! Have I missed him?” he said in disbelief, staggering back. Ordered back to the mark, he turned his face away as Jackson fired.
The gun had stopped half-cocked, so Jackson fired again. This bullet entered Dickinson’s groin and went through the intestines. Though he lived 14 hours in agony, there was never a doubt that the wound was mortal.
How had Dickinson missed? The answer is that he had not. The wily Jackson had concealed his scrawny frame beneath a bulky overcoat. He was able to twist his torso just enough so the bullet meant for his heart hit bone instead. Though bleeding profusely, Jackson refused medical attendance on the field, not wanting his adversary to have the satisfaction of knowing he had been wounded.
Though Jackson had served as a Congressman from Tennessee, his popularity in the state plummeted as news of the “execution” got out. His 1815 victory at the Battle of New Orleans made him a popular hero again, but his violent nature was an issue in the presidential campaign of 1824, at least until the news was published that of the four candidates: Jackson of Tennessee, Henry Clay of Kentucky, William Crawford of Georgia, and John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, only Adams had not fought in a duel.
Adams won the presidency in 1824, but Jackson continued campaigning. Four years later, Jackson was elected, but Rachel did not live to see him take office. She was buried on Christmas Eve, 1828, in the white satin gown she had chosen for the inauguration. Standing at her grave, a heartbroken Jackson said: “In the presence of this dear saint I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy!”
*Barack Obama is the 44th US president, but there have only been 43 individuals to occupy the office. Grover Cleveland served as both the 22nd and the 24th president.