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Annals of Assassination
Jackson’s miraculous escape
On January 30, 1835, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed painter, English by birth, lay in wait for Andrew Jackson to emerge from a room in the U.S. Capitol where a funeral service was being held for a deceased member of Congress. As the president crossed beneath the rotunda and approached an outer door, Lawrence stepped to within several feet of Jackson and pulled the trigger of a pistol he had held in concealment. The percussion cap fired as expected, but it failed to ignite the main charge, and the bullet never left the pistol. Lawrence threw down the weapon and produced a second gun. He pulled the trigger, and the same thing happened.
By this time Jackson was on him, striking him with the cane the president always carried. A crowd closed around the two and Lawrence was pinioned. Police carried him off to a jail cell, where he awaited interrogation, first by the police and then by doctors probing the state of his mind. No one had ever tried to kill an American president before, and in the dawning age of democracy, when those dissatisfied with government were gaining recourse to the ballot box, a presumption existed that anyone who did try to kill a president must be insane.
“On entering his room, we engaged in a free conversation with him, in which he participated, apparently in the most heartless and unreserved manner,” the doctors declared in their report of the case. “The first interrogatory propounded was as to his age, which question alone he sportively declined answering. We then inquired into the condition of his health for several years past, to which he replied that it had been uniformly good and that he had never labored under any mental derangement. Nor did he admit the existence of any of those symptoms of physical derangement which usually attend mental alienation.”
The doctors inquired of the prisoner’s background and habits. “He stated that he was a painter by trade and had followed that occupation to the present time, but of late could not find steady employment, which had caused much pecuniary embarrassment with him; that he had been generally temperate in his habits, using ardent spirits moderately when at work but for the last three or four weeks had not taken any; that he had never gambled and in other respects had led a regular, sober life.”
American politics in that era exhibited the rough edges of an adolescent society. Jackson himself had killed a man in a duel, albeit one rooted in a horse race rather than a political dispute. And though duels were dying out, canings and fisticuffs persisted. The language of politics was, if anything, more heated than ever.
The doctors sought to determine whether Lawrence had been radicalized by the intemperate rhetoric. They asked him how he had decided to kill the president. “He said that he had been deliberating on it for some time past,” they reported. Lawrence had approached the president directly, at the White House. “He had called at the president's house about a week previous to the attempt and been conducted to the president's apartment by the porter. . . . He stated to the president that he wanted money to take him to England and that he must give him a check on the bank.” Jackson replied that he couldn’t talk to Lawrence just then; he should come back at another time.
Lawrence had not done so, but instead went to the Capitol on January 30. “When asked why he went to the Capitol on that day, he replied that he expected that the president would be there,” the doctors reported. “He also stated that he was in the rotunda when the president arrived, and on being asked why he did not then attempt to shoot him, he replied that he did not wish to interfere with the funeral ceremony and therefore waited till it was over.”
Prompted, Lawrence described the shooting. “He aimed each pistol at the president's heart and intended, if the first pistol had gone off and the president had fallen, to have defended himself with the second, if defense had been necessary,” the doctors paraphrased. “On being asked if he did not expect to have been killed on the spot if he had killed the president, he replied he did not; and that he had no doubt but that he would have been protected by the spectators.”
This got the doctors’ attention. Did Lawrence have fellow plotters? “He was frequently asked whether he had any friends present, from whom he expected protection. To this he replied that he had never mentioned his intention to anyone and that no one in particular knew his design, but that he presumed it was generally known that he intended to put the president out of the way.”
Lawrence gathered that the doctors doubted his sanity. He provided evidence of his soundness of mind, indeed of his thoughtful consideration for others. “He further stated that when the president arrived at the door near which he stood, finding him supported on the left by Mr. Woodbury”–Levi Woodbury, the treasury secretary–“and observing many persons in his rear, and being himself rather to the right of the president, in order to avoid wounding Mr. Woodbury and those in the rear he stepped a little to his own right, so that should the ball pass through the body of the president, it would be received by the door frame or stone wall.”
Yet he seemed emotionless. The doctors probed Lawrence’s feelings at the critical moment. “On being asked if he felt no trepidation during the attempt, he replied, not the slightest, until he found that the second pistol had missed fire. Then, observing that the president was advancing upon him with an uplifted cane, he feared that it contained a sword, which might have been thrust through him before he could have been protected by the crowd.”
The doctors asked him why he wanted to kill the president. “He replied that he had been told that the president had caused his loss of occupation and the consequent want of money, and he believed that to put him out of the way was the only remedy for this evil,” the doctors wrote. They pursued this line. “Who told you this?” they demanded.
Lawrence offered little, and that confusing. “He could not identify anyone but remarked that his brother-in-law, Mr. Redfern, told him that he would have no more business because he was opposed to the president, and he believed Redfern to be in league with the president against him.” The doctors asked if Lawrence had attended sessions of Congress, where the opposition Whigs regularly lambasted Jackson. “He replied that he had frequently attended the discussions in both branches of Congress, but they had in no degree influenced his action.”
Had Lawrence thought beyond the shooting? What benefit did he think he might derive from the president’s death? “He answered that he could not rise unless the president fell, and that he expected thereby to recover his liberty, and that the mechanics”–workers–“would all be benefited; that the mechanics would have plenty of work; and that money would be more plenty.”
Money was the most controversial issue of the day; a recent financial panic had caused money to disappear and to take jobs with it. “On being asked why it would be more plenty, he replied it would be more easily obtained from the bank,” the doctors wrote. “On being asked what bank, he replied, the Bank of the United States.” Jackson, a distruster of banks, especially big ones, had signed the death warrant of the Bank of the United States, the biggest in America, when he vetoed a bill renewing its federal charter.
The doctors gave Lawrence a chance to rephrase his position. Was he friendly to President Jackson? “He replied no.” Why not? asked the doctors. “He answered, because he was a tyrant.” Who told him Jackson was a tyrant? “He answered, it was a common talk with the people, and that he had read it in all the papers.” Could he name anyone who had told him so.? “He replied no.”
They probed again, asking if anyone had advised him to shoot the president, or had said the deed should be done. “He replied, I do not like this. I'm being pressed on this point. He said no one in particular had advised him.”
Lawrence returned to his stated reason for wanting Jackson dead, and in doing so seemed not only sane but a continuing threat. “Believing the president to be the source of all his difficulties, he was still fixed in his purpose to kill him, and if his successor pursued the same course, to put him out of the way also.”
Suddenly he veered in a bizarre direction. “No power in this country could punish him for having done so,” said the doctors’ summary, “because it would be resisted by the powers of Europe, as well as of this country. He also stated that he had been long in correspondence with the powers of Europe, and that his family had been wrongfully deprived of the crown of England, and that he should yet live to regain it; and that he considered the president of the United States nothing more than his clerk.”
Lawrence articulated this delusion in the same emotionless manner that characterized the whole interrogation. “We now think proper to add that the young man appears perfectly tranquil and unconcerned as to the final result, and seems to anticipate no punishment for what he has done,” the doctors concluded.
Thomas Hart Benton, a senator from Missouri, took special interest in the attempt on Jackson’s life, for he once had fired at Jackson with intent to kill. Benton and Jackson both had fierce tempers, and a quarrel escalated to a wild gun battle. Both men survived, but Jackson still carried Benton’s lead encysted in the muscle of his chest. The two had become allies and retired their malice, though neither ever forgot their affray. Jackson remembered Benton every time he coughed.
Benton was at the Capitol at the moment Lawrence attempted Jackson’s murder. He thought the would-be assassin must have succeeded. “The explosion of the cap was so loud that many persons thought the pistol had fired,” Benton recalled. “I heard it at the foot of the steps, far from the place, and a great crowd in between.”
Benton was one of the first to read the doctors’ report, and he drew his own conclusions."It is clearly to be seen from this medical examination of the man that this attempted assassination of the president was one of those cases of which history presents many instances: a diseased mind acted upon by a general outcry against a public man. Lawrence was in the particular condition to be acted upon by what he heard against General Jackson: a workman out of employment, needy, idle, mentally morbid; and with reason enough to argue regularly from false premises. He heard the president accused of breaking up the labor of the country, and believed it; of making money scarce, and believed it; of producing the distress, and believed it; of being a tyrant, and believed it; of being an obstacle to all relief, and believed it. And coming to a regular conclusion from all these beliefs, he attempted to do what he believed the state of things required him to do: take the life of the man whom he considered the sole cause of his own and the general calamity.”
Benton's view was widely shared. At trial, Lawrence was acquitted by reason of insanity. He was committed to an asylum and eventually died in such custody.
Benton reflected, regarding the failed assassination attempt: “The circumstance made a deep impression upon the public feeling and irresistibly carried many minds to the belief in a superintending Providence, manifested in the extraordinary case of two pistols in succession, so well loaded, so coolly handled, and which afterwards fired with such readiness, force and precision”—they were tested repeatedly—“missing fire, each in its turn, when leveled eight feet at the president's heart.”