Home inFocus What Makes America (Fall 2022) Aiming at the President, Not the Government

Aiming at the President, Not the Government

Ralph Nurnberger Fall 2022
President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton moments before he was shot on March 30, 1981.

Throughout American history, there have been numerous plots and efforts to assassinate American presidents, vice presidents, leading candidates for the presidency and even a former president.

The first known attack on a sitting president took place on Jan. 30, 1835, when a house painter named Richard Lawrence attempted to shoot President Andrew Jackson. Both of Lawrence’s pistols misfired.

Six American presidents were shot. Four were murdered during their terms in office: Abraham Lincoln in 1865; James A. Garfield in 1881; William McKinley in 1901; and John F. Kennedy 1963. Ronald Reagan was severely wounded in 1981 and former president Theodore Roosevelt was shot while he was campaigning to regain the White House in 1912.

Common Characteristics

Although the personal backgrounds and motives of the various assailants differed significantly, there are common characteristics.

The overarching – and remarkable – commonality is that, unlike political assassins in other countries, none of the American assailants were seeking to overthrow the existing form of government and only one sought to change the policies of the government.

None of the American attackers were active in political parties or supported alternative political leaders who could replace a murdered president. With the exception of the plot to assassinate Lincoln, the attempts focused only on the designated victim and not a desire to promote political objectives. In fact, since vice presidents who assume office if a president dies in office are of the same political party, killing a president alone would likely not bring about significant changes in policies.

All of the American assailants were either apprehended quickly or sought to flee rather than become leaders of any political movement. Two of the assassins, John Wilkes Booth who shot Lincoln and Lee Harvey Oswald who shot Kennedy, were themselves shot and killed a few days after they murdered the president.

With the exception of the two women who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford, all of the assassins were men. Most used some form of firearm. With the exception of John Wilkes Booth who had assembled a small band of conspirators, all of the others acted alone. Booth, a well-known actor, was the only one of the assassins who was not in poor economic straits at the time of their acts of violence and he is also an outlier when it comes to motive – seeking revenge for Confederate losses in the Civil War. All of the other assailants provided incoherent explanations for their actions, which led many to be accused of mental instability.

Abraham Lincoln

A sniper shot at President Abraham Lincoln in August 1864 when he was traveling from the White House to the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC. The lone rifle shot passed harmlessly through Lincoln’s hat.

John Wilkes Booth had collaborated with the Confederate secret service during the Civil War. He had originally developed a plan to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners being held by the Union Army. The kidnap plot was no longer viable after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

Five days later, Lincoln and his wife Mary attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

The guard who had been assigned to sit outside the president’s box had left his post, which enabled Booth to enter behind Lincoln. Using a .44-caliber Derringer pistol, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head. The president never regained consciousness and died the next morning.

After the shooting, Booth evaded Union soldiers for 12 days, at which time he was killed hiding in a barn about 70 miles south of Washington.

James A. Garfield

On Saturday, July 2, 1881, less than four months after he took office, President James A. Garfield was shot twice while waiting to board a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, DC.

One bullet grazed the president’s shoulder, and the other pierced his back. Garfield’s doctors, especially his self-appointed chief physician Doctor Willard Bliss, probed the wound with their fingers and unsterilized instruments, which eventually led to infections. Garfield survived for 11 weeks enduring ever increasing pain. He died on Sept. 19, 1881.

His assailant was a lawyer named Charles J. Guiteau who was immediately arrested after the shooting. During his trial, he explained that he shot Garfield because he felt he deserved to have received a high-level appointment from the new administration in gratitude for his efforts during the campaign.

Guiteau, having been found guilty, was hanged on June 30, 1882.

William McKinley

President William McKinley was shot and killed while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY on Sept. 6, 1901. Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, was armed with a .32 caliber revolver.

At first, it appeared that McKinley would recover from his wound, but his condition worsened when gangrene set in. He died on Sept. 14.

Czolgosz claimed to have been impressed by a number of political assassinations that had taken place in Europe. He refused to defend himself and was executed on Oct. 29, 1901.

In 1906, Congress authorized the Secret Service to protect the president. In 1917, Congress passed a law making it a federal felony to threaten the chief executive.

Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt was the only president to be shot after he left the White House. He was followed in 1909 by William Howard Taft, who was threatened by a 52-year-old man named Julius Bergerson in Minneapolis. Bergerson was declared insane and sent to an asylum.

Roosevelt became disenchanted with Taft and decided to run against him in 1912. After Taft was renominated by the Republican Party, Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party, which soon became known as the “Bull Moose Party.”

Campaigning in Milwaukee, WI on Oct. 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a saloonkeeper named John Flammang Schrank. Roosevelt had a 50-page campaign document and a metal glasses case in his breast pocket. These slowed the bullet and saved his life.

Remarkably, Roosevelt refused to go immediately to the hospital. Instead, he gave an 84-minute speech even though blood was clearly visible on his shirt. He began this speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

The ex-president returned to the campaign trail after only two weeks.

Schrank was found legally insane and institutionalized until his death in 1943.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Seventeen days before Franklin Delano Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration, an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara fired five shots at the president-elect.

On Feb. 15, 1933, Roosevelt had been giving an impromptu speech from the back of an open car in the Bayfront Park area of Miami, FL. Zangara hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and four other people. Roosevelt was unhurt, but Cermak died, and the others were injured. During his trial, Zangara pled guilty to the murder of Cermak but did not provide any additional information. He was executed on March 20, 1933.

Harry S. Truman

On Nov. 1, 1950, President Harry S. Truman was the target of an assassination attempt by two pro-Puerto Rican independence nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola. President Truman was then living at the Blair House, as the White House was undergoing major renovations.

In the ensuing gunfight, White House policeman Leslie Coffelt and Torresola were killed. Collazo wounded an officer before being shot in the stomach. Truman was upstairs in the Blair House and was not harmed.

Collazo was tried and received the death sentence, which Truman then commuted to life in prison. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter further commuted Collazo’s sentence to time served.

John F. Kennedy

After winning the presidential election in Nov. 1960, President-elect John Kennedy vacationed in Palm Beach, FL. On Dec. 11, Richard Paul Pavlick, a 73-year-old former postal worker, intended to crash his dynamite-laden Buick into Kennedy’s vehicle. He changed his mind after seeing Kennedy with his wife and young daughter.

Pavlick was arrested three days later by the Secret Service. The police found the dynamite in his car and arrested him after he admitted that he was driven by hatred of Catholics. He was committed to a mental hospital and later indicted for threatening Kennedy’s life. Pavlick was released in 1966.

Kennedy became the fourth president to be murdered when he was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, TX, during a presidential motorcade. Kennedy was sitting next to his wife, Jacqueline, when he was shot once in the back, the bullet exiting via his throat, and once in the head.

The shots were fired by former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald, perched in a sixth floor window in the Texas School Book Depository. After a chase and an altercation in which Dallas policeman J. D. Tippit was killed, Oswald was arrested and charged with the assassination of Kennedy and the murder of Tippit. Oswald maintained his innocence.

On Sunday, November 24, Oswald was shot fatally by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transferred from the city jail to the county jail. Ruby said he was motivated by grief at the death of President Kennedy and his concern that this event took place in Dallas. Ruby was convicted of Oswald’s murder, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. In 1967, Ruby died in prison while awaiting a new trial.

Richard Nixon & George Wallace

President Richard Nixon was the target of a number of assassination plots.

Arthur Bremer was a former part-time janitor at an elementary school, who had previously been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. A court-appointed psychiatrist declared Bremer mentally ill, yet stable enough to continue to live in the community. On March 1, the then-unemployed Bremer wrote in his diary that “It is my personal plan to assassinate by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace.”

Bremer intended to shoot Nixon on April 13, 1972, but the president’s car went by too fast for him to get a good shot. He tried again the next day but was not able to get close enough.

A few weeks later, he shot and seriously injured Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was campaigning in the Democratic presidential primary in Maryland. Three other people were unintentionally wounded. Wallace survived but was paralyzed from the waist down until his death in 1998. Bremer served 35 years in prison for shooting Wallace.

Another attempt on the life of President Nixon was carried out by Samuel Byck, who was suffering from severe bouts of depression after his wife divorced him and he endured several job-related financial failures. Byck concluded that Richard Nixon’s policies were the cause of his misfortunes.

In early 1974, Byck decided to assassinate Nixon by hijacking an airliner and crashing it into the White House. He stole a revolver to use in the hijacking and also made a bomb out of two gallon jugs of gasoline and an igniter. He made audio recordings explaining his motives and plans. He expected to be considered a hero for his actions and wanted to fully document his plan.

On Feb. 22, 1974, he attempted to hijack a plane at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, intending to crash into the White House in the hopes of killing Nixon. During the incident, Byck killed a policeman and a pilot, but was shot and wounded by another policeman before committing suicide.

Gerald Ford

President Gerald Ford was not injured during two assassination attempts, both carried out by women.

On Sept. 5, 1975, President Ford was greeting people near the California State Capitol. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, leader of a murderous cult, drew a pistol when he reached to shake her hand. Fromme was sentenced to life in prison but was released on Aug. 14, 2009.

On Sept. 22, 1975, in San Francisco, 17 days after Fromme’s failed attempt, Sara Jane Moore fired a revolver at Ford from 40 feet away. Just as she was set to shoot, a bystander grabbed Moore’s arm and the shot missed Ford.

Moore was tried and convicted in federal court and sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled on Dec. 31, 2007.

Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter was targeted by Raymond Lee Harvey, an unemployed man with a history of mental illness. Harvey was arrested on May 5, 1979, while carrying a pistol to the Civic Center Mall in Los Angeles where Carter was to give a speech. Harvey claimed that he was part of a plot to assassinate Carter. Together with a 21-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, Osvaldo Espinoza Ortiz, Harvey was arrested and jailed, but ultimately released for a lack of evidence.

Ronald Reagan

On March 30, 1981, after Reagan gave a speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel, John Hinckley Jr. fired six gunshots toward him, striking the president and three others, including press secretary James Brady, who suffered permanent brain damage.

Reagan was seriously wounded. When he reached George Washington University Hospital, doctors concluded that the president was “close to death.” He underwent emergency surgery and was released from the hospital on April 11.

Hinckley was arrested at the scene. He later explained that he had wanted to kill Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. He was deemed mentally ill and confined to an institution. Hinckley was released from institutional psychiatric care in 2016 and from all oversight this year.

George H.W. Bush

President George H. W. Bush may have been the target of an assassination plot after he left the White House, the first attempt of foreign origin. In April 1993, former President Bush visited Kuwait to commemorate the U.S.-led victory over Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War. During Bush’s visit, Kuwaiti authorities arrested 17 people allegedly involved in a plot to kill the president using a car bomb.

Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton was targeted a number of times. Ronald Gene Barbour, a retired military officer, plotted to kill Clinton while the president was jogging. Barbour was sentenced to five years in prison and was released in 1998.

Frank Eugene Corder, a truck driver from Maryland, flew a stolen single-engine Cessna 150 onto the White House lawn and it crashed into a tree Sept. 12, 1994. He was killed in the crash and was the only fatality.

On Oct. 29, 1994, Francisco Martin Duran fired at least 29 shots with a semi-automatic rifle at the White House from a fence overlooking the North Lawn. Three tourists tackled Duran, who was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

George W. Bush

President George W. Bush was the target of a foreign assassination attempt while giving a speech on May 10, 2005, in Tbilisi, Georgia. Vladimir Arutyunian threw a Soviet-made grenade toward the podium. The grenade did not explode; Arutyunian escaped but was arrested in July of that year. During his arrest, he killed an Interior Ministry agent. He was convicted in January 2006 and given a life sentence.

Bush was also targeted in the United States. Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab, an Iraqi citizen who lived in Columbus, OH, was arrested for involvement in an assassination plot. The evidence against him came from conversations he held with several undercover FBI informants where he stated that his motivation was anger over the Iraq War.

Barak Obama

In December 2008, a 20-year-old U.S. Marine, Kody Brittingham, wrote that he planned to assassinate President-elect Barack Obama, whom he identified as a “domestic enemy.” He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 100 months in federal prison in June 2010.

In November 2011, 21-year-old Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez attempted to kill Obama by firing several rounds at the White House from a semi-automatic rifle. No one was injured. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

A far-right terrorist group named “FEAR” plotted to carry out a series of terror attacks in 2011-2012, including the assassination of President Obama. The plot was foiled when four members of the group were arrested on murder charges.

A man diagnosed with mental illness, Mitchell Kusick, was arrested after confessing to his therapist that he intended to kill Obama with a shotgun at a campaign stop in Boulder, CO.

Donald Trump

One of the more bizarre attempts on the life of a president was planned by 42-year-old man Gregory Lee Leingang. He planned to assassinate President Donald Trump in Mandan, ND while Trump was visiting the state to rally public support. Leingang stole a forklift from an oil refinery and drove toward the presidential motorcade. After he was arrested, he admitted his intent to murder the president by flipping the presidential limousine.

Although his defense attorney asked for leniency on grounds of a “serious psychiatric crisis,” Leingang was sentenced to 20 years in prison.


There has been more violence directed at presidents and vice presidents than most American are generally aware of. But the record suggests that while U.S. presidents and presidential candidates often have been targeted by assassins or would-be assassins, such violence has rarely if ever – the Lincoln assassination plot being perhaps a partial exception – been intended to overthrow the American government.

Ralph Nurnberger is a Professor at Georgetown University. He is a frequent speaker for Smithsonian Journeys as well as at the Smithsonian Associates program.