In 1835 the first assassination attempt of a president took place. A mentally ill man, influenced by the prevalent political rancor, took a shot at Andrew Jackson.
On the damp morning of January 30, 1835, President Andrew Jackson attended the funeral of Congressman Warren Davis on Capitol Hill. The sixty-seven year old Jackson looked sickly, “scarcely able to go through with the ceremonial,” British writer Harriet Martineau observed from the gallery.
Jackson and the funeral procession exited at the East Portico. Lying in wait in a crowd of onlookers was Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter born in England. Suddenly Lawrence sprang from the crowd and aimed a pistol at Jackson less than ten feet away. The percussion cap exploded loudly but failed to ignite the gunpowder. Everybody was frozen in shock. Lawrence then aimed a second pistol and that also misfired.
The President, who had faced down aimed pistols in duels as a young man, charged his attacker, swinging his cane like a club. But the mob of military officers, dignitaries, and bystanders, including Davey Crockett, pounced on Lawrence before Jackson. They roughly wisked him away into police custody.
The police, as well as doctors, interrogated Lawrence. He blamed Jackson for the loss of his job and the want of money as a consequence of Jackson’s Bank War. Lawrence claimed Jackson was a tyrant and he could not rise unless the President fell. But doctors declared him insane because he believed he was an heir to the British throne.
However, the New York Evening Post declared Lawrence’s actions as a “sign of the times.” Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Bank of the United States in 1832, set to expire in 1836. In the meantime, Jackson removed government deposits from the bank. Nicholas Biddle, president of the B.U.S., bitterly responded by limiting loans. The Senate, led by Henry Clay, censured Jackson for removing the deposits without legislative approval. The economy faltered.
Lawrence’s interrogation revealed that he got his ideas from attending congressional debates, newspapers and talk among the people. Clay spoke before packed galleries in the Senate, lamenting Jackson’s imperial ways, “…collapse will soon come on and we shall die- ignobly die- base, mean and abject slaves, the scorn and contempt of mankind…” Equally dire, House Democrat Samuel Beardsley said, “…perish credit, perish commerce…give us a broken, a deranged, and a worthless currency, rather than the ignoble and corrupting tyranny of an irresponsible corporation.”
While Lawrence was soaking in this kind of rhetoric, Jackson also contributed to the antagonistic atmosphere. When a mob from Baltimore threatened to camp on Capitol Hill until the deposits were restored, Jackson responded, “I shall be glad to see this federal mob…I will fix their heads on the iron palisades…The leaders I will hang as high as Haman…”
Whigs and Democrats
Lawrence’s act only exasperated the tension between Democrats and Whigs. Democrats believed it was a Whig conspiracy. Jackson accused Senator George Poindexter, a friend of Clay and a recipient of two loans from the B.U.S. After police tested Lawrence’s pistols and found them working perfectly, Democrats believed Jackson was protected by God. It has been later assumed the damp air prevented the gunpowder from igniting. The Whigs, according to historian Andrew Burstein, thought the incident was set up as a play to evoke sympathy for Jackson.
In April, it only took a jury five minutes to find Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent the rest of his life in mental asylums. He was mentally ill but the era’s politics drove him over the edge.