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How fate halted a presidential assassination

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Former U.S. President Andrew Jackson.


President Andrew Jackson was a bare-knuckled brawler in more ways than one. He always stood his ground against his opponents, whether it was on the streets of Nashville or on Capitol Hill. He was not above rolling in the mud in a street fight, leveling a pistol in a duel, or impaling his enemies on the point of a political spear.

It is not surprising then to learn that Jackson was the first American president to become the target of an assassination. The attack occurred on Jan. 30, 1835. Jackson was on Capitol Hill to attend the funeral services for Congressman Warren R. Davis. As the president filed past the casket and descended to the rotunda, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter, stepped up, drew a pistol, and fired point blank at the former General.

The percussion cap exploded, but a bullet failed to discharge from the gun barrel. Characteristically, Jackson charged his would be killer with complete abandon and contempt, while his breathless vice-president, Martin Van Buren looked on, horrified.

Lifting his cane above his head, the 67-year-old Jackson lunged at his assailant. Before he could reach him, however, Lawrence drew a second pistol and fired again. Unbelievably, this gun also failed to fire.

After the second attempt failed and some semblance of order was restored, Jackson went about his business as if nothing had ever happened. As for Lawrence, he spent the rest of his life in Washington’s Government Hospital for the Insane.

And Vice-President Van Buren? He gave the near tragedy considerable thought. As the president of the Senate, he was obligated to preside over the proceedings of that body, but he didn’t have to expose himself to unnecessary risks. For the remainder of his term as vice president, Van Buren never took his place on the floor of the Senate without two pistols on his person.

Andrew Jackson may have been the first U.S. President to draw an assassin’s aim, but Martin Van Buren had the distinction of becoming the first pistol-packing presiding officer of the United States Senate.

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