On this day in 1806, future President Andrew Jackson kills a man who accused him of cheating on a horse race bet and then insulted his wife, Rachel.
Contemporaries described Jackson, who had already served in Tennessee’s Senate and was practicing law at the time of the duel, as argumentative, physically violent and fond of dueling to solve conflicts. Estimates of the number of duels in which Jackson participated ranged from five to 100.
Jackson and Dickinson were rival horse breeders and southern plantation owners with a long-standing hatred of each other. Dickinson accused Jackson of reneging on a horse bet, calling Jackson a coward and an equivocator. Dickinson also called Rachel Jackson a bigamist. (Rachel had married Jackson not knowing her first husband had failed to finalize their divorce.) After the insult to Rachel and a statement published in the National Review in which Dickinson called Jackson a worthless scoundrel and, again, a coward, Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel.
On May 30, 1806, Jackson and Dickinson met at Harrison’s Mills on the Red River in Logan, Kentucky. At the first signal from their seconds, Dickinson fired. Jackson received Dickinson’s first bullet in the chest next to his heart. Jackson put his hand over the wound to staunch the flow of blood and stayed standing long enough to fire his gun. Dickinson’s seconds claimed Jackson’s first shot misfired, which would have meant the duel was over, but, in a breach of etiquette, Jackson re-cocked the gun and shot again, this time killing his opponent. Although Jackson recovered, he suffered chronic pain from the wound for the remainder of his life.
Jackson was not prosecuted for murder, and the duel had very little effect on his successful campaign for the presidency in 1829. Many American men in the early 1800s, particularly in the South, viewed dueling as a time-honored tradition. In 1804, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president Aaron Burr had also avoided murder charges after killing former Treasury secretary and founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In fact, Rachel’s divorce raised more of a scandal in the press and in parlors than the killing of Dickinson.