Not With a Bang but a Wallop – It Happened Today, January 30, 2017

On January 30 of 1835 one Richard Lawrence staggered into the history books by becoming the first person to try to assassinate a sitting United States president. I trust it is clear that I do not think anyone should ever assassinate a U.S. president current or former, so I will not be misunderstood when I say that his choice of Andrew Jackson as his target was, from a narrowly practical point of view, extremely ill chosen.

Lawrence, described by acquaintances as a quiet if diligent house painter, seems to have gone insane in the early 1830s. As his behaviour spiraled out of control he became obsessed with the president, and on January 30 attempted to shoot Jackson as the latter was leaving the U.S. Capitol funeral of Congressman Warren R. Davis, using two pistols notorious for unreliability in the sort of damp weather Washington was then experiencing both of which misfired.

In response Jackson leaped at the would-be assassin and beat him severely with his cane before various Congressmen including Davey Crockett wrestled Lawrence into submission, after which he was put on trial with the prosecutor being Francis Scott Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner". The jury found him "not guilty by reason of insanity" after a five-minute deliberation and he was confined to mental hospitals until his death in 1861.

Trying to murder Jackson at close range was certainly crazy in the colloquial as well as in this case the technical sense. The 7th president of the United States and its first "border" or hillbilly chief executive was a man with a long history of physical courage, decisiveness and lack of regard for the niceties of social interaction. At 13 he became involved in the American Revolution as a courier, got captured, and when a British officer ordered him to clean his boots responded with a phrase so far from "Merry Christmas" that it earned him a permanent scar on his head and hand from a sabre. But Jackson did not clean the boots.

Later, as President, his closest Senate ally was Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who Jackson had both whipped and shot during a tavern brawl in 1813 in which Benton and his brother also shot and nearly killed Jackson. Jackson himself had earlier killed a man in a duel for insulting his wife Rachel, whom Jackson stole from her cruel husband including, allegedly, once chasing him into the tall grass with a knife.

Jackson was an odd character with a strange mix of impressive virtues and scary vices, a populist and a slaveowner, a cunning calculator with a manic temper. But just about everyone who ever met him would testify that on account of both his virtues and his vices he was about the last man on earth at whom to fire a non-fatal shot at close range. Even Richard Lawrence, in his more lucid post-1835 moments, I imagine.