As Americans, we expect our Presidents to reflect us—our values, our beliefs, our toughness. We have always prided ourselves on our ability to overcome as a nation, and we expect the same grit in our leaders. That’s why we have tended to elect our nation’s fiercest warriors; from Washington to Eisenhower to Andrew Jackson.
If ever there was a fighter, it was our seventh president—the hero the Battle of New Orleans and a man who prided himself on his ability to win a fight. His victories in both war and politics are legendary—as he conquered both his enemies and even death itself with ease—but it is his last, closest brush with death that might be his most incredible.
This is the Forgotten History of Old Hickory’s Final Battle.
The old soldier was nearing the end of a lifetime of fighting. He walked slowly now, with a cane to steady himself, but he still—even at 68 years old—had the look of a man who was ready for a fight.
His fighting days were long past, but he still boasted of them often: Barroom brawling and dueling as a young man, fighting the Creek Tribe at Horseshoe Bend, and becoming a national hero in the Battle of New Orleans—a decisive victory over the British that introduced the world to a man whom his soldiers said was as tough as hickory.
Now, though, Old Hickory was feeling old. He was well into his second term as President, and while he had brought his fighting spirit to the White House in battles with Congress, the National Bank, and anyone else who would dare cross him, he often reminisced about his days on the battlefield.
Andrew Jackson longed for one more fight.
On a cold January morning, he put on his coat and grabbed his cane and walked slowly to the U.S. Capitol for a memorial service for a Congressman from South Carolina. After the service ended, he talked for a while with various Representatives and then slowly walked out of the Capitol Rotunda.
Suddenly, a man appeared out of nowhere and stepped in front of the President. Without warning, he brandished a pistol.
Jackson couldn’t believe it. Not only had he survived, he didn’t appear to be injured. But now, he was enraged. His fighting spirit had awakened and the old man charged at his assailant with his cane. Just as suddenly as the first gun appeared, a second pistol emerged from the stranger’s coat.
Again, Jackson was uninjured. He was even angrier, and beat the man with his cane before his aides could wrestle him to the floor.
What had happened? How had Jackson cheated death twice? It appeared to be a miracle. The man fired twice, with two guns, at point blank range. When Jackson’s aides examined them, they realized that both pistols had somehow misfired. The odds of that were nearly impossible. Even more amazingly, both of the guns were in perfect condition. The fact that both failed to fire properly was nothing short of a miracle. The very first Presidential assassination attempt had failed.
The assailant was identified as a mentally ill British man named Richard Lawrence, who told investigators that he was the rightful heir to the throne of England and that he believed Jackson was keeping him from becoming king.
When he went to trial, another first occurred: The jury found Lawrence not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced him not to prison, but life in a mental health facility. The verdict prompted outrage and a fight in Washington, D.C. over whether defendants who try to kill the President should ever again be allowed to plead insanity.
One of those most outraged was Washington’s District Attorney, who prosecuted the case. He believed that the verdict was horrendous, as an attack on the President was an attack on America itself.
And that District Attorney, Francis Scott Key, would know. Years earlier, following the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812—the very same war that cemented Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a fighter—he wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem.