Partisan Rhetoric Blamed for Attempted Assassination of Pres. Jackson
In today’s political climate everyone is talking about how dysfunctional the federal government has become, and the way that harsh political rhetoric divides Republicans and Democrats and makes bipartisan solutions impossible. While this is undeniably true today, it was equally true of America’s political parties and politicians in the 1830s during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. In fact, some newspapers blamed the attempted assassination of President Jackson in 1835 on the severe criticism he had been receiving.
Jackson certainly did not shy away from taking strong, controversial stands during his presidency, showing the same courage and tenacity “Old Hickory” had displayed during his long, successful military career. As president, Jackson destroyed the country’s national bank, pushed through a policy of Indian Removal, and threatened the use of federal troops to force South Carolina to submit to federal tariffs during the “nullification” crisis. These and other hotly contested decisions and policies made many enemies for Jackson, and they were quite vocal in their opposition to the unyielding president.
A mentally unstable, out-of-work housepainter named Richard Lawrence tried to assassinate President Jackson as he was leaving the Capitol on Jan. 30, 1835. Shortly after this, the New York Evening Post printed an editorial strongly supporting Jackson and accusing his opponents of creating such a climate with their “impassioned eloquence and wild oratory” and their “factious turbulence and reckless profligacy” that an attempted presidential assassination suddenly became a very real possibility—the first such attempt in U.S. history.
That Evening Post editorial was reprinted by the Rhode-Island Republican (Newport, Rhode Island) on Feb. 11, 1835:
We copy from the N. Y. Eve. Post the following article in relation to the late horrid attempt to assassinate the President and to the probable cause or causes which influenced the assassin in his atrocious undertaking. In the habit as was Lawrence of daily visiting the Senate chamber, listening to the impassioned eloquence and wild oratory of men determined to rule or ruin the country, believing as he probably did, what he had so often heard avowed by men in their official station, that Gen. Jackson was a tyrant, a despot, and a traitor to the country’s constitution and laws—is it to be wondered at that he should imagine that he was doing the country essential service in ridding it of one whom he had again and again heard denounced as a curse to the land over which destinies he presides? Lawrence is incarcerated in a dungeon while those whose inflammatory speeches probably induced him to this horrid act, are stalking about where “great men most do congregate,” pursuing their unhallowed career of factious turbulence and reckless profligacy.
Our readers will peruse with the deepest interest, and with emotions of intense surprise and indignation, the account which we subjoin from the Washington Globe, of the most audacious outrage ever attempted in this country. Who is there whose heart is so hardened by political hatred, that it does not burn with honest anger at this most parricidal effort? Who is there, so blind to the services of Andrew Jackson, that he does not feel sensations of the liveliest gratitude for the almost miraculous preservation of the valuable life of the greatest man of modern times, the truest benefactor of the human race, the most efficient guardian of the great principles of human liberty?
Alas! we fear there are many such. There are men who will grieve that the ball of the assassin did not perform its office; there are men who would have rejoiced if the life of the President had been sacrificed; who would have looked on the assassin, not as a wretch deserving to be slain by lingering tortures, but as a Brutus, who had struck a brave “blow for liberty,” and entitled himself to an ovation and a monument. We would not utter this sentiment if we did not believe it; we would not entertain such a belief, if it were not forced upon us by facts of the most unanswerable kind. But we cannot forget the execrations which we have heard yelled out in our streets against Andrew Jackson; we cannot forget the language which has been used by the Bank-tory press concerning him; we cannot forget the speeches of Senators describing him as a cut-throat and a villain, the scourger of the people, a despot, an usurper. We cannot forget that men who stand well in this community have expressed, in public places, their desire that some arm might be found bold and patriotic enough to rid our country of the tyrant, and avowed the alacrity with which they would largely contribute to raise a monument to the memory of such a parricide.
The plea of insanity is set up in favor of the frantic wretch who with deliberate purpose sought the life of Jackson. No doubt he was insane—Nor do we doubt that he inhaled the latent seed of his malady in the heated and poisonous atmosphere of the United States Senate Chamber. Ay, we say it fearlessly and with full confidence in its truth, that if the man is mad, he is a political maniac, and has been wrought up to frenzy by the incendiary harangues of Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and their besotted followers. Did not the same men excite to frenzy a very large portion of the people of these United States? Did they not inflame men’s passions to that wild pitch of excitement that they were prepared for any scenes of anarchy and crime? Did they not teach them to believe all sorts of monstrous imputations against the character and motives of Andrew Jackson? Did they not exclaim that the country was in the midst of a revolution, and intimate that it must soon be deluged with blood? Did they not give their hearers to understand that the pistol of a modern assassin, if rightly aimed, might do mankind as signal a service as did the dagger of Brutus? Did they not strive, by all the arts of sophistry, and with all the fervor of misguided eloquence, to arouse the worst passions of the worst men? Did they not go about, in Sunday crusades, preaching the most seditious and inflammatory doctrines? Alas, to all these questions truth must respond in the affirmative.
Was the man mad who attempted to assassinate General Jackson? So were thousands of his fellow-citizens but a few months ago, and they have hardly yet recovered from their dilemma, occasioned by the same cause which, we have no doubt, prompted the damnable attempt of the Washington parricide—parricide in the most enlarged meaning of the term. The whole tenor of the proceedings of the opposition in the Senate, of the language of the opposition presses with very few exceptions, of the tone of the speeches at opposition meetings, has been calculated, if not intended, to deprive men of their sober senses, and turn them into political Helots. We look beyond the poor wretch who attempted this unprecedented crime, to the unprincipled demagogues whose wild oratory has inflamed his mind to madness. If half of what they have said of General Jackson is true, the man deserves the admiration not the execrations of his fellow-men. The same qualities of our nature which cause us to revere the spectacle of a Brutus rising, “refulgent from the stroke of Caesar’s fate,” would lead us also to regard with secret approbation this Washington homicide. Against those then who have so depicted our venerable Chief Magistrate, that their deluded hearers are induced to consider him “a cut-purse and a villain,” “a scourge,” “a despot,” “a usurper”—against those rather than the poor tool and puppet who has but pursued the course too plainly indicated by them, let all who truly love their country, who detest anarchy, who shudder at the contemplations of scenes of blood and lawless ferocity, direct their deepest indignation.
As for General Jackson, it would almost seem that he bears a charmed life. It would almost seem that, sent upon our earth to re-establish the liberties of the only free people under heaven, Providence guards him with peculiar care, until his great mission shall be accomplished.