This Day in History: The attempted assassination of President Andrew Jackson
On this day in 1835, a would-be assassin tries to shoot President Andrew Jackson.
The assassination attempt stemmed from Jackson’s refusal to reauthorize a charter for the Second Bank of the United States. But perhaps not quite in the way that you would expect.
On January 30, many elected officials were attending a funeral in the U.S. House chamber. South Carolina Congressman Warren Davis had passed away days earlier. Jackson was one of those in attendance. He was 67 years old by then and many thought he looked frail. One observer noted: “There sat the gray-haired president looking scarcely able to go through this ceremonial.”
Events would show that he was less frail than he looked.
Another man was in the crowd as well. Richard Lawrence was a former housepainter who had become mentally unstable. Lawrence believed that he was Richard III, rightful heir to the throne of England. He thought that Jackson was preventing him from returning and claiming his birthright, and he thought that Jackson’s actions in regard to the bank were preventing him from receiving monies owed to him. He would later allege that Jackson had killed his father, a claim that was easily proven false.
Lawrence had two identical derringer pistols in his pockets. As Jackson entered the Capitol Rotunda after the ceremony, Lawrence pulled one pistol from his pocket and fired at the President. One eyewitness later reported that the “explosion of the cap was so loud that many persons thought the pistol had fired.”
But it hadn’t!
Jackson reacted quickly, striking at Lawrence with his cane. But Lawrence tried to fire again, with the second pistol. Oddly, that pistol also misfired. By then, the feisty Jackson was thrashing at Lawrence with his cane. Jackson’s initial instinct was to believe that his Whig enemies had sent Lawrence, so he yelled: “Let me alone! Let me alone! I know where this came from!” Senators and Congressmen swarmed around the two, trying to get Lawrence under control. Interestingly, Congressman Davy Crockett was on the scene, working to help. A Navy lieutenant finally subdued Lawrence.
When the Capitol sergeant-at-arms tried the pistols later, they both fired properly without any problems. Why, then, had they misfired during the assassination attempt? Much of the public thought that Jackson’s life had been saved by divine intervention.
Senator Thomas Benton noted the “extraordinary case of two pistols in succession—so well loaded, so coolly handled, and which afterwards fired with such readiness, force, and precision—missing fire, each in its turn, when levelled eight feet at the President’s heart.”
Lawrence’s mental illness was again on display during his trial. He entered into the courtroom grandly dressed in a “gray shooting jacket; black cravet and vest, and brown pantaloons.” He still thought he was the real King of England, and he did not believe the jury had power over him. He told the jurors: “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.”
The jury decided that he was not guilty due to his insanity in less than five minutes. Lawrence was sent to an insane asylum in Washington, DC. He lived there until his death in 1861.
American State Trials: A Collection of the Important and Interesting Criminal Trials which Have Taken Place in the United States from the Beginning of Our Government to the Present Day (John Davison Lawson ed.) (1915) (Vol. 3)
Lorraine Boissoneault, The Attempted Assassination of Andrew Jackson: A madman, a conspiracy and a lot of angry politicians (Smithsonian; Mar. 14, 2017)
Marquis James, Andrew Jackson: Portrait of A President (1937)
Robert Brammer, “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!”: The Failed Assassination Attempt on President Andrew Jackson (Library of Congress; Jan. 16, 2014)
Ronald L. Feinman, Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (2015)
Willard M. Oliver & Nancy E. Marion, Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief (2010)