Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Assassination that Almost Was...

The First Time Someone Tried to Kill the President

In American history, there have been four assassinations of our president – Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. There have also been a number of attempts to kill the president with assassination tries most famously aimed at Theodore Roosevelt, Gerald Ford by remnants of the Manson family and Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley. But on this date, January 30, 1835, the first attempt was made to kill an American president when a man named Richard Lawrence attempted to kill Andrew Jackson.

To anyone familiar with history, this was certainly not the first time that someone had tried to kill Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. He had a long and storied career as a military officer, fighting Indians and the British at New Orleans, and he also fought several duels both before and after his political career.

Andrew Jackson
When he was only a teenager, Jackson was captured by the British during the American Revolution. Ordered by a British officer to clean his boots, Jackson refused and earned a scar on his head from the officer’s saber. Even as a young man, he refused to back down when he knew something was wrong. His confrontational nature would serve him well as both a duelist – and as President.

The first duel that Jackson fought started in a courtroom, which was not an uncommon occurrence at the time. Many legal and political differences were solved on the dueling fields as matters of honor. In this case, Jackson was serving as the prosecutor for the North Carolina Territorial (later Tennessee) Court in 1788. During a civil suit, Jackson went up against Waightsill Avery, a noted Revolutionary veteran and one of the most respected lawyers in North Carolina. In fact, Jackson was turned down by Avery previously for a law internship.

Jackson, then just 21 years old, was overmatched by Avery in the suit. Avery ridiculed Jackson's legal position with sarcasm. In a letter, Jackson challenged Avery, "My character you have injured, and further you have insulted me in the presence of a court and a large audience." By the time of the duel, Jackson's temper cooled. Their seconds (assistants) agreed that honor had been achieved. Both deliberately missed with their shots and shook hands.

Fifteen years later, Jackson again tangled with a distinguished veteran. Tennessee governor John Sevier was a self-assured man who blocked Jackson's coveted election as major general of the Tennessee militia. By 1802, Jackson won the major generalship narrowly over then ex-governor Sevier. Then Jackson publicly introduced evidence he discovered of Sevier dealing in forged land warrants. Sevier later burst into Judge Jackson's Knoxville court with a cutlass and demanded a fight. Jackson replied with a challenge of his own. A duel in Virginia was arranged by their seconds, but the two met prematurely by chance in the West Tennessee Indian country. Jackson dismounted and approached Sevier brandishing a pistol. After some cursing, each holstered their weapons. But Jackson refused to let it go. He taunted the former governor and Sevier drew his sword. Jackson went for his pistol and Sevier hid behind a tree. Sevier's son, James, took aim on Jackson and Dr. Thomas Vandyke, Jackson's companion, took aim on James. After more parley, the men withdrew and the scheduled duel never happened.

With Jackson's next duel, the tables were turned--- two young lawyers challenged Jackson. Stemming from a horse racing wager, Thomas Swann told Charles Dickinson that Jackson accused him of double-dealing. Swann demanded satisfaction, but Jackson suspected Dickinson was behind the challenge, "the base, poltroon and cowardly tale-bearer will always act in the background." Swann confronted Jackson in a Nashville tavern and Jackson beat him with a cane. This insult resulted in a challenge.

As arranged, Dickinson, who was 15 years younger than his opponent, met Jackson at Harrison's Mill, Kentucky for the duel. Dickinson was a fine marksman and Jackson only adequate. Only 24 feet separated them when the command "fire" was announced. Dickinson fired first and to his amazement, Jackson hardly flinched. Then Jackson fired calmly. The bullet struck Dickinson in the stomach and he collapsed. As he rode away, Jackson was in pain. Dickinson's bullet had hit near his heart but not fatally. Dickinson died at dusk.

The duel with John Dickinson left one man dead and a bullet in Jackson’s body for the rest of his life. 
Jackson would carry Dickinson's bullet for the rest of his life, as well as his violent reputation. His political opponents used his dueling past against him, declaring him unfit for the presidency. The American people didn’t care and they continued to elect him. Jackson became a polarizing figure who dominated the Second Party System in the 1820s and 1830s, as president he dismantled the Second Bank of the United States and initiated forced relocation and resettlement of Native American tribes from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi River. His enthusiastic followers created the modern Democratic Party. The 1830–1850 period later became known as the era of Jacksonian democracy.

He also holds the rather dubious honor of being the first president to survive both an attack and an assassination attempt while in office.

The first presidential attack came when Jackson ordered the dismissal of Robert B. Randolph from the Navy for embezzlement. On May 6, 1833, Jackson sailed on USS Cygnet to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he was to lay the cornerstone on a monument near the grave of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother. During a stopover near Alexandria, Randolph appeared and struck the President. He fled the scene chased by several members of Jackson's party, including the well-known writer Washington Irving. Jackson decided not to press charges.

On January 30, 1835, the first attempt to kill a sitting President of the United States occurred just outside the United States Capitol. When Jackson was leaving through the East Portico after the funeral of South Carolina Representative Warren R. Davis, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter from England, aimed a pistol at Jackson, which misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol, which also misfired.

Historians believe the humid weather contributed to the double misfiring. Lawrence was restrained, and legend says that Jackson attacked Lawrence with his cane. Others present, including David Crockett, the famous Tennessee frontiersman, restrained and disarmed Lawrence.

The first attempt on the life of an American president, Andrew Jackson, occurred on January 30, 1835.  
Lawrence told doctors later his reasons for the shooting. He blamed Jackson for the loss of his job. He claimed that with the President dead, "money would be more plenty" (a reference to Jackson's struggle with the Bank of the United States) and that he "could not rise until the President fell". Finally, he told his interrogators that he was a deposed English King—specifically, Richard III, dead since 1485—and that Jackson was his clerk.

Lawrence had worked as a painter and there is speculation that exposure to the chemicals in his paints may have contributed to his derangement. After losing his job in the early 1830s, his personality saw a dramatic change. He was previously conservatively dressed, but now he dressed flamboyantly, and grew a mustache. He gave up looking for work, saying that he had no need to work as the American government owed him a large sum of money but that President Andrew Jackson was keeping him from receiving it. Lawrence also blamed Jackson for killing his father.

Lawrence was brought to trial on April 11, 1835 at the District of Columbia City Hall. The prosecuting attorney was Francis Scott Key. After only five minutes of deliberation, the jury found Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity. In the years following his conviction, Lawrence was held by several institutions and hospitals. In 1855, he was committed to the newly-opened Government Hospital for the Insane (later renamed St. Elizabeths Hospital) in Washington, D.C. where he remained until his death in 1861.

Even though this was the first attempt to assassinate an American president, there was – as there would be with all later assassinations – speculation that Lawrence was part of a conspiracy. While nobody denied Lawrence's involvement, many people, including Jackson, believed that he may have been supported or put up to carrying out the assassination attempt by the President's political enemies. Senator John C. Calhoun made a statement on the U.S. Senate floor that he was not connected to the attack. Jackson believed Calhoun, an old enemy of his, was at the bottom of the attempt. Jackson also suspected a former friend and supporter, Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi, who had used Lawrence to do some house painting a few months earlier. Poindexter was unable to convince his supporters in Mississippi that he was not involved in a plot against the President, and was defeated for reelection. All subsequent evidence indicates that Lawrence was a deranged man acting alone most likely due to paranoid schizophrenic delusions.

Strangely, though, due to public curiosity concerning the double misfires, the pistols that Lawrence used were tested and retested. Each time they performed perfectly. This gave rise to the legend that Jackson was being protected by the same mystical powers that were protecting the young nation. The national pride that surrounded this belief shaped the country, fueling the American expansion in the late 1830s and beyond. 

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