April 11, 2010

Assassination attempts on Jackson connect to writers

After 1835, President Andrew Jackson was lucky to be alive. A would-be assassin named Richard Lawrence pulled a gun on him and fired — the gun misfired. Lawrence (an unemployed house painter) had prepared for the possibility, and drew a second gun — which also misfired. He was easily subdued. His trial took place on April 11, 1835.

Lawrence, an Englishman, felt that Jackson's death would bring more money to the country (possibly referring to the struggle over the Bank of the United States). He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the remainder of his life in a mental institution. His prosecuting attorney was the lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key.

Key worked with the defense in crafting the insanity plea. By this time, he had already written what would become his most famous work, a poem today referred to as "The Star-Spangled Banner" (1814), also known as the National Anthem of the United States. He wrote several other poems, most of which have a more religious rather than patriotic tone.

But, Andrew Jackson's literary associations through assassination attempts do not end there. Earlier, in 1833, Jackson was attacked on a steamboat by former Navy officer Robert B. Randolph, recently dismissed from his post by the President. He was unarmed, but succeeded in causing Jackson to bleed from the face. Like Lawrence, Randolph was easily subdued. Shortly after, in Fredericksburg, Maryland, Jackson spent time with the always-ready-to-rub-elbows Washington Irving (some accounts say he was with the President during the attack and assisted in subduing Randolph; this is not the case). Irving wrote of the affair:

The old gentleman was still highly exasperated at the recent outrage offered him by Lieutenant Randolph... It is a brutal transaction, which I cannot think of without indignation, mingled with a feeling of almost despair, that our national character should receive such crippling wounds from the hands of our own citizens.

When a Jackson admirer from Virginia offered to kill the assailant in response, the President answered: "I want no man to stand between me and my assailants, and none to take revenge on my account."

*The portrait of Andrew Jackson, above, is by Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully, who had several literary connections of his own.


  1. Interesting, especially because nearly a quarter-century later (in 1859) Key's son, Philip Barton Key (known as "the handsomest man in all Washington society") was brutally murdered by the infamous Civil War general Daniel Sickles (then a Congressman) because the younger Key was conducting an affair with Sickles' wife, Teresa (although Sickles was himself a notorious philanderer). Sickles had a "dream team" of lawyers, including future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (a personal friend); he was acquitted by a plea of "temporary insanity," used for the first time in recorded history. See "The Generals of Gettysburg" by Larry Tagg and/or "Sickles at Gettysburg" by James A. Hessler.

  2. Very true... and even more interesting, perhaps, is that Philip Barton Key is buried in the same cemetery as Edgar A. Poe!

  3. Cool! Thanks for the info. I will check out Key's grave next time I visit Poe's. (Was there last October for Poe's magnificent funeral celebration in Baltimore.)


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