Jackson: First President to Face an Assassin

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was the first president to be fired on by an assassin. His assailant, Richard Lawrence, a house painter with a record of violent outbursts, had previously been arrested twice, once for threatening his landlady and once for attacking his sister. On both occasions he was found mentally incompetent and freed.

Lawrence became increasingly disturbed and began to think he was King Richard III of England and that huge sums of money were held in trust for him in the Bank of the United States. Apparently, this fantasy brought President Jackson into Lawrence’s sights. Jackson opposed the Bank of the United States. Lawrence believed that stance was the cause of his money problems.

On one occasion he actually had an audience with Jackson during which he demanded his “due share” of the bank’s funds. Another time he approached Vice President Martin Van Buren on the Capitol steps and demanded money from him. Both dismissed him as harmless.

For his assassination attempt, Lawrence bought a pistol to match one he already owned and practiced shooting both until he was satisfied with his aim. On January 30, 1835, Lawrence planted himself in the back of the Capitol rotunda, where the funeral of Representative Warren Davis was being held. When the funeral procession began to file out of the Capitol, the 68-year-old Jackson took his place just behind the pallbearers. As they reached the building’s entrance, Lawrence leaped from behind a pillar, pulled out one of the pistols and fired.

Though the gun made a loud noise and many people thought the president had been hit, it actually had misfired. Lawrence then discarded the first pistol and switched the second pistol from his left to his right hand for another shot.

Jackson, his cane raised, turned on him. Lawrence fired again. That pistol also misfired and Lawrence was seized and taken away, leaving Jackson shaken but unharmed.

Later, the guns and the ammunition were checked and found to be in first-class order. Lawrence was tried on a charge of assault with intent to kill. In 1835 an assault on the president’s life was a misdemeanor. The would-be assassin was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to an insane asylum for the rest of his life.

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