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Political Assassination: The Violent Side of American Political Life

Digital History TOPIC ID 98

On January 30, 1835, President Andrew Jackson went to the U.S. Capitol to attend the funeral services of Congressman Warren R. Davis of South Carolina. As the President filed past the casket and descended to the Capitol rotunda, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed English house painter, stepped up, drew a pistol, and fired point blank at the former General. A percussion cap exploded, but a bullet failed to discharge from the gun barrel. Lifting his cane above his head, the 67-year old Jackson lunged at his assailant. But before he could thrash the young man, the attacker drew a second pistol and fired again. A second explosion rang out, but again the gun failed to fire. The odds against both guns misfiring were 125,000 to 1.

The 32-year old would-be assassin claimed that Jackson had killed his father three years earlier. He also claimed to be the rightful heir to the British throne and said that Jackson, in a conspiracy with various steamship companies, had prevented him from getting money which would enable him to claim the English crown. Since Lawrence's father had been dead for twelve years and had never visited America, a jury found Lawrence not guilty on grounds of insanity. Lawrence was hospitalized and died 26 years later at Washington's Government Hospital for the Insane.

Foreigners tend to perceive the United States as a country prone to political violence and assassination. Nine American Presidents - Andrew Jackson in 1835, Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901 Harry S. Truman in 1950, John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford twice in 1975, and Ronald Reagan in 1981 - have been the targets of assassination. Attempts have also been made on the lives of one President-elect (Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933) and three Presidential candidates (Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and George Wallace in 1972). In addition, eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, nine U.S. Congressmen, eleven mayors, 17 state legislators, and eleven judges have been violently attacked. No other country with a population of over 50 million has had as high a number of political assassinations or attempted assassinations.

The nation's voluminous record of political violence and assassination raises many difficult and disturbing questions. Why has the United States, with its commitment to rule of law and due process, been so susceptible to assassination? Has the U.S. always faced the horror of assassination or has the crime's frequency increased in recent years? The most troubling issue raised by political assassinations is whether they alter the course of history.

Political assassination was unknown in colonial America. Prior to the American Revolution, there was not a single instance in which a major colonial official was assassinated. There was political violence in early America, but it tended to take the form of mob action. Crowds consisting of land hungry frontiersmen, debtor farmers, unskilled seamen, skilled artisans, and business and professional men, engaged in riotous dissent against British colonial officials, profiteering merchants, or Tories. The Stamp Act protests and the Boston Tea party were only the most famous instances of crowd outbursts.

The other major form of political violence in early America was the duel between politically prominent individuals. The best-known political duel took place between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804, but other prominent politicians were also involved in duels, including Benedict Arnold and Andrew Jackson, who participated in dozens of dueling situations and killed one man. One of the last political duels occurred in 1857, when David S. Terry, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, killed U.S. Senator David C. Broderick in a dispute over the issue of slavery. It was not until Richard Lawrence attempted to murder President Jackson that assassination appeared in the United States.

Political assassinations in the U.S. have tended to occur during periods of civil strife. The assault on President Jackson coincided with the first sharp upsurge in civil violence in U.S. history. Where there had been just seven acts of mob violence in the 1810s and 21 incidents in the 1820s, the number rose to 115 in the 1830s, before declining steeply in the 1840s. Riots, mobs, and lynchings took place in all parts of the country during the '30s, from "the burning suns" of the South, in Abraham Lincoln's words, to "the eternal snows" of New England. "Many of the people," declared Niles' Register, "...are 'out of joint.' A spirit of riot or a disposition to 'take the law into their own hands' prevails in every quarter." Rapid urban growth, a large transient urban population, ethnic conflict, and the disruption of local economic markets all contributed to social turbulence. Mobs, often led by prominent doctors, lawyers, merchants, bankers, judges, and other "gentlemen of property and standing," attacked abolitionists in New York and Boston, burned convents in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, assaulted Irish workers in Maryland, harassed Mormons in Ohio and Missouri, hanged gamblers and prostitutes in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and razed homes in black neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Providence.

A new wave of political violence and murder swept the nation during the decade and a half following Abraham Lincoln's assassination on Good Friday of 1865. Between 1865 and 1877, 34 political officials were attacked, 24 of them fatally. Among those attacked included a U.S. Senator, two congressional representatives, three state governors, ten state legislators, eight judges, and ten other officeholders. Much of the violence was concentrated in the South (2,000 persons were killed or wounded in Louisiana in the weeks before the 1868 election, 150 were murdered in one Florida county, and in Texas, an army commander reported "Murders of Negroes are so common as to render it impossible to keep accurate accounts of them"). This wave of political violence ended in 1881, when President James A. Garfield was assassinated by Charles A. Guiteau, a frustrated office seeker, four months after his inauguration.

In the twentieth century, there have been three peak periods of political violence and assassination. The first occurred at the turn of the century, a period of bitter labor strife, widespread lynching, and six major race riots. A second eruption of civil violence occurred during the late 1920s and 1930s, stimulated by bootlegging and the Depression.

Political violence reached a new peak during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. Attacks were made on four of six Presidents (one successfully, one nearly so). Among those murdered were three U.S. ambassadors, a Presidential aspirant (Robert Kennedy in l968), a neo-Nazi (George Lincoln Rockwell), a rock star (John Lennon), and three black leaders (Malcolm X, Medgar Evars, and Martin Luther King).

Who are the individuals who have attempted to murder our national leaders? Have they tended to be alienated, psychotic misfits, living on the margins of society and craving publicity? Or have they tended to be rational individuals with clearly defined political goals? In general, Presidential assailants have tended to be outsiders, unusually sensitive to the political cults or sensations of the time. Few have had steady employment (only two of eleven worked regularly in the year leading up to the assassination attempt). Only one was married with children. A large number were immigrants or children of immigrants (seven of eleven). Few carefully planned their assault (all but two fired pistols, which are only effective at close range).

Assassins' motives have ranged across a wide spectrum. Some have clearly been mentally deranged, like Richard Lawrence or John Schrank, who wounded Theodore Roosevelt as the ex-President ran for a third term in 1912, or John Hinckley, Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan and three other men in 1981. Schrank claimed the shooting was ordered by President William McKinley's ghost as punishment for Roosevelt's attempt to establish a dictatorship. Hinckley, a jury found, lacked the ability to control his actions because he suffered from a mental delusion involving actress Jodie Foster.

Other assassins had clear political or ideological motives for their crimes but suffered from a paranoid or schizophrenic style of thinking and chose their victim almost at random. Giuseppe Zangara, a 32-year old Italian bricklayer, who shot at President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 but killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead, believed that the U.S. government was hostile to immigrant radicals. He originally planned to shoot Herbert Hoover before he read in a Miami newspaper that President-elect Franklin Roosevelt would be in town the next day. Samuel Byck, a 44-year old Philadelphian, was angry at the Small Business Administration when he rushed a gate at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 1974 and killed a security guard in an aborted attempt to seize an airliner and stage a kamikaze-style attack on the White House.

Only a small number of assassination attempts have been motivated by ideology, such as John Wilkes Booth's assault on President Lincoln in 1865 or anarchist Leon Czolgosz against William McKinley in 1901 (declared Czolgosz, "I don't believe in the Republican form of government and I don't believe we should have any rulers. It is right to kill them").

In only two cases was the assassin a member of an organized conspiracy: in 1865, when John Wilkes Booth and five other men plotted to assassinate President Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, and in 1950, when two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, protesting American dominance of their country, attempted to shoot their way into President Harry Truman's temporary residence at Blair House. Even in these instances, however, there was no plan to seize control of the government or alter government policies - the traditional goals of a political conspiracy.

Have assassinations altered the course of American history? Yes, but not in the way that the assassins desired. Rarely has the assassin's political goal been realized. Sirhan Sirhan murdered Robert Kennedy to protest the Democrat's support for Israel, but the man who was elected to office, Richard Nixon, was himself a staunch supporter of the Jewish state and provided indispensable aid to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King failed to derail the civil rights movement.

The very heinousness of the crime has often led to a reaction against the assassin's objectives. John Wilkes Booth was dumb-founded by the reaction to his murder of President Lincoln. He expected to be celebrated in the South, but he was shocked to find himself repudiated. As he wrote in his diary, "A country that groaned beneath his tyranny and prayed for this end and yet now behold the cold hand they extend me."

It was not an historical accident that America's plague of assassinations began with an attack on Andrew Jackson. As President, the old General succeeded in shifting political authority away from Congress to the office of the Presidency. He also succeeded in popularizing the notion that the Chief Executive was the true representative of the American people. By increasing the emphasis that the nation places on the Presidency, Jackson made the office an increasingly important symbol for Americans but also a ready target for disgruntled individuals. Throughout American history, assassins have exhibited little animosity or even interest in the individual who holds the Presidency. Instead, by striking at a President they have sought to attack a symbol and an office.

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