Thirty Years View
1820 to 1850
Attempted Assassination of President Jackson.
On Friday, the 30th of January, the President with some members of his Cabinet, attended the funeral ceremonies of Warren R. Davis, Esq., in the hall of the House of Representatives -- of which body Mr. Davis had been a member from the State of South Carolina. The procession had moved out with the body, and its front had reached the foot of the broad steps of the eastern portico, when the President, with Mr. Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, and Mr. Mahlon Dickerson, Secretary of the Navy, were issuing from the door of the great rotunda -- which opens upon the portico. At that instant a person stepped from the crowd into the little open space in front of the President levelled a pistol at him, at the distance of about eight feet, and attempted to fire. It was a percussion lock, and the cap exploded, without firing the powder in the barrel. The explosion of the cap was so loud that many persons thought the pistol had fired. I heard it at the foot of the steps, far from the place, and a great crowd between. Instantly the person dropped the pistol which had missed fire, took another which he held ready cocked in the left hand, concealed by a cloak -- levelled it -- and pulled the trigger. It was also a percussion lock, and the cap exploded without firing the powder in the barrel. The President instantly rushed upon him with his uplifted cane: the man shrunk back; Mr. Woodbury aimed a blow at him; Lieutenant Gedney of the Navy knocked him down; he was secured by the bystanders, who delivered him to the officers of justice for judicial examination.
The examination took place before the chief justice of the district, Mr. Cranch; by whom he was committed in default of bail. His name was ascertained to be Richard Lawrence, an Englishman by birth, and house-painter by trade, at present out of employment, melancholy and irascible. The pistols were examined, and found to be well loaded; and fired afterwards without fail, carrying their bullets true, and driving them carrying inch boards at thirty feet distance; nor could any reason be found for the two failures at the door of the rotunda. On his examination the prisoner seemed to be at his ease, as if unconscious of having done any thing wrong -- refusing to cross-examine the witnesses who testified against him, or to give any explanation of his conduct. The idea of an unsound mind strongly impressing itself upon the public opinion, the marshal of the district invited two of the most respectable physicians of the city (Dr. Causssin and Dr. Thomas Sewell), to visit him and examine into his mental condition. They did so: and the following is the report which they made upon the case:
"The undersigned, having been requested by the marshal of the District of Columbia to visit Richard Lawrence, now confined in the jail of the county of Washington, for an attempt to assassinate the President of the United States, with a view to ascertain, as far as practicable the present condition of his bodily health and state of mind, and believing that a detail of the examination will be more satisfactory than an abstract opinion on the subject, we therefore give the following statement.
"On entering his room, we engaged in a free conversation with him, in which he participated, apparently in the most artless and unreserved manner. The first interrogatory propounded was, as to his age --which question alone he sportively declined answering. We then inquired into the condition of his health, for several years past -- to which he replied that it had been uniformly good, and that he had never labored under any mental derangement; nor did he admit the existence of any of those symptom of physical derangement which usually attend mental alienation. He said he was born in England, and came to this country when twelve or thirteen years of age, and that his father died in this District, about six or eight years since; that his father was a Protestant and his mother a Methodist, and that he was not a professor of any religion, but sometimes read the Bible, and occasionally attended church. He stated that he was a painter by trade, and had followed that occupation to the present time; but, of late, could not find steady employment --which had caused much pecuniary embarrassment with him; that he had been generally temperate in his habits, using ardent spirits moderately when at work; but, for the last three or four weeks, had not taken any; that he had never gambled, and, in other respects, had led a regular, sober life.
"Upon being interrogated as to the circumstances connected with the attempted assassination, he said that he had been deliberating on it for some time past, and that he had called at the President's house about a week previous to the attempt, and being conducted to the President's apartment by the porter found him in conversation with a member of Congress, whom he believed to have been Mr. Sutherland, of Pennsylvania; that he stated to the President that he wanted money to take him to England, and that he must give him a check on the bank, and the President remarked, that he was too much engaged to attend to him -- he must call another time, for Mr. Dibble was in waiting for an interview.
"When asked about the pistols which he had used, he stated that his father left him a pair, but not being alike, about four years since he exchanged one for another, which exactly matched the best of the pair; these were both flint locks which he recently had altered to percussion locks, by a Mr. Boteler; that he had been frequently in the habit of loading and firing those pistols at marks, and that he had never known them to fail going off on any other occasion, and that, at the distance of ten yards, the ball always passed through an inch plank. He also stated that he had loaded those pistols three or four days previous with ordinary care, for the purpose attempted; but that he used a pencil instead of a ramrod, and that during that period, they were at all times carried in his pocket; and when asked why they failed to explode he replied he knew no cause.
"When asked why he went to the capitol on that day, he replied that he expected that the President would be there. He also stated, that he was in the rotunda when the President arrived; and on being asked why he did not then attempt to shoot him, he replied that he did not wish to interfere with the funeral ceremony, and therefore waited till it was over. He also observed that he did not enter the hall, but looked through a window from a lobby, and saw the President seated with members of Congress, and he then returned to the rotunda, and waited till the President again entered it, and then passed through and took his position in the east portico, about two yards from the door, drew his pistols from his inside coat pocket, cocked them and held one in each hand, concealed by his coat, lest he should alarm the spectators -- and states, that as soon as the one in the right hand missed fire, he immediately dropped or exchanged it, and attempted to fire the second, before he was seized; he further stated that he aimed each pistol at the President's heart, and intended, if the first pistol had gone off, and the president had fallen, to have defended himself with the second, if defence had been necessary.
"On being asked if he did not expect to have been killed on the spot, if he had killed the President, he replied he did not; and that he had no doubt but that he would have been protected by the spectators. He was frequently questioned whether he had any friends present, from whom he expected protection. To this he replied, that he never had mentioned his intention to any one, and that no one in particular knew his design; but that he presumed it was generally known that he intended to put the President out of the way. He further stated, that when the President arrived at the door, near which he stood finding him supported on the left by Mr. Woodbury, and observing many persons in his rear and being himself rather to the right of the President, in order to avoid wounding Mr. Woodbury and those in the rear, he stepped a little to his own right so that should the ball pass through the body of the President, it would be received by the doorframe, or stone wall.
"On being asked if he felt no trepidation during the attempt: He replied, not the slightest, until he found that the second pistol had missed fire. Then observing that the President was advancing upon him, with an uplifted cane, he feared that it contained a sword, which might have been thrust through him before he could have been protected by the crowd. And when interrogated as to the motive which induced him to attempt the assassination of the President, he replied, that he had been told that the President had caused his loss of occupation, and the consequent want of money, and he believed that to put him out of the way, was the only remedy for this evil; but to the interrogatory, who told you this ? he could not identify any one but remarked that his brother-in-law, Mr. Redfern, told him that he would have no more business, because he was opposed to the President -- and he believed Redfern to be in league with the President against him.
"Again being questioned, whether he had often attended the debates in Congress, during the present session, and whether they had influenced him in making this attack on the person of the President, he replied that he had frequently attended the discussions in both branches of Congress, but that they had, in no degree, influenced is action.
"Upon being asked if he expected to become the president of the United States, if Gen. Jackson had fallen, he replied no.
"When asked whom he wished to be the President his answer was, there were many persons in the House of Representatives. On being asked if there were no persons in the Senate, yes, several; and it was the Senate to which I alluded. Who, in your opinion, of the Senate, would make a good President ? He answered, Mr. Clay, Mr. Webster, Mr. Calhoun. What do you think of Col. Benton, Mr. Van Buren, or Judge White, for President ? He thought they would do well. On being asked if he knew any member of either house of Congress, he replied that he did not -- and never spoke to one in his life, or they to him.
"On being asked what benefit he expected himself from the death of the President, he answered he could not rise unless the President fell, and that he expected thereby to recover his liberty and that the mechanics would all be benefited; that the mechanics would have plenty of work; and that money would be more plenty. On being asked why it would be more plenty he replied, it would be more easily obtained from the bank. On being asked what bank, he replied, the Bank of the United States. On being asked if he knew the president, directors, or any of the officers of the bank, or had ever held any intercourse with them, or knew how he could get money out of the bank he replied no -- that he slightly knew Mr. Smith only.
"On being asked with respect the speeches which he had heard in Congress and whether he was particularly pleased with those of Messrs. Calhoun, Clay, and Webster, he replied that he was, because they were on his side. He was then asked if he was well pleased with the speeches of Col. Benton and Judge White ? He said he was, and thought Col. Benton highly talented.
"When asked if he was friendly to Gen. Jackson, he replied, no. Why not ? He answered, because he was a tyrant. Who told you he was a tyrant ? He answered it was a common talk with the people, and that he had read it in all the papers. He was asked if he could name any one who had told him so ? He replied, no. He was asked if he ever threatened to shoot Mr. Clay, Mr. Webster, or Mr. Calhoun, or whether he would shoot them if he had an opportunity ? He replied, no. When asked if he would shoot Mr. Van Buren ? He replied, no, that he once met with Mr. Van Buren in the rotunda, and told him he was in want of money and must have it, and if he did not get it he (Mr. Van Buren), or Gen. Jackson must fall. He was asked if any person were present during the conversation ? He replied, that there were several present, and when asked if he recollected one of them, he replied that he did not.
"When asked if any one advised him to shoot Gen. Jackson, or say that it ought to be done ? He replied, I do not like to say. On being pressed on this point, he said no one in particular had advised him.
"He further stated, that believing the President to be the source of all his difficulties, he was still fixed in his purpose to kill him, and if his successor pursued the same course, to put him out of the way also -- and declared that no power in this country could punish him for having done so, because it would be resisted by the powers of Europe, as well as of this country. He also stated, that he had been long in correspondence with the powers of Europe, and that his family had been wrongfully deprived of the crown of England, and that he should yet live to regain it -- and that he considered the President of the United States nothing more than his clerk.
"We now think proper to add, that the young man appears perfectly tranquil and unconcerned, as to the final result, and seems to anticipate no punishment for what he has done. The above contains the leading, and literally expressed facts of the whole conversation we had with him, which continued at least two hours. The questions were frequently repeated at different stages of the examination; and presented in various forms."
It is clearly to be seen from this medical examination of the man, that this attempted assassination of the President, was one of those cases of which history presents many instances --a diseased mind acted upon by a general outcry against a public man. Lawrence was in the particular condition to be acted upon by what he heard against General Jackson:-- a workman out of employment --needy--idle--mentally morbid; and with reason enough to argue regularly from false premises. He heard the President accused of breaking up the labor of the country ! and believed it -- of making money scarce ! and he believed it -- of producing the distress ! and believed it -- of being a tyrant ! and believed it -- of being an obstacle to all relief ! and believed it. And coming to a regular conclusion from all these beliefs, he attempted to do what he believed the state of things required him to do -- take the life of the man whom he considered the sole cause of his own and the general calamity -- and the sole obstacle to his own and the general happiness. Hallucination of mind was evident; and the wretched victim of a dreadful delusion was afterwards treated as insane, and never brought to trial. But the circumstance made a deep impression upon the public feeling, and irresistibly carried many minds to the belief in a superintending Providence, manifested in the extraordinary case of two pistols in succession -- so well loaded, so coolly handled, and which afterwards fired with such readiness, force, and precision -- missing fire, each in its turn, when levelled eight feet at the President's heart.