On January 30, 1835, politicians gathered in the Capitol Building for the funeral of South Carolina Representative Warren Davis. It was a dreary, misty day and onlookers observed that it was one of the rare occasions that could bring the fiercest of political rivals side by side on peaceable terms. But the peace wasn’t meant to last.
President Andrew Jackson was among their number that day. At 67, Jackson had survived more than his fair share of maladies and mishaps—some of them self-provoked, such as the bullet lodged in his chest from a duel 30 years earlier. “General Jackson is extremely tall and thin, with a slight stoop, betokening more weakness than naturally belongs to his years,” wrote Harriet Martineau, a British social theorist, in her contemporaneous travelogue Retrospect of Western Travel.
Six years into his presidency, Jackson had used bluster and fiery speeches to garner support for his emergent Democratic coalition. He used his veto power far more often than previous presidents, obstructing Congressional action and making political enemies in the process. Jackson’s apparent infirmity at the funeral belied his famous spitfire personality, which would shortly become apparent.
As Jackson exited the East Portico at the end of the funeral, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed painter, accosted him. Lawrence pulled a Derringer pistol from his jacket, aimed at Jackson, and fired. Although the cap fired, the bullet failed to be discharged.
As Lawrence withdrew a second pistol, Jackson charged his would-be assassin. “Let me alone! Let me alone!” he shouted. “I know where this came from.” He then attempted to batter the attacker with his cane. Lawrence fired his second gun—but this one, too, misfired.
Within moments, Navy Lieutenant Thomas Gedney and Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett had subdued Lawrence and hurried the president off to a carriage so he could be transported to the White House. When Lawrence’s two pistols were later examined, both were found to be properly loaded and well functioning. They “fired afterwards without fail, carrying their bullets true and driving them through inch boards at thirty feet,” said U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. An arms expert later calculated that the likelihood of both pistols misfiring was 125,000 to 1.
It was the first attempt to assassinate a sitting president, and in the aftermath, attention was focused less on how to keep the President safe and more on the flinging of wild accusations. Jackson himself was convinced the attack was politically motivated, and charged rival politician George Poindexter with hiring Lawrence. No evidence was ever found of this, and Poindexter was cleared of all wrongdoing.
“Before two hours were over, the name of almost every eminent politician was mixed up with that of the poor maniac who caused the uproar,” Martineau, who was at the Capitol building during the attack, wrote. Later that evening, she attended a party with the defiant president. “[Jackson] protested, in the presence of many strangers, that there was no insanity in the case,” Martineau observed. “I was silent, of course. He protested that there was a plot, and that the man was a tool, and at length quoted the Attorney-General as his authority. It was painful to hear a Chief Ruler publicly trying to persuade a foreigner that any of his constituents hated him to death: and I took the liberty of changing the subject as soon as I could.”
Indeed, Lawrence’s insanity was fairly obvious. Not only did the painter believe the president had killed his father; he was also convinced he was 15th-century English king Richard III and was entitled to payments from his American colonies, and that Jackson had prevented him from receiving that money because he opposed reauthorizing the charter for the Second Bank of the United States. At the trial in April 1835, with attorney Francis Scott Key prosecuting, Lawrence announced to the jurors, “It is for me, gentlemen, to pass upon you, and not you upon me.” He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a hospital for the mentally ill until his death in 1861.
But Jackson had good reason to think he had raised the ire of fellow politicians. “Jackson was ill-tempered, a fierce hater, unbending, dictatorial and vindictive,” writes Mel Ayton in Plotting to Kill the President. And one of Lawrence’s stated motives for the attack—Jackson’s opposition to the Second Bank of the U.S.—was a real source of political antagonism.
In the years before the assassination attempt, Jackson came out swinging against the Bank of the United States (BUS). The chartered corporation was the second of its kind (the first was chartered in 1791 as the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton). When Congress allowed the charter on the first bank to expire in 1811, they quickly discovered how important a function it served: It issued currency, opened branches throughout the country, brokered loans if the U.S. needed to borrow money and moved money between banks. So in 1816, Congress passed a new, 20-year-long charter for the bank.
“In the period of the 1820s, most observers thought the bank behaved responsibly. It served the government well and kept out of politics,” says historian Daniel Feller, editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson. “In 1829, Jackson attacked the banks and that kind of startled everybody. He said it represented a dangerous concentration of power.”
Jackson thought the bank represented the dangers of the wealthy aristocracy occupying a place of privilege in government that wasn’t accessible to average Americans. “[He] said, ‘It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.’ That’s his broader philosophical objection to the bank,” Feller says.
In 1832, Congress passed a bill to preemptively re-charter the BUS. Jackson vetoed it, though the bank would remain in place for another four years. The veto became a major campaign issue when Jackson ran for reelection that year. Empowered by an overwhelming electoral victory over his opponent, Henry Clay, who believed the national bank allowed the federal government to manage the wellbeing of the country’s economy, Jackson decided to remove federal deposits (money that came from customs officers collecting revenue in ports and other government funds) and deposit them in state-chartered banks, which made it impossible for the bank to regulate the country’s currency. The move also further provoked Congress, whose members saw it as a huge overreach of executive power.
In response to his move, the Senate censured Jackson in 1834 for “assuming power not conferred by the Constitution.” It was the first—and only—time the Senate ever censured a president. The back-and-forth battle became known as the Bank War. It transfixed the country, to the point where even someone with clear mental instability could easily reference it in his assassination attempt.
In the end, Jackson won his war. The charter for the Second Bank expired in 1836 and the federal funds the president had diverted to state banks remained in their scattered locations. As for security around the White House and the Capitol, it remained much as it had been for the duration of Jackson’s term. Visitors were still allowed entry to the White House without any particular screening process. It would be another 26 years before another U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln was targeted for assassination, but a watchful security team thwarted the conspiracy. Four years later, they would not be so lucky