ON JANUARY 30, 1835, as Andrew Jackson exited a congressman's funeral, an assassin drew a gun and pointed it at the president. The pistol misfired. The gunman pulled a second weapon from his cloak. Though loaded, it too failed to fire. The cane-wielding commander in chief and several bystanders subdued the would-be killer, an unemployed housepainter named Richard Lawrence. Lawrence later informed interrogators that he was King Richard III, that Jackson had killed his father, and that with Jackson dead "money would be more plenty." He was judged insane and committed to an asylum, where he died three decades later. Lawrence was a lone nut.
Or at least that was the official story. It wasn't long before two witnesses filed affidavits claiming to have seen Lawrence at the home of the Mississippi senator George Poindexter shortly before the attack. Poindexter was a noisy opponent of the Jackson administration, and pro-Jackson newspapers accused the senator of plotting the president's murder. So did Jackson's allies in Congress, who quickly convened an investigation. Jackson himself told bystanders after the assault that the shooter had "been hired by that damned rascal Poindexter to assassinate me."
Some of Jackson's critics countered by suggesting that the president had staged the assault to gain public support and that this explained why both weapons had failed. And many Jacksonians pointed their fingers at John Calhoun, the South Carolina senator and former vice president, arguing that if he had not been directly involved in the assassination attempt, he had at the very least incited it with a speech denouncing Jackson as an American Caesar.
When the Republican writer John Smith Dye described the crime 29 years later, he saw an even more devilish plot at work. Calhoun might not have been directly involved in the assault, Dye conceded--or then again, maybe he was. Either way, Dye believed that Calhoun had belonged to a Southern cabal that would have benefited if Jackson had been put in the ground. The Slave Power, Dye informed his readers, was more than willing to kill a powerful man to get its way.
In 1841, for example, President William Henry Harrison told Calhoun he wasn't sure he was willing to annex Texas, which Southerners wanted to add to the union as a slave state. Harrison promptly died--officially of pneumonia, but Dye was sure that arsenic was to blame. Nine years later, Dye continued, President Zachary Taylor was poisoned because he opposed the Slave Power's agenda in Cuba and the Southwest. And when President-elect James Buchanan prepared to make some appointments of which the slaveocrats disapproved, Dye declared, Southern agents poisoned all the bowls containing lump sugar at the National Hotel in Washington. Southerners, he explained, drink coffee; coffee drinkers use pulverized sugar; so the Southern diners would be spared while the tea-drinking Northern diners, including Buchanan, would be wiped out. Buchanan survived, Dye wrote, but he was intimidated into becoming "the tool of the slave power."
There is little evidence for Dye's explosive charges. But when his book The Adder's Den was published in 1864, the country was at war with the South, and when an expanded edition appeared two years later, the nation was still reeling from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In that atmosphere, a book that feels like a 1970s conspiracy thriller set in the antebellum era received a respectful notice in The New York Times and was excerpted in the Chicago Tribune.
Dye did not invent his theories from nothing: He drew on rumors that had been floating through Whig and Republican circles for years. And other Northerners worried about Southern conspiracies without taking their fears as far as Dye. Lincoln himself believed he could "clearly see" a "powerful plot to make slavery universal and perpetual," and in his famous "house divided" speech he engaged freely in conspiratorial speculation. Meanwhile, Southerners had elaborate conspiracy theories of their own, blaming slave revolts, both real and imagined, on the machinations of rebellion-stoking abolitionists, treacherous land pirates, and other outside agitators.
It was a paranoid time. In America, it is always a paranoid time.
Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that...