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“I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!”: The Failed Assassination Attempt on President Andrew Jackson

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.

Scene at the Capitol. from "Shooting the President: The Remarkable Trial of Richard Lawrence."

Scene at the Capitol from “Shooting at the President!: The Remarkable Trial of Richard Lawrence, for an Attempt to Assassinate the President of the United States.”

Capitol Building Stereoview [Photo by Robert Brammer.]

Capitol Building Stereoview. Stare through the images until they combine to form one, three-dimensional photo. [Photo by Robert Brammer.]

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.

A depiction of Richard Lawrence from "Shooting the President: The Remarkable Trial of Richard Lawrence."

A depiction of Richard Lawrence from “Shooting at the President!: The Remarkable Trial of Richard Lawrence, for an Attempt to Assassinate the President of the United States.”

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).

 

6 Comments

  1. Susan
    January 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I highly recommend that everyone read the Andrew Jackson’s reasons for vetoing the bill mentioned in the blog. Tap the highlighted word ‘veto’ for the link. I found this much more interesting and informative than the blog which was very interesting in many ways. However, it seems that banking intertwining with the government to make the bankers and foreign investors richer is a never ending story. President Jackson pointed out the economic injustice in his veto. …will we ever learn?

  2. Robert Brammer
    May 21, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Lawrence Marcus was kind enough to share an article with me that discusses the examination of Richard Lawrence’s pistols. – Recollections of the Times of General Andrew Jackson.: No. 2. Richard Lawrence, The Assassin. Holdens Dollar Magazine of Criticisms, Biographies, Sketches, Essays, Tales, Reviews, Poetry, etc. Sept. 1848; 2, 3; American Periodicals, pg. 542.

  3. William Joseph Reynolds
    January 24, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    There is no mention of the fact, that the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Richard Lawrence, was Francis Scott Key, who twenty years earlier, had written the Star Spangled Banner.

  4. Roger
    April 13, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    I’m curious as to where those pistols went. I should like to examine them myself. Maybe we could have lifted John Calhoun ‘ s fingerprints off them, if the first conspiracy theorists had been right…

  5. Nick Ives
    March 21, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    I believe I read a Times articles in which they calculated the chances of both of Lawrence’s pistols misfiring to be 1 in about 125,000. They also described other aliments that the President had during his life, including smallpox, osteomyelitis, malaria, dysentery, rheumatism, dropsy, “cholera morbus” (widespread intestinal inflammation), amyloidosis (a waxy degeneration of body tissues) and bronchiectasis (inflamed and dilated bronchial tubes). Not to mention a bullet still lodged inside his lungs from a duel. Whatever opinion anyone has on the man, he sure knew how to survive!

  6. Peter Stines
    August 9, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    A lot of these articles are pure rubbish. The best source is the report of the trial mentioned above. It can be seen on several legal archive websites. I have it and will share. Numerous newspaper accounts can be found on newspaperarchive.com and newspapers.com. I searched with Lawrence, Richard as search term and found dozens of items. As far as the pistols are concerned they were brass with barrels 6″ long, smoothbore in approximately .42 caliber. The guns had been given to Lawrence by his father. The guns were originally flintlocks but Lawrence had them converted to percussion by a Mr. Boteler who seems to have been a gunsmith in Georgtown, Washington D.C. One account claims that one of the pistols was loaded with a “ball, a slug and buckshot…” But this is rubbish! The loads were extracted during the trial and consisted of a single ball, patched with “fine glazed powder”. A gunsmith took both pistols apart but didn’t find anything wrong with them. They were test fired by Francis Scott Key, Prosecutor. Both fired. It’s possible than dampness seeped in via condensation and when black powder gets slightly damp it does not fire or fires erratically. The vents may have also been stopped up with residue and this would prevent the cap flash from igniting the powder in the barrel. During questioning, Lawrence stated that he did NOT use a “priming wire” or pick to clear the cone vents. Being a black powder shooter I am familiar with the workings of these firearms. They can misfire due to the tiniest of problems. I believe the pistols are in the Smithsonian collection. The guns were tested in 18=936 and both fired correctly. I’ve contacted the Smithsonian about the pistols but received no reply. If anyone can find photos of these guns, I would like to see them. For what it’s worth, Lawrence is buried in the Rock Creek Cemetery in D.C. Find a Grave has a photo of the headstone. Several other family members are also buried there.

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