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Andrew Jackson was convinced a Mississippi senator plotted to kill him 

After convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in a New York City jail cell, President Donald Trump retweeted right-wing comic Terrence K. Williams’s suggestion that Epstein’s death might have been a hit, ordered by a former president no less: “#JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead.” (Williams’s tweet contained hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #ClintonCrimeFamily.) The radioactive tweet presumed that Clinton, an acquaintance of Epstein’s, had silenced him to avoid being ratted out as a participant in the financier’s abuse of underage girls.

After lighting this fuse, Trump backed away, commenting “I have no idea” when a reporter asked if the president thought Williams’s charge might be true. 

Trump had just emerged from a months-long, multimillion-dollar federal investigation into alleged ties between his 2016 campaign and Russia. This retro Cold War scenario had Trump doing Russia’s bidding because he loves dictators, because he wanted to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, or because Ivan had blackmailable material—kompromat—on him. At the end of the day, however, special counsel Robert Mueller wrote that he “did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government…”

The president repeats an accusation that one of his predecessors is a killer sex criminal, and the president’s critics accuse him of being a traitor. When did we take the crazy pills? 

Long, long ago. Conspiracy theories involving, and propagated by, eminent citizens—presidents included—are an old feature of American life. One of the most lurid involved an attempt on Andrew Jackson’s life.

On January 30, 1835, the Capitol Rotunda was the scene of a South Carolina congressman’s funeral. Harriet Martineau, an English bluestocking who watched from the gallery, was impressed by the spectacle of political enemies sitting side by side, solemn in the presence of death. “How out of place was hatred here!” she wrote.

Hatred appeared the moment the service ended. As President Jackson was leaving the building, a man approached him, pulling the trigger of one pistol, then another. Jackson was unhurt—both sidearms misfired—and onlookers quickly subdued the attacker.

Would-be assassin Richard Lawrence was an unemployed house painter. His pistols misfired because that morning’s mist had dampened their percussion caps. Lawrence’s mind, it became obvious, was as cloudy as the day’s weather. Explaining why he wanted to kill the president, Lawrence sometimes said that Jackson was keeping him out of work, sometimes that Jackson was keeping him from assuming the English throne. 

It was hard to imagine so pathetic a nobody nearly felling the indomitable Old Hickory, so a search began for the somebodies who had pulled Lawrence’s strings.

Jackson thought Lawrence’s controller had to be Senator George Poindexter (D-Mississippi). Poindexter had backed Jackson in the 1828 race but then broke with him over economic and patronage matters. 

In Jackson’s mind this constituted motive enough for murder and starting the afternoon of the shooting he told all who called on him at the White House that Poindexter was out to get him. One visitor, Harriet Martineau, endured a Jacksonian rant. “It was painful to hear a chief ruler publicly trying to persuade a foreigner that any of his constituents hated him to the death,” she wrote. “And I took the liberty of changing the subject as soon as I could.”

Jackson’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed when Washington locals Mordecai Foy and David Stewart submitted affidavits to a justice of the peace. In the documents, the men asserted that they had seen Lawrence visit Poindexter’s house days before the shooting.

Poindexter demanded the Senate appoint a  committee to investigate the charges against him. Foy and Stewart did not hold up well under questioning. Foy did not know where Poindexter’s house was; Stewart could not describe what Lawrence looked like. Persons who knew the two testified that Foy was a drunk and Stewart a liar. Why had they spun such a tale? Foy, a blacksmith, said that Charles Coltman, a government contractor, promised him work on a new iron fence at the Treasury Department if he would finger Poindexter. Coltman, questioned in turn, denied offering quid pro quo but admitted that he had encouraged Foy and Stewart to tell their stories. The committee report, unanimously accepted by the Senate in early March, cleared Poindexter, dismissed Foy as an alcoholic, and expressed hope that Stewart and Coltman would be “held up to public odium.”

Lawrence came to trial in April. The proceedings, which he frequently disrupted, established that the hapless gunman was out of his mind. The jury took five minutes to declare him not guilty by reason of insanity. The national press, divided along party lines, kicked the story around like a football. Jacksonian mouthpieces speculated that Lawrence, if not commanded by Poindexter, might have found inspiration in the anti-Jackson rhetoric of another rival, former Veep John Calhoun. Opposition rags hinted that Jackson had staged an attack on himself to win public sympathy—one correspondent, anticipating today’s onliine commenters with their displays of grassy-knoll know-how, hypothesized that the percussion caps on Lawrence’s pistols had been greased beforehand to ensure that they would malfunction. Summarizing in his diary the miasma of hysteria and innuendo, former president John Quincy Adams called the whole affair “sickening…we were running into the manners of the Italian Republics”—the turbulent city-states that had served Niccolò Machiavelli as case studies.

Conspiracy theories may be an occupational hazard of democracies. In top-down societies, it is clear who rules, and who wants to. However, when there are many politicians and many voters, responsibility is diffused—and some people, to obtain clarity, imagine that hidden forces are really in charge. Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” understates the dimensions of his subject. Hofstadter examined only the John Birch Society and money cranks of the late 19th century—conspiracy theorists he particularly disliked. Americans have poked under many beds chasing arms merchants, slaveowners, abolitionists, Catholics, Masons, you name it. The Revolution itself was an armed conspiracy theory, inflamed by fear that the king and a corrupt Parliament meant Americans no good.

    And—here is the kicker—sometimes conspiracy theorists, firing at bumps in the dark, hit genuine conspirators. In the 1760s and 1770s, London’s leadership class really was seeking to rationalize the Empire’s finances without regard for Americans’ rights or wishes. Brits in power openly proclaimed this agenda, seeking to impose it by rounding up dissidents and suppressing public opinion. The colonists were free enough to fear a hidden hand—and free enough to arrange an effective resistance.

The legal system and the Senate probably got the story of Andrew Jackson’s 1835 brush with death right. 

Richard Lawrence was a lunatic and lone gunman; capital busybodies, seeking to stoke Jackson’s wrath, suborned bogus testimony about a plot from obvious miscreants. The affair raged for a time, then faded into the din of the 1830s, a decade that began with the Nullification Crisis and ended with the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign. Whenever politics is similarly fraught—that is, most of the time—fresh conspiracy theories, and sometimes new conspirators, will debut. 

This story appeared in the February 2020 issue of American History.