A Brief History
On January 30, 1835, for the first time in American History an assassination attempt was made on the President of the United States. Richard Lawrence, a 35 year old housepainter that had immigrated to the United States from England pulled the triggers on 2 pistols aimed at the back of President Andrew Jackson, but incredibly both pistols misfired and the assassination attempt failed. In the decades that followed, several other attempted assassinations of American Presidents have taken place, with Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy fatally wounded by their assassins.
Lawrence had come to the United States with his family in 1812, when the lad was 12 years old. People described him as basically a normal boy, though perhaps a bit reserved. He grew up normally and was employed as a house painter, a profession that later led to speculation that the lead found in paint at that time may have contributed to his mental illness that he began displaying one he passed 30 years old. By age 32, he had worried his family with his odd behavior, claiming he was returning to England, but later showing up back at home (in Virginia) saying he did not leave. He then claimed he would go to England to become a landscape painter, got as far as Philadelphia and then once again returned home. Lawrence cited mysterious unnamed persons that had “prevented him” from traveling outside the United States. Lawrence also told his family that he had read newspaper stories about himself (most ridiculous, of course) that disparaged his character! Obviously, the man had no choice but to return to the Washington, D.C. area to his family home and save his money to buy a ship and hire a captain to sail him to England.
Not surprisingly, while these wacky statements and plans were taking place, Lawrence quit his job as a house painter. He proclaimed that he had no need to work for a living as the US Government had owed him a considerable sum of money. Did we mention Lawrence claimed that he was really King Richard III of England? Lawrence convinced himself that he was not being paid the money that the US Government “owed” him because of President Andrew Jackson’s refusal to recognize the Second Bank of the United States. Lawrence apparently thought that if Jackson was killed, Vice President Martin van Buren would ascend to the White House and would then pay the “debt” to Lawrence.
Needless to say (but we will say it anyway), a King of England needed to dress the part, so Richard began dressing in a fancy manner he thought befits a King. By this time people realized Richard was somewhat nutty, especially when he grew a fancy mustache and began changing his clothes multiple times per day. Local kids taunted him by calling him “King Richard,” and the poor mentally deranged man mistook these taunts as the respectful address he deserved. Lawrence also became somewhat paranoid during this period and lashed out at people around him for perceived insults and threats, including those in his own family and household. Witnesses would later report these troubling facts, including Richard having fits of cursing, crying and laughter, as well as often talking to himself.
By 1835, Richard was pretty clearly mentally ill. He began tracking President Andrew Jackson, keeping an eye on the President’s routine and schedule. He was reportedly heard complaining about Jackson, and at one point declaring, “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!” On January 30, 1835, President Jackson was in attendance at the funeral of Congressman Warren R. Davis of South Carolina at the nation’s capital. Lawrence was there to finish his deadly plans as well. Richard failed to get close enough to Jackson during the funeral, but as Jackson was leaving the President passed right by Richard and the would be assassin seized the opportunity, pulling the trigger on his first pistol at Jackson’s back from close range. When the gun failed to fire, Richard pulled a second pistol an again attempted to shoot Jackson, and once more that second pistol misfired. Lawrence was quickly subdued by Jackson himself, along with several Congressmen in the vicinity. Jackson himself famously clobbered his would be assassin with the President’s own cane. Among the Congressmen assisting in subduing Lawrence was Davy Crockett, frontier legend and future subject of a television series. (Crockett would die at the Alamo the following year.)
It seems the pistols, muzzle loading black powder flintlock guns, were a type susceptible to having their priming powder affected by humidity and the black powder in the flash pan had become somewhat damp, which is probably why the guns did not fire. Lawrence was arrested and put on trial for the attempted murder of the President, with the prosecuting attorney none other than Francis Scott Key, the man that wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Richard Lawrence ranted and raved at his trial, and with the testimony of numerous witness as to his mental instability, was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was committed to mental institutions, in which he spent the rest of his life, dying in 1861. Although Lawrence was clearly insane, and clearly was the man that attempted to kill the President, Jackson and other speculated that other people may have put the sick man up to the deadly task as part of a conspiracy to have Jackson killed. No such evidence was ever discovered. One such suspect was Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi, an otherwise friend of Andrew Jackson that had made the mistake of once hiring Lawrence to paint his Washington, D.C. house. Despite a total lack of evidence, Mississippi voters defeated Poindexter’s next reelection to the Senate.
Andrew Jackson went on to legendary status in the United States, part of which was the spectacle of beating his own attempted assassin personally (like a Boss?). Jackson also adorns the American $20 bill, something that has become a matter of national debate in the 21st Century as Americans look at their past when people such as Jackson were clearly racists, questioning the validity of honoring such men flawed by a hubris that would today be unacceptable.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other would be Presidential assassin(s) have been declared insane? When was the last assassination attempt on a US President? Do you think Andrew Jackson should still be on the $20 bill? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Birzer, Bradley. In Defense of Andrew Jackson. Regnery History, 2018.
Meacham, Jon. AMERICAN LION: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009.
Watkins, Gary. Presidential Assassinations and Assassination Attempts: Assassinations and the American Presidency. CreateSpace, 2014.
The featured image in this article, an etching of the 1835 assassination attempt of Andrew Jackson from here, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.