The first recorded assassination attempt against an American president occurred on January 30, 1835, as Andrew Jackson entered the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building to attend the funeral services for Congressman Warren Randolph Davis of South Carolina. The assault is discussed in Chapter 13 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.
Jackson, the military hero of the Battle of New Orleans and seventh president of the United States, was 44 days shy of his 68th birthday when a failed house painter named Richard Lawrence tried to assassinate him. The harsh winter that year had kept the ailing, aged hero confined to the executive mansion on all but the rarest of occasions. The gray, damp last Friday in January was one such occasion when he ventured out of his adopted home.
Richard Lawrence mingled with a crowd of well-wishers standing nearby as Jackson ambled out of the Capitol building that day. Appearing frail and unwell, the president sported a cane in one hand and clutched onto the arm of Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury with his other hand as he slowly shuffled along the route. Lawrence recognized his opportunity to slay the villain and enter the pages of history. In a swift, sure motion, he stepped away from the throng and rushed toward the president. Before anyone could react, Lawrence reached into his right pocket and produced a pistol, aiming it at his nemesis. Onlookers gasped in horror. Accounts vary as to the where the assailant stood. Some witnesses estimated the distance between Lawrence and Jackson at six feet while others believed it was eight, ten, or thirteen feet. Whatever the exact distance, everyone agreed that a shot from point blank range almost certainly would be fatal.
Amazingly, as Lawrence pulled the trigger, the pistol misfired. In the colorful words of one historian, “the explosion of the percussion cap echoed through the colonnade.” Senator Thomas Hart Benton recalled that “the explosion of the cap was so loud that many persons thought the pistol had fired. I heard it at the foot of the steps, far from the place, and a great crowd between.” In the wake of the loud explosion, the spectators froze in place. After a few seconds, as they realized what had occurred, men and women scattered in a mad dash for safety. Several eyewitnesses remembered that Jackson, far from being cowed, reacted in a fury, lifting his cane to strike the would-be assassin. As several men moved to protect the president, he called out, “Let me go, gentlemen—I am not afraid—they can’t kill me—I can protect myself.”
Lawrence was almost as dumbfounded as everyone else. Realizing that he had failed in his quest, he discarded the first pistol and reached into his left pocket to produce a second gun. By this time, men were in motion. A navy officer, Lieutenant Gedney, and Secretary Woodbury, among others, lunged toward the attacker. As they reached for him, Lawrence pulled the trigger of the second gun, which also misfired. Perhaps the damp weather had caused the surprising results. Experts later estimated that the odds of two pistols misfiring under such circumstances were 125,000 to one.
Having failed to assassinate the president, Lawrence focused on his escape. Before he could flee, however, the crowd knocked him to the ground. All the while, an enraged President Jackson waved his cane about. He was heard to shout, “Let me alone! Let me alone! I know where this came from.” Convinced that his Whig opponents—perhaps at the direction of John C. Calhoun, his traitorous former vice president—were behind the assassination plot, Jackson would show his enemies his wrath. He would not be intimidated.
It turned out that Richard Lawrence was not acting at the behest of Jackson’s political opponents. He was mentally unhinged. The would-be assassin was tried in court on April 11, 1835, and found to be legally insane. His friends recounted the background of a man who once had been industrious and ambitious, a fellow who perhaps was not destined for great things, but was nonetheless a productive member of society. According to acquaintances, eighteen months before he attacked the president, Lawrence’s behavior changed markedly. Two brothers-in-law testified that Lawrence announced in November 1832 that he intended to travel to England. He left Washington, D.C., where he resided, presumably to complete his journey. A month later, he returned home. Without explaining where he had been, Lawrence told his family that he had changed his mind about traveling across the Atlantic because the “weather was too cold.” He observed that the Philadelphia newspapers contained multiple stories about him, and he could not enjoy the anonymity he sought in his travels. Lawrence also boarded with his sister and her husband for six months. The testimony revealed the extent of his increasingly erratic behavior. He tried to kill his sister and threatened to kill his landlady and her husband. Hailed before a judge, he was warned to change his ways, but Lawrence was never jailed or committed to a mental institution.
Listening to tales of the assailant’s bizarre behavior, the jury was convinced. After only five minutes of deliberation, jurors returned a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Whisked away into a mental institution, the disturbed former house painter spent the rest of his days confined to a series of asylums until he died on June 13, 1861, two months after the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and sixteen years after Old Hickory died.
The chilling episode served notice that American political figures, especially presidents, would need protection from the populace, some of whom might seek to wound or kill a political leader, perhaps for inscrutable reasons. Legislators mulled over the possibility of enacting a new law to protect an American president from harm. Owing to the political turmoil of the times, however, those plans fell by the wayside. The failure to realize the potential threat faced by presidents would have devastating consequences almost 30 years later when an aggrieved actor named John Wilkes Booth resolved to kill a president he deemed unfit for high office.