January 30, 1835
On a cold, wet January day in 1835, an unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence hid behind a pillar at the entrance to the Capitol Rotunda. He awaited the arrival of an important Capitol visitor—President Andrew Jackson—who was attending a congressional funeral. As the president approached, Lawrence stepped forward, raised a derringer single-shot pistol, took careful aim at Jackson’s heart, and fired. The cap exploded, noise and smoke filled the air, but the powder failed to ignite. Misfire!
The aging president was in ill health, forced to lean on a colleague and use a cane, but he remained defiant. As Lawrence pulled a second pistol and again took aim, Jackson charged his assailant with cane held high. Lawrence pulled the trigger. Again, misfire! Quickly, bystanders tackled the would-be assassin to the floor while the president was hustled away. Jackson was saved from the first known attempt to assassinate a U.S. president.
Andrew Jackson was no stranger to violence—physical or verbal. A soldier of distinction, he suffered numerous battle wounds and fought at least a dozen duels. As president, Jackson engaged in fierce political combat with his congressional opponents who were so vehement in their opposition that they formed a new political party. Led by Henry Clay, "the Whigs" confronted the enemy they labeled "King Andrew."
In the era that we call "golden," the Senate Chamber echoed with the most vitriolic language as Whigs accused Jackson of corruption and incompetence. The president retaliated with his own heated rhetoric and even threats of physical violence. In late January 1835, South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun—who had been Jackson’s first vice president but left office to join the opposition—reportedly declared that Jackson was "a Caesar who ought to have a Brutus." Among those possibly listening to that speech was Richard Lawrence.
Born in England, Lawrence moved to Washington, D.C., in 1812 and became a house painter. He was polite and hard-working, but he also displayed signs of mental instability and nursed a growing delusion that he was a long lost heir to the British throne. By 1835 Lawrence was convinced that he was the rightful King of England and that "King Andrew" alone stood in the way of his claiming his crown. On January 30, just days after Calhoun called for a "Brutus," Lawrence tried—twice—to kill the president.
The assassination attempt stirred cries of conspiracy. "Rumor is circulating a thousand stories," reported a Boston paper. Was Lawrence a hired assassin? Immediately, suspicion fell upon Calhoun, who was forced to take the Senate floor to declare his innocence. The president named Mississippi senator George Poindexter as chief conspirator, an accusation that dogged Poindexter and probably cost him reelection. The Whigs counter-charged that Jackson had staged the assassination attempt in a futile hope of gaining public sympathy.
There was no conspiracy. Richard Lawrence was insane. This became quite obvious during his trial, and he lived out his life in asylums. The conspiracy theories were a byproduct of an impassioned and often inflammatory political discourse that continued well past 1835. Jackson was asked at the end of his presidency in 1837 if he had any regrets. "Yes," he replied. "I regret I was unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun."