One of things I enjoy about working at the Library of Congress is visiting our Manuscripts Division to read first-hand accounts of historic events. After reading a biography of Andrew Jackson, I looked through the finding aid for his papers and came upon a letter from a Tennessee lawyer named Charles Dickinson. The estimated number of duels fought by Andrew Jackson varies widely, but one of the most memorable was fought against Dickinson.
The animosity between them was kindled over a horse race. Jackson owned a stallion called Truxton and a Captain Joseph Erwin, Charles Dickinson’s father-in-law, proposed that Jackson pit Truxton against his horse, Ploughboy. As the date of the race drew near, Erwin noticed that Ploughboy’s training runs had slowed and were not showing signs of improvement. Erwin decided to stem any further losses by agreeing to a forfeit. A dispute over the terms of the forfeit erupted that focused on the identity of the promissory notes that would be exchanged in satisfaction of the debt.
The dispute was settled, but a Mr. Thomas Swann told Erwin and Dickinson that Jackson had impugned their integrity. Jackson responded that anyone who said such a thing was a “damned liar.” Swann took offense, and insinuated himself further into the situation, demanding his own satisfaction from Jackson. Jackson did not accept Swann’s challenge, but believing that Swann was acting on Dickinson’s behalf, wrote a response intended for Dickinson, saying that a “base, poltroon and cowardly tale-bearer will always act in the background.”
Below, you will see a page from a letter sent by Dickinson to Jackson on January 6, 1806. The letter recounts the dispute over the forfeit and illustrates the role that Swann played in fanning the flames of the conflict, driving it toward its tragic conclusion. At first glance, the letter reads as a calm request for an account or apology, but soon reveals the author’s anger, reaching its crescendo on the page you see scanned below. In this section of the letter, Dickinson states, “As to the word coward, I think it as applicable to yourself as anyone that I know and I shall be very glad when an opportunity serves to know in what manner you give your anodynes and hope you will take in payment one of my most moderate cathartics.” Jackson was counseled by one of Tennessee’s most respected men and founding fathers, James Robertson to avoid entering into a duel, and he heeded this advice, settling on publishing a defense of his conduct. On April 3rd, the race between Ploughboy and Truxton took place. Even though Truxton had suffered an injury in training, Truxton defeated Ploughboy.
Dickinson then published a response to Jackson, calling him “a worthless scoundrel, a poltroon, and a coward.” Now Jackson demanded satisfaction. On May 30, 1806, the combatants met at Harrison’s Mill, Kentucky, to settle their differences with a duel. Jackson knew that Dickinson had a reputation as a formidable marksman, so he resolved to hold his fire, allowing Dickinson to fire first and then carefully aim before returning fire. Jackson also took the precaution of wearing a coat that was too large for his frame, hoping this would cause Dickinson’s shot to miss his heart. Dickinson fired first, and it appeared that he missed his mark. Jackson then took careful aim and pulled the trigger, but his pistol locked at half-cock. Though it had first appeared Dickinson’s shot had spared Jackson, in fact, it had struck his breast bone and injured his ribs, causing blood to trickle down Jackson’s leg and accumulate in his shoe. Struggling through the pain, Jackson steadied himself, recocked his pistol, and fired, striking Dickinson in the abdomen. Dickinson passed away at dusk, and in response to a petition by some of Nashville’s leading citizens, Nashville papers mourned his loss by draping their pages.
H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005).