I had the pleasure of attending Charles Dickinson’s reinterment in late June. Dickinson was the young lawyer who was killed in a duel with Andrew Jackson in 1806. The story of how Dickinson’s grave was discovered is a testament to hard work and persistence, by both Charles Miller, Dickinson’s great-great-great-grandson, and Fletch Coke, a well-known historic preservationist in Nashville.
Most people who know about the duel don’t realize that the evidence that the argument was over an insult to Rachel Jackson’s purity originated with Jackson’s first biographer, James Parton. The extant private and public correspondence does not support Parton’s version of events, however. This is in contrast to Jackson’s earlier altercation with John Sevier, when Rachel’s name was clearly brought into their quarrel. The Dickinson dispute actually concerned the means of payment for a bet made over a horse race between Jackson and Joseph Erwin, Dickinson’s father-in-law. How Dickinson became part of the discussion is unclear; the consequence of his involvement, however, was death.
While he survived being shot by Dickinson, the duel had far-reaching consequences for Jackson beyond the bullet that remained in his body until his death in 1845. His reputation for violence, which had been established in a duel with Waightstill Avery and the Sevier feud, was reinforced by the death of Dickinson. It would continue to plague Jackson, especially during the 1828 presidential election, when his support of the execution of men under his command during the War of 1812 and two British citizens during his questionable invasion of Florida in 1818 were prominent issues.
I must admit that it was exciting to see Miller and Andrew Jackson VI mentioning the need to recognize the tragedy of their ancestors’ actions, but I suspect that Jackson and Dickinson would have disagreed that what occurred was a tragedy. For them, it was simply life under the southern code of honor.