Narrow escape from death: the attempt to assassinate Andrew Jackson


ON JAN. 30, 1835, President Andrew Jackson attended a funeral for Congressman Warren Davis of South Carolina in the chamber of the House of Representatives at the Capitol. The chaplain's sermon doted on the uncertainty of life, particularly for the aged. An English visitor thought the president, a weary 67, didn't look well. "There sat the gray-haired president looking scarcely able to go through this ceremonial," Harriet Martineau wrote.

Jackson had been furious over French failure to honor treaty commitments and pay the first installment on American claims going back to Napoleon. He was looking at grave options -- seizing French property or calling up the military, sending the country into a patriotic fervor.

A well-dressed young man, small with a thick, black beard, had shadowed the president by the House chamber, through and out by the east portico of the Capitol. When Jackson came out leaning on the right arm of Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, the young man pulled a shiny pistol from inside his coat. From a distance of six to eight feet, the assailant aimed at Jackson's heart and pulled the trigger. Bam!

The percussion cap exploded, but it did not ignite the powder in the tube. Jackson himself seemed to be the first to realize what was happening. He raised his hickory cane and went for the trigger-man.

A second pistol was pulled out and aimed. The president was inches away from the muzzle. Bam! Again the percussion cap exploded but again without igniting the charge.

"Let me alone! Let me alone!" shouted Jackson. "Let me get him! They can't kill me! I can take care of myself." Several military aides had more trouble preventing Jackson from pummeling his assailant than in capturing the bearded one.

A preliminary hearing was held promptly. Into the case came Maryland's Francis Scott Key, the district attorney, who presented witnesses (including two cabinet members) before Chief Judge Cranch. The pistols were presented; they were brass with barrels six inches long. Both were properly loaded "with fine glazed duelling powder and ball." Tried again, they fired perfectly. One expert calculated that the chances of two successive misfires was one in 125,000. There was enough evidence to hold the assailant, identified as a Richard Lawrence, on bail, which the judge set at $1,000.

Key pleaded for much heavier bail due to the seriousness of the crime. Judge Cranch reluctantly raised bail to $1,500, noting the constitutional prohibition against excessive bail. In any case, Lawrence went to jail.

President Jackson was convinced the attempted assassination was part of a Whig plot. The White House had received a number of threats, some predicting that he would be shot in days or weeks. Key, a loyal Jackson man himself, could find no conspiracy. A pious and prayerful man, Key had no doubt that Jackson was living under divine protection that, in the words of one biographer, "the deity was on the side of the Democratic administration." The experiments on the pistols showing them in perfect working order bolstered these beliefs.

Key's investigation showed that Lawrence had been born in England, brought to America when he was a boy, made a living as a painter and had shown many signs of "an unsound mind" for more than a year. Lawrence was convinced that through his family, he had a claim to the throne of England. Neighborhood boys regularly taunted him as King Richard III. Somehow, he had the idea that if he got rid of Jackson, the American government would enforce his claims to the crown.

In the trial, which occurred in April, Key won wide praise for prosecuting in a calm manner, seeking the facts and avoiding the swirl of conspiracy charges and counter-charges in the very political press. Opening the case, he noted that the charge of assault with intent to kill was "a mere misdemeanor" -- with the same punishment meted out for the nation's most humble citizen or its chief magistrate. There was no question of the assault. "If under a state of total insanity, the jury will then have to consider what the public safety requires," said Key. "If only under the influence of partial insanity," he said jurors had to consider the connection between the act committed and the delusion.

Key called two cabinet members and other eyewitnesses to the crime. He even called on one of the presiding judges, chief Judge Cranch, to show Lawrence's behavior on the day of the assault. Lawrence jumped from his chair several times to shout his claim that he was king of Great Britain and to demand his revenues and protest the proceedings.

More than 20 witnesses were produced for the defense, including several prominent doctors, who qualified as experts on insanity. One of them explained that there were two kinds of manias, one where the patient was gloomy and dejected, another where the patient was haughty. He placed Lawrence in the second class and said he was filled with astromania.

Key cross-examined doctors and others to bring out the fact that Lawrence could be calm at times and moderate, but he did not fight the weight of evidence that the defendant was a lunatic, usually unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. A brother-in-law told how he had been struck by Lawrence when he was in violent moods. A cousin testified that Lawrence's father, then dead, had a deranged mind.

It took the jury just five minutes to return with a verdict. "We find him not guilty, he having been under the influence of insanity at the time he committed the act." Lawrence was taken to the Asylum for the Insane, near Washington. He remained there for nearly 40 years until his death.

For a time the disposition of the case was a political issue, unsatisfactory to both sides. Jackson advocates like Frank Blair peppered the president's opponents with hints that Lawrence had really been hired by Whigs. In return, anti-Jackson editors suggested the entire affair was a hoax that had been created to provide sympathy for the president. There was sympathy enough throughout the country, so much of it that John C. Calhoun felt compelled to take the Senate floor and deny any complicity in the matter.

Jackson himself, the first president to face and survive an assassination attempt, seems to have been affected less than the rest of the country by his narrow escape from death. He had faced that possibility more than once. That very night he played with children at the White House and talked war with Winfield Scott. For prosecutor Key, the case added proof of God's presence and personal direction of human affairs.

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