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American Heritage People
Posted Tuesday January 30, 2007 07:00 AM EST

Trying to Assassinate President Jackson

By Jon Grinspan

Richard Lawrence fires at Andrew Jackson (third from left).
Richard Lawrence fires at Andrew Jackson (third from left).
(Library of Congress)

On this date in 1835 a deranged gunman attempted the first presidential assassination in American history. He ended up being beaten to the ground by his target, Andrew Jackson.

January 30, 1835, was a dreary day in Washington. A somber mood complemented the unusually damp winter. South Carolina Rep. Warren R. Davis had recently died, and President Jackson, along with much of his cabinet, attended Davis’s funeral in the Capitol building. After the service the President, a tall, rail-thin, 67-year-old suffering from respiratory ailments, shuffled out of the magnificent neoclassical building. As his cabinet walked together through the throng of onlookers, a man stepped from the crowd, raised a small pistol, and, three short paces from Jackson, pulled the trigger.

The man was Richard Lawrence, an English immigrant and unemployed house painter. Lawrence had been carrying two loaded derringers in his pockets for several days. In the soft rain before the capitol, he aimed his shaking hand at Jackson’s chest and squeezed one pistol’s trigger. The hammer snapped down, detonating the small percussion cap that was supposed to spark the gunpowder in the barrel. The cap let out a loud bang but nothing more. Lawrence dropped that pistol and aimed the second one, but it misfired as well. The would-be assassin caught the crowd’s attention with the noise of the two explosions, but he did Jackson no harm.

No President has lived through more violence than Andrew Jackson. A scar on his head marked a saber blow he received from a British officer when he was 13, and his shoulder bore a bullet wound from a shootout in a Nashville hotel. As a general he defeated British, Spanish, and Native armies; as a duelist he once killed a man at eight paces. Unlike most Presidents before him, he never went to college. Instead he was schooled on the Appalachian frontier in perpetual conflicts, defending his nation and his honor.

So when the house painter’s pistols failed, Lawrence found himself dangerously within range of a formidable opponent. Years earlier Jackson had advised a young man on how to wield a cane in combat. He warned that a cane swung at head level was easy to deflect; rather one should “take the stick so [held like a spear] and punch him in the stomach.” He described having once fought a man that way in Tennessee: “Sir, it doubled him up. He fell at my feet, and I stamped on him.” Richard Lawrence later told investigators that he only felt genuine fear when he saw the 67-year-old President charge.

Beaten and subdued by Jackson’s cane, Lawrence was carted off for interrogation. An examination by two of Washington’s best physicians and the chief justice of the district found him to be “melancholy and irascible”; they reported that he “spoke in an artless and unreserved manner” and boasted about his assassination attempt, shocked only that the crowd had failed to defend him from Jackson.

He gave the doctors several reasons for the shooting. He had recently lost his job painting houses and somehow blamed Jackson. He claimed that with the President dead “money would be more plenty”—a reference to Jackson’s struggle with the Bank of the United States—and that he “could not rise until the President fell.” Finally, he informed his interrogators that he was actually a deposed English King—Richard III, specifically, dead since 1485—and that Jackson was merely his clerk. He was deemed insane, institutionalized, and never punished for his assassination attempt.

While Washington’s finest doctors listened to Lawrence claim to be the king of England, the police were testing his majesty’s misfired pistols. They worked perfectly. After watching them drive bullets through an inch-thick wood plank at 30 feet, many shuddered to think what they could have done to Old Hickory. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, who had also once shot at Jackson, reflected that “two pistols—so well loaded, so coolly handled, and which afterward fired with such readiness, force, and precision—missing fire, each in its turn, when leveled eight feet at the President’s heart . . . made a deep impression upon the public feeling, and irresistibly carried many minds to the belief in a superintending Providence.” To his friends, Jackson’s survival could be nothing but the work of a higher power.

In a violent age Jackson was the model of the frontier democrat willing to aggressively defend himself when attacked. That persona—displayed to the nation on a rainy January day in 1835—was a big part of what won him his extraordinary popularity.

Jon Grinspan lives in New York City and writes for Military History magazine.

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