As George Washington took the reins of government as the first President of the United States, some thought it would be wise to create a permanent protective detail for the chief executive. The idea was dismissed, however. Since the President was chosen by the will of the people, it was unthinkable that anyone would attempt to remove him from office by assassination. The ballot box provided an easier — and more civilized — way to get rid of unwanted political leaders.
This theory held true throughout the terms of the first six presidents. Then, in 1833, the country’s idealism was challenged when it faced its first assault upon a president. How it took place is quite a story. Fortunately, one of the greatest storytellers in U.S. history was present and took a hands-on role in the events.
On May 6, 1833, President Andrew Jackson was aboard the steamboat Cygnet, on his way to Fredericksburg. The purpose of the trip was a ceremony to dedicate a monument to Mary Washington, the mother of the nation’s first president.
The president was accompanied on the trip by several friends and representatives of the federal government. As the presidential party stopped for a brief layover in Alexandria, Virginia, Jackson remained aboard and prepared to receive the inevitable visitors who sought a moment of the President’s time.
The first person to reach the President was Robert B. Randolph. Recently dismissed from the Navy on suspicion of embezzlement, Randolph had a bone to pick with the commander-in-chief. When Randolph reached Jackson, he began to pull off his gloves. Jackson, unaware of the man’s intent, told him not to worry about the gloves, and extended his hand for a handshake.
This is where accounts start to vary a bit. Some say this is the point where Randolph slapped the President with his gloves. Others say he slapped him with his bare hand. Most witnesses insisted that they saw the man reach out and pull the President’s nose.
Those in the immediate vicinity jumped upon Randolph. One member of the President’s party struck the assailant with an umbrella. Two others seized the man and pulled him away from Jackson.
Jackson, quickly recovering from the unexpected attack, jumped to his feet, grabbed his cane, and commanded everyone to let go of his attacker. “By the Eternal!” he declared, he would deal with the man himself.
Randolph took immediate advantage of his release and quickly ran from the boat. The President, cane raised high, immediately gave chase. He was assisted in the pursuit by other members of the presidential party. One, in particular, was famed author Washington Irving.
One can only wonder if the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow watched his President and friend give chase to fight his own battles and was reminded of the words he had written about Ichabod Crane: “He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvelous and his powers of digesting it were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.”
The Providence, Rhode Island newspaper, The Microcosm, reported the incident as follows:
The Washington Globe of Tuesday last, gives the following account of “a most disgraceful assault made upon the President of the United States, by Lieut. R.B. Randolph late of the U.S. Navy. Randolph has recently been tried by a Court Martial and acquitted; soon after which his name was stricken from the rolls of the Navy, by order of the President. The Journal of Commerce well remarks — Public opinion has heretofore proved a better bodyguard to the President, than armed cohorts to the sovereigns of Europe; and strangers to the genius of our institutions have wondered at the secret charm by which this inviolability was preserved. Alas! We can no longer boast of its preservation. In one moment, Lieut. Randolph has done more to disgrace the nation, than he ever did for his honor; more than he could do if he had a thousand lives to live.
A gentleman just arrived from Alexandria, gives the following account of an atrocious assault upon the President of the U. States, as he was yesterday on his way to Fredericksburg.
“The steamboat Cygnet, in which the President and several members of the Cabinet, accompanied by many other gentlemen, were going to Fredericksburg, stopped on her way for a few minutes at Alexandria. — Many persons from the wharf came on board, and among them Randolph, late a Lieutenant in the Navy. He made his way into the cabin, where the President was sitting, reading a newspaper, and advancing towards him as if to address him, began to draw off his gloves. The President not knowing him, and supposing it was some person about to salute him, and seeing him at some difficulty in getting off his glove, stretched out his hand towards him, saying, Never mind your glove, sir. Randolph, having then disengaged himself from his gloves, thrust one hand violently into the President’s face, and before he could make use of the other, received a blow from a gentleman standing near with an umbrella. Almost at the same time, two other gentlemen in the cabin sprung upon him, and he was pulled back and thrown down. The moment the President was assaulted he seized his cane which was lying near him on the table, and was forcing his way through the gentlemen who had now crowded round Randolph, insisting that no man should stand between him and the villain who had insulted him — that he would chastise him himself. Randolph by this time had been borne towards the door of the cabin, and pushed through it to the deck. He made his way through the crowd on the deck and on the wharf, being assisted as it is believed by some ruffian confederates, and made his escape. He stopped for a few minutes at a tavern in Alexandria and passed on beyond the District line. The Grand Jury, then in session, in a few minutes found a presentment against him, and the Court issued a Bench Warrant. A Magistrate had just previously issued a Warrant, but before the officers could arrest him he was gone.”
Ultimately, Jackson declined to press charges against Randolph. Old Hickory much preferred dealing with troublesome people on his own. It was for this reason that the first attack on a President went unanswered. Two years later, he would also become the first chief executive to survive an assassination attempt — but that’s a story for another day.