On January 30, 1835, an unemployed painter by the name of Richard Lawrence made the first attempt on the life of a sitting U.S. President. That damp, misty day, President Andrew Jackson had traveled to the Capitol Building to attend a Congressional funeral in the House Wing. As the President exited the funeral, he approached the east portico of the Capitol. Upon seeing the President, Lawrence drew a pistol from his pocket and fired. An explosion occurred, but only the cap fired. In spite of his advanced age, the President charged Lawrence with his cane. Before the President could reach him, however, Lawrence produced a second pistol and pulled the trigger. This pistol also misfired, allowing the President to reach Lawrence, who then ducked to avoid being struck by the President’s cane. The President reportedly yelled, “Let me alone! Let me alone! I know where this came from.” Lawrence was then subdued by onlookers and the President was taken by carriage to the White House.
The political environment at the time was highly charged due to the President’s veto of the bill to reauthorize the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. Initially, many believed Lawrence was the instrument of a Whig conspiracy, including the President himself. Despite these early claims, scholars now believe Lawrence acted alone and of his own accord. When initially questioned, Lawrence declared that the President had killed his father, a claim that was quickly revealed to be false. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that Lawrence believed he was King Richard the III, and the President’s opposition to the Second Bank of the United States had denied him the ability to receive a dispensation owed to him by Congress for his various estates. Lawrence even dressed the part of royalty at trial, sporting a shooting jacket and cravat. He also expressed some indignation at the fact that he was being judged by commoners. After the jury was instructed, Lawrence had the last word, stating, “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.” Unsurprisingly, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Lawrence was confined to an asylum for the remainder of his life before passing away in 1861.
Why didn’t the pistols fire? Lawrence’s pistols were later examined. The powder was said to be of good quality, and when tested, they both fired. The damp conditions of the day may have increased the odds of a misfire, but the odds of two successive misfires were still very slim. After the conspiracy theories faded from the public mind, a sentiment arose that the President had been spared by divine providence, a belief the President shared.
The following materials from the Library of Congress’s collection were used in preparing this article:
Willard M. Oliver and Nancy E. Marion, Killing the President, Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on US Commanders-in-Chief (2010) and W. Mitchell, Shooting at the President!: The Remarkable Trial of Richard Lawrence, for an Attempt to Assassinate the President of the United States (1835).