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American History: June 1999 From the Editor

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 1999 
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Thoughts on History

To get a sense of how politics (and politicians) have changed, consider Andrew Jackson. Our seventh president was most definitely a man of his age. In today's world he would look as out of place as a stagecoach in a mall parking lot or a square-rigged man-of-war in the modern navy. Tough as Jackson was, though, I think he would be overwhelmed by today's political scene. I can't imagine him bothering with opinion polls before taking a stand on an issue. As you can see by reading this magazine's cover story, once Jackson made up his mind, he stuck to his guns and the devil take the consequences.

Of course, you won't find many politicians–and even fewer presidents–who ever killed an opponent in a duel. But Jackson did, and until he died he carried inside his chest the ball he received in that encounter. Jackson's opponent was one Charles Dickinson, who had initially aroused his ire with some remarks about Jackson's marriage, a sore point for Jackson. He had unwittingly married Rachel Robards before her divorce was final, a situation that plagued him for years. His anger with Dickinson flared up again over a tangled affair regarding a horserace. Eventually Jackson and Dickinson ended up facing each other with pistols in a Kentucky clearing on a spring morning in 1806.

Dickinson was considered the better marksman and at the command of "Fire" shot first–but was horrified to see Jackson still on his feet. "Great God!" he said. "Have I missed him?" He hadn't, and his bullet had lodged near Jackson's heart. Though badly wounded, Jackson raised his pistol at his now-helpless opponent and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Jackson recocked it, again took deliberate aim, and shot Dickinson through the abdomen. Dickinson died several hours later. Despite his own wound, Jackson never faltered in his desire to see Dickinson dead. "I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain," he said later.

But Jackson had a softer side, best revealed through his love for Rachel, who died shortly after the 1828 presidential election. Jackson's secretary, Nicholas Trist, recalled a ritual "Old Hickory" went through each night. He would prop up Rachel's miniature and open a "book which bore the mark of long use. This book was her Prayer-book. The miniature he always wore next to his heart . . . . The last thing he did every night before lying down to rest, was to read in that book with that picture before his eye."

I certainly don't condone dueling, but there is something about Jackson I have to admire. I get the sense that people certainly knew where they stood with him. Next to Lincoln, Jackson is the one president I'd most like to encounter in person, just to get a sense of what he was like. I'm not sure he'd like me–I'm not sure I'd like him, to be perfectly honest–but I think he would be fascinating to observe.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the nastiness of American politics. People talk as though "the politics of personal destruction" were a new phenomenon, but it's not. The 1828 campaign between Jackson and John Quincy Adams was marked by personal attacks, many focused on Jackson's marital mix-up. A newspaper even claimed that Jackson's mother had been a "common prostitute." Adams wasn't immune to attacks either. One story said that while minister to Russia, Adams had once pimped for the czar.

One thing that has changed recently is this magazine. In this issue we introduce a new department, simply titled "Americans." It will consist of brief portraits of men and women from this country's history. You may have heard of some of them; others may be more obscure. All will be people who made some kind of impact on the United States. If you have any suggestions for individuals we should profile, please let us know.


Tom Huntington, Editor, American History

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