Political assassination has been around since Biblical times, if not longer.
Andrew Jackson: Public Figure
Andrew Jackson had been in the public eye since he was in his early twenties. As a Tennessee lawyer, planter, speculator, horseracer, duelist and legislator, he eventually became “General” Jackson, a militia title, and “Old Hickory” for posterity. With such a resume, it is easy to understand his huge number of followers – and enemies.
When he became POTUS in 1829, he was sixty one, a recent widower, skinny as a rail, white haired and practically toothless.
By 1835, well into his second term, many Americans wondered how he lived as long as he had. At sixty-seven, the odds were that he would not survive his term. But Old Hickory was as tough as his nickname, and was now the crusading champion of dissolving the Bank of the United States, a controversial policy that had added long lists to his roster of detractors. The aging President, accustomed to having powerful political enemies, had become more paranoid than ever, and just as feisty. After all, he had participated in several duels over the years, with two bullets in his body as souvenirs.
Richard Lawrence, Assassin and Lunatic:
Richard Lawrence (1800?-1861) was born in England, but had migrated with his family to the U.S. when he was still a child. He had become a house painter, and was seemingly a solid citizen living in the Washington DC area.
By the early 1830s, however, it was apparent to Lawrence’s family that his behavior had become erratic, and downright peculiar. He ranted and raved, quarreled violently with family members and neighbors, left his job, insisted that he was the King of England and that the United States owed him vast sums of money. Then he insisted that such funds were not forthcoming due to President Andrew Jackson’s banking policy.
Speculation (since we will never know anything for sure) has centered on the possibility that exposure to the chemicals in the paint (perhaps lead poisoning) had affected Lawrence’s mind. Then again, many people painted houses in the 1830s with no ill effects on their sanity.
The Fateful Failed Shooting
It was January 30, 1835. The weather was damp and drizzling. Rep. Warren Davis of South Carolina had died a few days earlier, and there was a State Funeral Service at the Capitol. A frail President Jackson leaning on his walking stick, came to pay his respects. Richard Lawrence was lying in wait behind a pillar near the East Portico, ready to accost and shoot the President as he left the building.
Lawrence brandished two single-shot brass pistols. They were well made; the powder was considered to be excellent. As Jackson passed, Lawrence jumped out from behind the pillars, and fired his pistol at the President. The percussion cap resounded, but there was no explosion. The powder had not ignited and the pistol misfired. Legend has it that Andrew Jackson, exploded in rage, dropped twenty years, and once again became Old Hickory. He raised his cane, charged at the assassin, and began thrashing him soundly.
Lawrence fired the other pistol, this time at point blank range. Again, the pistol misfired. Meanwhile, some of those accompanying the President also had sprung into action, wrestling the assassin to the ground. It is said that western legend Davy Crockett was one of those who helped subdue the assailant. Lawrence was immediately taken to jail.
It was the first instance of a President of the United States being the target of an assassination. It is also the first (and only) time a President of the United States is reported to have fought back. Maybe yes, maybe no – but it makes for a great story!
The Lucky Non-Shots. The Lunatic. The Trial.
Within a very short time, it became apparent that Richard Lawrence, the would-be assassin, was insane. When his pistols and his gunpowder were tested, the examiners were amazed to find them in good working order. They fired readily, and penetrated an inch-thick block of wood thirty feet away. The gunpowder was also said to be of good quality.
The fact that both guns and both shots had misfired puzzled the investigators, but they concluded that the gun had some history of being erratic in damp weather conditions. The day was definitely damp; the powder may have been affected. They also concluded that the odds that both shots had not fired were 125,000-to-1. Some said that Divine Providence had obviously been at work to protect Andrew Jackson.
Lawrence was brought to trial a few months later. The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, of The Star Spangled Banner fame. It took the jury only a few minutes to determine that the defendant was “not guilty, by reasons of insanity.” He was still behaving preposterously at the trial, insisting he was King Richard III, or similar royal personage.
He was sent to Washington’s Government Hospital for the Insane, and remained there until he died in 1861.
Old Hickory and the Conspiracy
President Jackson, feeble in health, was still sound of mind – albeit a little warped. A lifetime of battling powerful political (and personal) enemies had made him paranoid and suspicious, particularly of long-time foes. He was always eager to believe that a nefarious plot was afoot, and that his enemies were always ready to conspire at mayhem. His decades-long animosity towards Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun led him to suspect that either or both were involved in his potential assassination, and had likely conspired with (or hired) Richard Lawrence to do their dirty work.
Some people insisted that Jackson had organized the attempted assassination himself to gain sympathy for his Bank policies, but that does not sound like Jackson, who never ducked an issue or a fight.
Meacham, Jon – America Lion: Jackson in the White House – Random House, 2008