The Attempted Assassination of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson had one of the most contentious and controversial administrations in US history. But strangely enough, his attempted assassination—the first on an American President—had no political motive at all.

Richard Lawrence attempts to assassinate Andrew Jackson                                               photo from WikiCommons

At the end of the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson was one of the most famous men in America. After defeating the English-allied Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, “Old Hickory” then went on to soundly beat a British Army almost twice his size at the Battle of New Orleans. They were two of the very few bright spots in a war which went very badly for the United States—the Canadians had crushed an American invasion attempt, and the British had won most of their battles and burned Washington DC.

After the war, Jackson and his Tennessee militia troops were assigned by President Monroe to patrol the border with Florida (which was at that time still Spanish territory) to protect against raids by Seminole Indians. Acting without orders, Jackson took it upon himself to impose his own solution to the problem: he simply invaded Florida and conquered it, in the process executing two British citizens that he accused of aiding the Indians. The result was 40 years of warfare with the Seminoles, and very nearly another war with Britain. Congress introduced a resolution to censure the General for acting so rashly against his orders, but Jackson was now so wildly popular that nobody dared to vote against him.

The next step for the General was, naturally, to run for office, and in 1824 “Old Hickory” announced his candidacy for President.

At that time, “elections” were run much differently than they are now. In the Constitution, the Founding Fathers had, quite intentionally, set up an electoral system that not only was not based on what we would today call “democracy”, but was intended specifically to prevent it. Well-schooled in classical history, the Fathers were well aware that the Roman Republic had been destroyed from within, by demagogues who seized dictatorial power while claiming to be acting in the name of “the people”. (And by 1812 they also had the example of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had just converted the French Republic into an autocratic Empire.)

The Founding Fathers were, themselves, all wealthy landowners and “well-bred” aristocracy, and although they considered themselves to be republicans and anti-monarchists, they were also thoroughly patrician, and viewed the “common people” as an uneducated and irrational rabble, easily swayed by specious emotional arguments and, quite frankly, not smart enough to be entrusted with the responsibility of electing their own political leadership. And so, under the electoral system set up in the Constitution, the people would not choose their leaders: the Senate was to be elected by the state legislators, and the President would be elected by an appointed “Electoral College”—which, the Fathers assumed, would be made up of the wealthy elite of society just like themselves (and to guarantee this, only white male property-owners—about five percent of the population—were allowed the privilege of voting).

Andrew Jackson, however, upset this apple cart.

When Jackson ran in the 1824 elections for President, there had never been another candidate like him. Although he was a well-off plantation-owner, he was no patrician or society gentleman like Washington, Jefferson or Madison. He considered himself, and was considered by everyone else, as “a man of the people”, who would defend the common man against the rich and the well-born and against the governmental machinery that the wealthy controlled and manipulated—including the economic entities known as “joint stock corporations” that were just beginning to come into prominence. It was a message worthy of Eugene V Debs a century later. And, along with the fact that General Jackson was a war hero, it propelled him to the top.

The patricians who had always dominated the US were, of course, horrified. Andrew Jackson was precisely the sort of populist demagogue that the electoral system was designed to prevent from being elected. And when Andrew Jackson emerged from the 1824 election with the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, the political and economic establishment swung into action.

Although Jackson had the most votes, it had been a four-way race, and he had not won a majority. Under the electoral rules, that meant the election would go to the House of Representatives to be decided there, and the Speaker of the House, Representative Henry Clay, was a staunch opponent of Jackson and all he stood for. Sincerely believing that Jackson’s demagoguery represented a deadly threat to the Republic itself and that Jackson would become a new Napoleon or Caesar, Clay threw all his political weight into the scale, and the House elected John Quincy Adams as President.

The effect of the “Corrupt Bargain”, as it became known, was electric. Across the country there was agitation for electoral reform, including the removal of property qualifications for voting. The wave was unstoppable, and by the time of the 1928 election, every white male in the United States had the right to vote.

It was exactly what Jackson needed. To reach this enormous bloc of new voters, he formed a tightly-organized group of speechmakers, pamphlet-writers and letter-writers which he referred to as “The Democracy”. It was, in effect, the first “political campaign”, and after the election it continued as “The Democratic Party”. Jackson won the Presidency handily.

Having unalterably changed the way that candidates ran for office, Jackson now proceeded to change the office itself. Until now, Congress had always been viewed as the real center of governmental power, and the job of the President was seen as merely an “executive”, to carry out the instructions given him by Congress. But as a military commander, Jackson was accustomed to giving orders, not following them—and anyway, he declared, Congress had become so thoroughly infused by the power politics of the rich that he did not even view it as legitimate. Instead, Jackson himself would make his own policy decisions and use his own powers to carry them out.

This, in turn, confirmed the worst fears of the traditional politicians—Jackson was, they pronounced, setting himself up with unchecked dictatorial powers. Mocking him as a “King”, the politicians who opposed him formed a new political party in opposition to the Democrats—the Nationalist Republicans (which despite the name is not the ancestor of today’s Republican Party)—and further mocked Jackson by giving themselves the nickname “Whigs”, after the anti-royalist political faction of the Revolutionary War.

Jackson’s entire time in office was marked by unceasing warfare between these two factions, which Jackson fueled and exacerbated by his willingness to simply plow over any political opposition.

In 1830, Jackson rammed the Indian Removal Act through Congress. This was, in effect, a policy of “ethnic cleansing”, in which all of the remaining Native American nations east of the Mississippi would be removed, forcibly if necessary, and “relocated” to “reservations” in the west. In response, the Cherokee Nation filed a suit in the Supreme Court to stop their deportation—and won. Led by Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court ruled that the US had no power over the Cherokee, which was a sovereign nation. Jackson barely batted an eye. Imperiously declaring, “Well, John Marshall has made his decision—now let him enforce it”, he simply ignored the ruling and order the Army to remove the Cherokee anyway.

In 1832, another crisis appeared: South Carolina’s state legislature had passed a “nullification” law, declaring that states had the right to “nullify” or ignore any Federal law that they considered to be “unconstitutional”. Although the bill was aimed at a tariff measure, it was, like many other issues in the South, really a part of the “slavery” issue. Jackson’s tariff bill was intended to protect Northern industries from imported manufactured goods from England and France—but it also hurt the South, whose slave-based economy was completely dependent upon its exports of cotton and tobacco, which would now face retaliation by European tariffs. South Carolina, supported by Jackson’s own Vice President John C Calhoun, grandly announced that it would nullify the taxes and refuse to collect them: in turn, Jackson bluntly proclaimed that if South Carolina did not follow the Federal laws, he would personally lead the US Army into the state and hang its leaders. The crisis ended when Henry Clay and John C Calhoun brokered a compromise which lowered the tariff while still requiring South Carolina to collect it.

But the biggest controversy of the Jackson years centered around the Bank of the United States.

One of the biggest problems the US faced during the War of 1812 was how to pay for it. In the end, President Madison solved the difficulty by resurrecting an idea that had been briefly tried before—a national bank. The Bank of the United States acted as the fiscal agent of the US Government and issued paper money. Several states challenged its constitutionality, but the Supreme Court ruled in its favor.

But to Andrew Jackson, the BUS symbolized everything that was wrong with the US Government—it was a huge centralized institution run by unelected officers that were appointed by wealthy industrialists and landowners, who manipulated the financial system to their own benefit. Once in office, Jackson swore to kill the Bank.

Since the Bank’s charter did not expire until 1836, it seemed safe from Jackson’s ire. But in 1831 the Whigs made a bad political move: Whig leader Henry Clay persuaded BUS President Nicholas Biddle to apply early for a charter renewal. The Whigs assumed that Jackson, despite his bluster, would not actually dare to kill the Bank, given its central importance to the US economy. They underestimated “Old Hickory”, however, who promptly vetoed the measure. In the 1832 election between the Democrat Jackson and the Whig Clay, the fate of the Bank became the central campaign issue, and when Jackson won by an overwhelming margin, he took it as a popular mandate to kill it. He promptly withdrew all of the entire Federal Government’s cash deposits from the BUS and put them in various state banks instead, leaving the Bank of the United States a mere empty shell which died a few years later. The Senate in turn passed a motion of censure, berating Jackson for “assuming power not conferred by the Constitution”. He simply ignored them.

It was in the midst of all this political power struggle that Andrew Jackson became the target of the first assassination attempt on an American President.

On January 30, 1835, there was a funeral at the US Capitol building. South Carolina Representative Warren Davis had just died, and his funeral service was held in the Capitol. In attendance were Senators, Representatives, dignitaries, and President Jackson.

After the ceremony, Jackson left the building by the stairs on the East Portico, accompanied by several Congressmen including fellow Tennessean and frontiersman Davey Crockett, and a Navy Lieutenant named Thomas Gedney.

Waiting for him on the stairs was Richard Lawrence, a British-born house painter. Somewhere around 35 years old (the British birth records are unclear), Lawrence had spent years traveling back and forth between the US and England.

As Jackson passed in front of him, Lawrence stepped forward and pointed a single-shot pistol, and fired. There was the sound of an explosion, but no bullet: although the percussion cap on his gun had fired, it did not ignite the powder inside the barrel. For a second, nobody moved. Then Jackson sprung into action. By this time he was 67 years old, frail and wracked with a variety of ailments, and although he had never been wounded in combat he already had two bullets in his body from youthful duels and frontier fights. Now, he found the strength of a 19-year old, and began beating his assailant on the head with his wooden walking cane.

As Jackson shouted, “Let me alone! I know where this is coming from!”, Lawrence dropped his misfired pistol and pulled a second gun from his pocket. At pointblank range, he pointed his pistol at Jackson’s chest and pulled the trigger—and this gun misfired too.

By now the crowd had moved in, and several people, including Crockett, wrestled the would-be assassin to the ground. Jackson was hustled off by Gedney to a waiting carriage.

Lawrence’s trial took place in April, where the prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key, the writer of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. In the aftermath of the shooting, there was immediate speculation that the assassination attempt had been part of a Whig plot to remove Jackson. (Jackson himself, who had become more than a little bit paranoid by this time, continued to believe for the rest of his life that the Whigs had hired an assassin to kill him: just before he died years later, he defiantly declared that he had only two regrets in life, that he had not shot Henry Clay and hanged John C Calhoun.)

But during the trial it quickly became apparent that Lawrence was nutty. He declared himself to be the King of England, claimed that the United States Government owed him money for estates it had confiscated during the Revolutionary War, and that Jackson had closed down the Bank of the US specifically to not pay him. Lawrence was also under the delusion that Jackson had somehow killed his father. In the courtroom, Lawrence would occasionally yell at the judge or the jury: in one outburst he declared, “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.”

It took the jury just five minutes to reach their verdict: not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was confined to the Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed St Elizabeth’s Hospital, which, ironically, would later become the home of another would-be Presidential assassin, John Hinckley. Lawrence died there in 1861.

There are still some conspiracy theorists who speculate that the Whigs really were behind the shooting. On the other hand, a coterie of conspiracy fans have also suggested that Jackson set the whole thing up himself, as a way to fuel public support. There is no evidence for either of these conjectures.

It is still something of a mystery, however, why both pistols failed when Lawrence pulled the trigger. It had been a drizzly and humid day. Flintlocks were of course famous for not working in the rain, but the would-be assassin’s pistols were cap-locks, which used a waterproof metal cup of fulminate to ignite their charges. Jackson, a deeply religious man who assumed God was on his side, firmly believed that it was a case of Divine Intervention. More likely, Lawrence had allowed his gunpowder to get wet as he was loading the pistols, so although the two percussion caps worked perfectly, the gunpowder inside the barrel was too damp to fire.

As for the Whig fears that Jackson’s Democratic Party would destroy the Republic and establish a Napoleonic despotism, they proved to be unfounded. The 1832 election was indeed won by a Democrat, but it was the uncharismatic and uninspiring Martin Van Buren, who was no Andrew Jackson. He served only one term.

The Jackson assassination attempt did, however, raise a Constitutional question which was not resolved until several years later. The Constitution specified that the Vice President would take over if the President were incapacitated or died in office, but it did not specify whether this was a permanent replacement or if the Vice President was just a caretaker who would hold office until a new special election could be held. Since Jackson did not die, the issue was not resolved. But just six years later, when the Whig President William Henry Harrison died shortly after assuming office, his Vice President John Tyler took over and served out Harrison’s full term, and the precedent was established.


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