Sunday, January 30, 2011

January 30, 1835 – President Jackson Assassinated

Just after leaving the East Portico of the United States Capitol, President Andrew Jackson, twice-elected to the nation’s highest office, was gunned down by the deranged English housepainter Richard Lawrence. Jackson had fought in the War of 1812 and in numerous altercations with Indians as well as participating in thirteen duels, but now his luck seemed to have run out. Lawrence stepped from behind a column with two pistols and fired them into Jackson’s back on the unseasonably dry winter’s day. Reportedly, Jackson, when shot, turned, shouted, and charged at Lawrence before he fell dead.

Lawrence was apprehended by the crowd, including Congressman Davy Crockett. He was taken into custody and questioned first by police, then by doctors, whom he told that he had a great deal of money coming from the Federal Government, but was held up by Jackson. Lawrence went on to explain that he would use the money to retake his place as king of England as he was, in fact, Richard III, who had died three-and-a-half centuries earlier. When taken to trial that April, Lawrence was quickly deemed not guilty by reason of insanity, but prosecutor Francis Scott Key and the many mourners of Jackson would not let the matter rest. The trial went to the Supreme Court, where a precedent of execution for the homicidally insane would be set. Lawrence was hanged that winter, and mental asylums around the nation were purged of those deemed “dangerous to mankind.” The deplorable conditions of the insane would continue for decades, prompting reformer Dorothea Dix to champion for the rights of “harmlessly mad.” In her early work, she had made attempts to help all those mentally troubled, but the stigma in America ran too deeply to overcome. The policy would continue through the early twentieth century where gas chambers became popular among asylums before giving way to the experimental lobotomies and drugs in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Just as national mourning turned to rage at the insane, it also poured out against Jackon’s enemies in politics. It was discovered that Senator George Poindexter of Mississippi had hired Lawrence some months before, and he was brought under charges of conspiracy. Poindexter was eventually declared innocent, but his political career would never recover. More notably, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, former vice-president under Jackson, was also suspected. Though he testified to his innocence on the Senate floor, he was not reelected in 1838 and eventually moved to Texas. The new Whig Party, who had formed in 1833 opposing Jackson’s assurance of Federal power over nullification, became crippled by the desertion of Henry Clay and soon ceased to be a credible political unit.

Vice-President Martin Van Buren assumed the presidency and won his own election in 1836 and again in 1840 amid chaos of the border war with Britain dubbed the Canadian War brought about by the Caroline affair and the Pork and Beans War, which would ultimately lead to a divided Canadian republic, British colony, and substantial gains in the Pacific Northwest for the Americans. He pushed for Jacksonian ideals, many of which he helped create, suppressing bids for a national bank and instead offering Free Soil and limiting slavery in the territories in aid of the poor White. Polk continued the Jacksonian dynasty with war against Mexico, expanding Manifest Destiny in the Southwest.

After fifteen troubled years, the United States seemed to settle in the 1850s. The economy rebounded with its war-speckled depression over, and immigration filled up the new territories gained. Questions over slavery still boiled, but the matter had been largely settled by legally maintaining the status quo and refusing expansion. Slavery would gradually die out as it became economically infeasible in the face of the growing Industrial Revolution and Abolitionist movement. The question of secession, of course, had been dealt with by Jackson during the Nullification Crisis in his famed “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” stating, “Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error.”

While the United States enjoyed great prosperity over the latter half of the nineteenth century thanks to the strong base of Common Man economics built by Jacksonians, its laissez-faire policies would become a bed of corruption leading to fresh outbreaks of revolution as the twentieth century dawned.

In reality, the weather had been wet, and Lawrence’s pistols had misfired due to moisture in the powder. Reportedly, Jackson beat Lawrence with his cane until both were restrained. Lawrence would be deemed insane and committed to institutions until his death in 1861. Jackson would die in 1845 with his Democratic ideals challenged on numerous fronts.

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