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Dickerson: President Andrew Jackson was the first to carry a big stick

Published: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 11:07 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON – One hundred and seventy-nine years ago this week, President Andrew Jackson had a close call.

The 67-year-old president emerged from a funeral in the House chamber and was set upon by Richard Lawrence, a housepainter who was off that day. Initiating what would become the first assassination attempt in American history, Lawrence tried to fire his pistol. It made a large bang, but the president did not fall. The percussion cap had detonated, but the gunpowder failed to ignite.

Jackson then brained his attacker with his cane. The blow did not significantly muddle Lawrence because he was already very muddled in the head. He had attacked the seventh president because he believed that the U.S. government owed him a large sum of money.

Jackson, who was engaged in a brutal struggle with the Whigs over the National Bank, was nevertheless not in control of it or any other bank.

Still, Lawrence would not be deterred from his belief that if he killed Jackson the funds would be released and he would take his place as the rightful King of England and Rome.

Although he was confused about the line of succession, he was thorough. He produced a second pistol, which he also attempted to fire.

It too would not discharge. Then Jackson was assisted by others, including Davy Crockett of Tennessee, then a member of Congress, who was apparently serving on the Readiness-in-Case-of-Crazy-Historical-Moments subcommittee of the House It-Can’t-Get-Any-Weirder Committee.

Lawrence was subdued and ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity and very bad luck. It was later discovered that he had asked the Jackson administration for a civil service appointment and was denied. He lived the rest of his life in an institution.

Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution studied Lawrence’s derringers a century after the assassination attempt. Both fired on the first try.

Five months later, Jackson would also receive another threat. A man wrote him a letter from a Philadelphia hotel promising to slit his throat while he slept if he did not release two pirates being held in prison. Nothing became of it. The killing of a president would be left to the correspondent’s son, John Wilkes Booth.

• John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”

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