May 302017
 

How do you feel about voting for a man for president who had shot and killed a man in a duel? Well . . . on this date in 1806, Andrew Jackson, future 7th president of the United States, killed Charles Dickinson in a duel in Kentucky. They had nipped over the border because dueling was illegal in Tennessee. Jackson was severely wounded in the duel, and carried a bullet lodged in his lung the rest of his life because, at that time, surgery to remove it was too risky. There’s a fundamental difference between a real alpha male (Jackson) and a fake one (Trump), but I don’t care for either.

Andrew Jackson’s quick temper was notorious. One of his biographers wrote,

His audacity on behalf of the people earned him enemies who slandered him and defamed even his wife, Rachel. He dueled in her defense and his own, suffering grievous wounds that left him with bullet fragments lodged about his body.

However, most historians are of the general opinion that Jackson was usually (not always) in control of his rage, and used it (and his fearsome reputation) as a tool to get what he wanted in his public and private affairs. Certainly, his opponents were terrified of his temper:

Observers likened him to a volcano, and only the most intrepid or recklessly curious cared to see it erupt. …His close associates all had stories of his blood-curling oaths, his summoning of the Almighty to loose His wrath upon some miscreant, typically followed by his own vow to hang the villain or blow him to perdition. Given his record—in duels, brawls, mutiny trials, and summary hearings—listeners had to take his vows seriously.

On the last day of his presidency, Jackson said that he had but two regrets, that he “had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.” The ineluctable fact about such threats (unlike those of Trump), is that once in a while you have to actually kill someone to show that you are serious. In my opinion, therefore, Jackson’s duel with Dickinson was as much about proving he was ruthless, as about actual grievances – although in his mind they were real enough.

The Jackson-Dickinson duel had been developing over some time:

In 1805 a friend of Jackson’s deprecated the manner in which Captain Joseph Erwin had handled a bet with Jackson over a horse race. Erwin’s son-in-law, Charles Dickinson became enraged and started quarreling with Jackson’s friend which led to Jackson becoming involved. Dickinson wrote to Jackson calling him a ‘coward and an equivocator.’ The affair continued, with more insults and misunderstandings, until Dickinson published a statement in the Nashville Review in May 1806, calling Jackson a ‘worthless scoundrel, … a poltroon and a coward.’

Although the actual issue that led to the duel was a horse race between Andrew Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law, Joseph Erwin, Jackson had confronted Dickinson over a report that he had insulted his wife, Rachel. Dickinson said if he had, he was drunk at the time and apologized. Jackson accepted his apology, but there were probably still hard feelings between the two. Jackson and Erwin had scheduled their horse race in 1805. The stakes specified a winning pot of $2,000 paid by the loser, with an $800 forfeit if a horse couldn’t run. Erwin’s horse went lame, and after a minor disagreement about the type of forfeit payment, Erwin paid.

Later, one of Jackson’s friends, while sitting in a Nashville store, shared what was probably a more lurid story about Erwin’s disputed payment. When Dickinson heard the story, he sent a friend, Thomas Swann, to act as a go-between to inquire about what Jackson said about his father-in-law. Whether the friend misinterpreted or even misrepresented what was said by the two men. This minor misunderstanding flamed into a full-blown battle.

Dickinson

In a confrontation at Winn’s Tavern, Jackson struck Swann with his cane and called him a stupid meddler. Dickinson sent Jackson a letter calling him a coward about the same time that Swann wrote a column in a local newspaper calling Jackson a coward. Jackson responded in the same newspaper saying Swann was a “lying valet for a worthless, drunken, blackguard” – that is, Dickinson. That did it for Dickinson who, after he returned from New Orleans in May 1806, published an attack on Jackson in the local newspaper calling Jackson “a poltroon and a coward.” After reading the article, Jackson sent Dickinson a letter requesting “satisfaction due me for the insults offered.”

Because dueling was outlawed in Tennessee, the two men met in the Adairville, Kentucky, area, which sits right on the border, on May 30, 1806. Dickinson left Nashville the day before the duel with his second and a group of friends, confident, even demonstrating his shooting skills at various stops along the way. Since Dickinson was considered an expert shot, Jackson and his friend, Thomas Overton, determined it would be best to let Dickinson fire first, hoping that his aim might be spoiled in his quickness. The obvious weakness of this strategy was, of course, that Jackson might not be alive to take aim. Dickinson did fire first, hitting Jackson in the chest. Under the rules of dueling, Dickinson had to remain still as Jackson took his one shot. Jackson’s pistol stopped at half cock, so he drew back the hammer and aimed again, this time hitting Dickinson in the chest. Dickinson bled to death.

Doctors determined that the bullet in Jackson was too close to his heart to operate, so Jackson carried it for the rest of his life, and suffered much pain from the wound. Locals were outraged that Dickinson had to stand defenseless while Jackson re-cocked and shot him, even though it was acceptable behavior in a duel. Jackson could have shot in the air or shot only to injure Dickinson; this would have been considered sufficient satisfaction under dueling rules. Jackson said afterwards that Dickinson had meant to kill him, so he had also shot to kill. Jackson’s reputation did, however, suffer greatly in some quarters from the particulars of the duel. I suppose if you’ve just been shot in the lung and have a loaded pistol in your right hand, you don’t take a lot of time to ponder your choices, although you do beforehand and Jackson knew what he wanted to do. He considered himself the aggrieved party and killing Dickinson was his chief purpose. Dickinson had aimed at Jackson’s heart though the bullet had been slightly deflected by Jackson’s choice of loose clothing over his lean frame, and by his careful sideways stance. The bullet broke some of Jackson’s ribs, and had lodged inches from his heart. While Jackson could easily have fallen from such a wound, he said later, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.”

Tennessee, Jackson’s actual home state despite the fact that the duel was in Kentucky, ought to be the site of today’s recipe. Tennessee produces wonderful BBQ, especially ribs, but I suggest that you save your pennies and pay a visit to sample it rather than try to replicate it at home. Tennessee pit masters have been honing their skills a long time. Chicken and dumplings is much more easily duplicated in your kitchen. Chicken and dumplings is actually a fairly widespread Southern dish, but Tennessee makes a fair go of it. Sadly, these days Southern cooks in general do not make their own dumplings, but buy what is, more or less, basic dried pasta which are labeled “dumplings.” Good old fashioned cooks, including those who taught me, fortunately, would never hear of such a thing. They make their own dumplings – which are somewhat akin to boiled short pastry – and therein lies the secret of a great dish. Chicken and dumplings is classic Southern comfort food; just what you need after being shot in the chest.

 Southern Chicken and Dumplings

Ingredients

3 cups chicken, cooked and shredded
chicken stock
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra
½ tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. salted butter, cubed
1 cup whole milk

Instructions

Use a pastry blender or food processor (or your hands), blend together the flour and butter as you would for making short-crust pastry. Add in and mix the milk a little at a time until you have formed a soft, pliable dough. Knead for a few minutes and let it rest.

Bring about 2 pints of chicken stock to a gentle boil in a large pot. Add the chicken.

Liberally flour your work surface and roll out the dough to about the same thickness as thick noodles or a little thicker. Cut into 1” squares and dust with flour.

Bring the stock to a good rolling boil, but not too fierce, and add the dumplings. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Southern cooks like their dumplings very soft, but you will have to decide for yourself. Check for doneness after 15 minutes, and keep cooking until they reach the consistency you like. They should not be doughy, but Italian al dente is off the table. The extra flour on the dumplings will thicken the stock to a sauce.