Since the birth of our nation and the election of the first president, groups of organized plotters or individuals have been determined to assassinate the chief executive. From the Founding Fathers to the Great Depression, three presidents have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. However, unknown to the general public, almost all presidents have been threatened, put in danger, or survived “near lethal approaches” during their terms. Plotting to Kill the President reveals the numerous, previously untold incidents when assassins, plotters, and individuals have threatened the lives of American presidents, from George Washington to Herbert Hoover. Mel Ayton has uncovered these episodes, including an attempt to assassinate President Hayes during his inauguration ceremony, an attempt to shoot Benjamin Harrison on the streets of Washington, an assassination attempt on President Roosevelt at the White House, and many other incidents that have never been reported or have been covered up. Ayton also recounts the stories of Secret Service agents and bodyguards from each administration who put their lives in danger to protect the commander in chief. Plotting to Kill the President demonstrates the unsettling truth that even while the nation sleeps, those who would kill the president are often hard at work devising new schemes.
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About the Author
Mel Ayton is the author of numerous books, including Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts—From FDR to Obama and The Forgotten Terrorist: Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (Potomac, 2008), and was a history consultant for the BBC, the National Geographic channel, and the Discovery Channel.
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Plotting to Kill the President
Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover
By Mel Ayton
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Mel Ayton
All rights reserved.
Guarding the Early Presidents
[There is] a solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society, unaffected by the superficial changes of religion and culture.
— Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough
No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man grateful and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow.
— John Adams
At the founding of the United States, Americans were proud that their chief executive was not surrounded by an armed guard or the presence of regal trappings. They saw Europe as a place where monarchs and dictators feared their subjects and required armed protection when they exited their palaces. Americans believed in the exceptional nature of their government, and to accept protection for the president would be to acknowledge that America was no different from the despotic regimes in Europe.
America's leaders also feared they would be perceived as having erected barriers between themselves and the people if they chose to have bodyguards. A children's primer that was popular during the Civil War illustrated American "exceptionalism" with reference to how the president was protected:
How are emperors and kings protected?
By great troops of guards; so that it is difficult to approach them.
How is the president guarded?
He needs no guards at all; he may be visited by any persons like a private citizen.
The nature of presidential protection in the early nineteenth century was therefore virtually nonexistent. Although the early presidents were at times the objects of abuse and received numerous threatening letters, they did not, on the whole, take the threats seriously and moved about freely without protective escorts.
The American republic and its leaders were, from the beginning, split on the issue of how the American president should interact with his constituency. Although George Washington and Thomas Jefferson shared a view of where the capital of the new American republic should be located, they had very different opinions about the nature of the presidency. Should the president act as a king or a commoner? By 1791, for example, Washington came under severe criticism for his receptions at the White House, which were described as "monarchical." However, the first president believed that sumptuous state ceremonies enhanced respect for the new republic among other nations. Jefferson, on the other hand, was "careful in every particular of his personal conduct to inculcate upon the people his ... unwillingness to admit the smallest distinction that may separate him from the mass of his fellow citizens," according to a British diplomat.
An early dispute about the role of the "first citizen" centered on the chief executive's new home. The original plans for the new city of Washington DC called for a "presidential palace" five times the size of the building we now know as the White House. The plan reflected the Federalist Party's monarchical idea of the presidency. Federalist Party leaders argued that Americans wanted their president to act as a kind of elected king, set apart from the people. The republican opposition, led by Jefferson, despised any notion that the president should act as a monarch or that he should live in a home with aristocratic airs like the European monarchs. Jefferson's political principles sought to deflect the aristocratic and elitist attitudes of the Federalists and portray instead the openness and liberty that was associated with the common American. Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party (as it was then known) characterized the Federalist position as unbefitting a true democracy based on equality and a classless society. A modest way of living, they believed, reflected the spirit of the age. "Kings live in parks," they argued, and "presidents live on streets." (In 1800, Jefferson was elected, in part, by publicizing fears about the Federalists' "monarchical aspirations.")
Because the Democratic-Republicans considered the idea of a presidential palace antidemocratic, they rejected any effort to deny public entry to the "People's House," and access was, from the beginning, a security problem. Even while the White House was being built, the public wandered in and out without being challenged. In Jefferson's time, and for generations afterward, citizens used the White House grounds for picnics, walks, and even public fairs.
Foreign travel for a president was also considered to be against the ideals of the nation because citizens were fearful that their president might be seduced into imitating the ways of European monarchy if he visited their palaces. As well, the idea of stationing guards in and around the White House was considered wholly inappropriate to the nation's character. However, although the American people and their leaders prided themselves on the absence of a royal guard at the White House, it gradually became imperative that some form of security should be installed. Unruly visitors and office seekers, who were taking up the president's time, mandated it. Beginning in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, increasing restrictions on public access to the White House were imposed, due largely to concerns for the personal security of the president and his family.
However, for a century after John Adams first moved into the White House, the protection of the mansion and its residents remained a relatively minor concern, except during wartime. As time passed, various combinations of police officers, guards, and soldiers furnished security for the president's home.
Until early in the twentieth century, security for the president at the White House consisted mainly of guards in civilian dress. In addition to the guards, a doorkeeper was assigned to maintain watch in the entrance hall. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson were against it. James Monroe was in favor of the security. Although the doorkeeper was not armed, he always had firearms close to hand. It was not until the Tyler administration that a permanent company of guards was established to protect the president and the White House.
The arguments about how the president should live and how the White House should be secured soon extended to how the president's person should be protected. Today, protection is seen as a form of "legitimacy." In the time of the founding fathers, the idea of a bodyguard was viewed as a weakness. Citizens were also concerned that the introduction of a Praetorian Guard in the style of ancient Rome might embolden the president to use it as a standing army against his opponents.
From the beginning, American presidents wanted to avoid the martial displays that were common in other countries when it came to protecting a head of state. The aim was for a president to lead an independent life that simple citizenship secured, going and coming just like every other American — walking abroad, strolling through the streets, driving with his family and unattended by guards or detectives. The presidents also believed that America was different from European nations and therefore should not fear that one of its citizens would kill their democratically elected leader.
The absence of any fear for the president's safety also resided in the fact that the country had only a small population. The year Jefferson entered the White House, the population of the United States was 5,308,473, nine-tenths of which resided east of the Alleghenies. Eighty percent of the population lived in the countryside, and the absence of public transport for the common man resulted in only a small number of people who could travel to meet with the president.
The early presidents also did not go electioneering, as the public considered it unseemly. This meant that the president did not place himself in harm's way by exposing himself to danger in large crowds. It was indeed a paradox. The American people did not want their president acting like a king, but neither did they want him campaigning like an ordinary politician.
Additionally, while the lives of the presidents were widely publicized, their faces were not. They went about their business unrecognized for most of the time. Each day at 1:00 p.m., Thomas Jefferson liked to go horseback riding, usually riding alone. Few knew his identity when he often stopped to converse with locals. On one occasion, a man who did not recognize Jefferson told him how angry he was with the president. Jefferson invited him to the White House. In 1817 James Monroe and his aides called at an inn in Altona, New York, and went unrecognized until the president revealed his identity during supper. On a visit to New York City in 1847, James Polk was frequently mistaken for his traveling companion, Alabama senator Dixon Hall. However, with the advent of new inventions like the daguerreotype and photography and the publication of the presidents' portraits in the press, the risk of assassination increased. The first photograph of a president was not taken until the 1840s, however, and not until the end of the nineteenth century did the press publish the president's photograph.
Despite the belief among American citizens and their leaders in Congress that the president need not fear assassination, threats on the lives of American presidents were a constant. Individuals or groups who attempted to kill American leaders or threatened assassination can be traced back to the time of George Washington.
Washington did not hire personal guards, even though he received his fair share of abuse and threatening letters. An article published in a New York newspaper accused him of being a thief, allegedly overdrawing his salary by $5,000. During one presidential campaign he was accused of being a murderer, and John Randolph of Roanoke once toasted Washington with, "George Washington, may he be damned."
Washington was deeply hurt by some letters that impugned his character. He wrote, "Every act of my administration had been attacked in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be a Nero ... or even a common pickpocket." Washington was also excoriated in the press. By the end of his term he "was beset by unmerited censures of the vilest kind."
Although no overt attempts were made to kill Washington during his two terms as president, he did place himself in harm's way when he personally led a federalized militia force of approximately fifteen thousand troops to quell the Whiskey Rebellion during his second term. But in the relatively bloodless conflict, Washington was not present during any of the skirmishing.
Washington also eschewed any efforts to protect him on his travels. When a Charleston artillery battalion offered to guard the president during his visit to the city in 1791, Washington declined, saying he "considered himself perfectly safe in the affection and amicable attachment of the people."
However, Washington had many brushes with death long before he became commander in chief of the revolutionary army and president of the republic. In 1753, during the French and Indian War, the twenty-two-year-old Washington volunteered to be the messenger who would deliver to the French an ultimatum demanding they cease encroaching on English-held territory. On his journey to Pittsburgh, the crude raft on which Washington and his party hoped to float to the French-held Fort LeBoeuf began to sink. Washington, a nonswimmer, escaped death as the raft sank in the icy waters of the Alleghany River. Later, during the expedition, an Indian guide, who had been secretly allied with the French, pointed his rifle at Washington and fired. However, the shot missed.
The following year, during the same conflict, Lt. Col. Washington volunteered to lead a party of men to establish an outpost against the French. Leading a surprise attack, a man close to him was killed and several others wounded.
Months later, Washington fought with Gen. Edward Braddock during his crushing defeat by the French in the Battle of Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) in 1755. As Washington continued to fight in the battle, Braddock was killed and Washington took command of the troops as all the other officers had been killed or disabled. Washington's hat was knocked off his head by a bullet, and two horses shot from under him. At the end of the campaign his clothing had four bullet holes. Washington wrote to his brother, "By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet I escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side."
Fifteen years later, in 1770, Washington returned to the same Pennsylvania woods where the battle was fought. There he met one of his adversaries, an Indian chief who had traveled a great distance to meet his opponent. The chief told Washington that a "mightier power" had shielded Washington during the battle when Indian warriors had him in their sights. "The Great Spirit protects that man," the chief said, "and guides his destinies — he will become the chief of nations and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire."
However, Washington's closest call, it can be argued, occurred when he was leading American forces in the War of Independence. On September 11, 1777, an army of 12,500 British troops marched through Pennsylvania toward Philadelphia. Capt. Patrick Ferguson, a thirty-three-year-old Scotsman, commanded the British sharpshooters. He was reputed to be the Redcoats' best shot. When Ferguson spotted a group of soldiers, he aimed his rifle at Washington but decided not to shoot because "it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty." Ferguson said he could have "lodged half a dozen balls in or about him before Washington was out of his reach," but he "let him alone."
As leader of the revolutionary army, Washington was the target of an alleged assassination/kidnap plot. In June 1776, the battles at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, and Ticonderoga had been decided. But still undecided was the question of what the battles were really all about. Were the colonies fighting to secure a more enlightened British rule, or were they fighting to become a free and independent nation?
Washington was aware of the divided sentiments of his fellow citizens and was also fully aware that many of them, including the mayor of New York, felt loyalty to the Crown. However, Washington was unaware that there were British sympathizers within the Continental army, also serving close to him in high positions.
Washington's personal guard, which had been formed in 1776, had been handpicked not only for their skills as soldiers but also because they were considered to be devoted to the American cause. The strength of the guard was usually around 180 men.
In the spring of 1776, Washington and his army marched to New York City for an anticipated attempt by the British to occupy the city. When they arrived in New York, two of Washington's honor guards, Thomas Hickey and Michael Lynch, were arrested for passing counterfeit money.
During their incarceration, the two men confessed to prisoners Israel Youngs and Isaac Ketchum that they were British loyalists and had secretly enlisted in the British army. They said the Royal Navy was soon to invade New York and American defectors like themselves were going to blow up the King's Bridge, which was the only route to the mainland. Other conspirators, including another eight soldiers in the honor guard, would raid munitions depots. Washington's forces would be trapped on Manhattan Island, surrounded by thirty thousand British soldiers and several hundred ships. David Matthews, the mayor of the city, and William Tryon, the governor of New York, were allegedly part of the conspiracy and had financed the plot.
Isaac Ketchum informed the authorities, and the Provincial Congress of New York acted quickly. By June 22 every known conspirator was rounded up, including New York's mayor, but the governor had fled and Washington's troops were unable to find him. Over the course of the next three days, Michael Lynch and two other accomplices agreed to give evidence against Thomas Hickey in exchange for leniency. At the court martial they gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy and tried to recruit additional participants. However, the trial proceedings indicate that Hickey had only a minor role in the conspiracy. Hickey himself said he was only participating in the plot as a ruse and insurance against being executed if the British overran the city.
Although all the conspirators were arrested, Hickey was the only one put on trial. At Hickey's court-martial he was found guilty of treason. He was hanged on a wooden scaffold near New York's Bowery on June 28, 1776, before a crowd of twenty thousand spectators. Many members of the crowd were soldiers instructed by Washington to observe the execution as a warning to any potential traitors. Hickey was the first American executed for treason.
Excerpted from Plotting to Kill the President by Mel Ayton. Copyright © 2017 Mel Ayton. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface: New Revelations 1. Guarding the Early Presidents 2. The First Attack on an American President 3. The Antebellum Presidents 4. Protecting Abraham Lincoln 5. The Reconstruction Presidents 6. James Garfield’s Assassination and Chester Arthur’s “Near Miss” 7. The Attempted Assassination of Benjamin Harrison 8. The Plots to Kill Grover Cleveland 9. The Anarchists and William McKinley 10. The Assassination Attempts against Theodore Roosevelt 11. Targeting William Howard Taft 12. The Stalking of Woodrow Wilson 13. Harding, Coolidge, and the Secret Service 14. The Argentinean Plot to Assassinate Herbert Hoover Afterword: Notoriety, the Copycat Effect, and Presidential Secrecy Notes Bibliography Index