One hundred and seventy-nine years ago today, on January 30, 1835, President Andrew Jackson emerged from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. when a man named Richard Lawrence ran up to him pointing a pistol. Pointing the gun at Jackson’s back, Lawrence pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Lawrence, however, had brought a backup weapon–the pistols were a matching set, probably intended for dueling–so he pulled that one out and aimed directly at the President, who by now was clearly aware of what was going on. Miraculously, with a dull click, Lawrence’s second gun misfired too. The group of onlookers and dignitaries surrounding Jackson, including Congressman Davy Crockett, wrestled Lawrence to the ground and he was arrested shortly thereafter.
Jackson was incredibly lucky. The first U.S. President to be the victim of an assassination attempt, he was the only one to be attacked at point-blank range with not one but two weapons. The mathematical odds of both guns misfiring in a single attempt have been calculated at 125,000 to 1. Given the range of the attempt and the crude medical care available in the 1830s, if one of Lawrence’s bullets had found its mark, it’s very likely Andrew Jackson would have been the first President to die in office. Martin Van Buren would probably have succeeded him. (In actual history Van Buren did succeed Jackson, but through election, not assassination).
Why did Lawrence do it? The answer is pretty simple and obvious: he was nuts. Age 35, a sometime house-painter born in England, Lawrence seems to have developed mental problems in the early 1830s, possibly as a result of fumes from the paints he worked with. He shuttled back and forth between England and the United States and at one point seems to have believed he was King Richard III. As such, he had it in his mind somehow that the government of the U.S. owed him money on some sort of estates he thought he owned in England. Jackson, of course, was very much against the charter of the Bank of the United States; destroying it was the issue he was re-elected on in 1832. Lawrence evidently believed that Van Buren would be more sympathetic to his claims and forthcoming with the cash, so he endeavored to put Van Buren in office.
At the time of the assassination attempt, Andrew Jackson was returning from the funeral of South Carolina Congressman Warren R. Davis, who died the previous day. His funeral was held in the Capitol.
Francis Scott Key, author of the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” prosecuted Lawrence at his trial in April 1835. At various points during the trial Lawrence laughed at inappropriate times and went on bizarre nonsensical rants. The jury, predictably, found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was confined to a government insane asylum and spent the rest of his life in institutional custody. At the end of his life he was confined to a newly-built hospital which eventually became St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. More than a century later St. Elizabeth’s would become the permanent home of another unsuccessful (and insane) presidential assassin, John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981. He’s still there. Richard Lawrence died in 1861.
As one might imagine, there was plenty of conspiracy lore that swirled around Lawrence’s unsuccessful attempt to ice Andrew Jackson. There was no evidence at all to prove them, but Andrew Jackson himself believed them. He insisted that his political rival, John C. Calhoun, had hired Lawrence to rub him out. The glowing vision of him being a national hero obscures the fact that Jackson was often hot-tempered, irrational, paranoid and reactionary in his thinking. It’s not surprising that he believed there was more to the Lawrence attempt than met the eye.
Incidentally, the notion that the Vice-President would have succeeded Jackson as President if he died was by no means a slam dunk in 1835. When such a situation did finally happen, only six years later when William Henry Harrison died, there was a legitimate Constitutional crisis about whether the Vice-President really was supposed to become President, or whether he was supposed to be some sort of interim caretaker pending a special election. Although John Tyler set the precedent that a Vice-President does in fact succeed to the office, powers and title of the Presidency, the president–er, I mean precedent–was not officially enshrined into the Constitution until the 25th Amendment in 1967. Since then there have been four major assassination attempts against a sitting U.S. President–two against Ford in 1975, one against Reagan in 1981, and a shadowy plot against George W. Bush in 2005–but fortunately none of them succeeded.