Sadly, it isn’t unusual for a president to be the object of sinister plots and conspiracies. According to sources, the first recorded plot to assassinate a sitting US president was in 1835 when a House painter attempted to shoot Andrew Jackson right on the steps of the US Capitol Building.
This tendency is even more pronounced when the country has been or is involved in a war or conflict of some type. The Civil War was even more polarizing causing numerous attempts by different people to kill or kidnap President Abraham Lincoln. At least twice before 1865, Lincoln was the target of sinister plots on his life (once in 1861 before he took the oath of office and once in 1864 when he was targeted by a sniper while he was visiting a soldier’s home a few miles from the White House).
Those are just the ones that were officially recorded, we know there were several other plots that were never attempted, and thousands of threats made against him during the course of his four-year term in office.
The problem has remained the same in the 150 years since John Wilkes Booth succeeded in murdering President of the United States for the first time ever. Since 1865, there have been at least 24 attempts on the life of the sitting president, and likely more that we don’t know about. That doesn’t include the three successful assassinations since President Lincoln was killed.
The point is that protecting the president is very difficult, even in modern times when the Secret Service is dedicated almost entirely to that one task alone. However, the problem is that the United States Secret Service was only created in July of 1865, almost three months after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Even once the Secret Service was created, their job wasn’t to protect the president, at least initially. Instead, their focus was on investigating crimes like counter-fitting and bank robberies (this was before the creation of a national police force a.k.a the FBI, which wasn’t conceived and brought into life until 1908).
Between 1800 when the White House was built and the 1890s (with the exception of certain periods of time), it was easy to get into the home of the President. In fact, if you wanted you could stroll right up to the White House and often times meet the President of the United States himself (and often his wife and children too). Andrew Jackson had such a problem with this that after his inauguration, over 2,000 people visited the White House in the weeks after he took the oath of office, which meant he got very little done.
It wasn’t until John Tyler took office in 1841 that there was any security at the White House at all, and it wasn’t until Franklin Pierce took office that a sitting president actually requested a full-time body-guard (in that case it was because someone had thrown a hard-boiled egg at Pierce, who thought he might need protection).
The Civil War changed the White House visiting rules quite a bit, as you might expect. However it didn’t change the protection surrounding the man himself. Despite requests by members of his cabinet, Abraham Lincoln often refused a personal protection detail. His only concession to the times he lived in was the installation of a full-time guard at the White House in November of 1864. These officers sometimes were able to accompany Lincoln on his trips out of the White House, but he often left the White House without guards at all, despite almost being killed in 1864 while on a horse ride by himself.
So did Lincoln have security available to him on April 14, 1865 when John Wilkes Booth entered his box at Ford’s theater in Washington D.C. and shot Lincoln in the back of the head? Yes, he did, but there was a snafu. Or more accurately, the guard who was assigned to him that night (who was a member of the four man team assigned to guard the White House) wasn’t where he should have been.
His name was John Parker, who was a Washington D.C. officer at the time. Parker wasn’t a very good police officer, and that’s putting it generously. He had been disciplined several times since 1861 when the Washington D.C. Metro Police Force was created. Several of the charges that had been laid against him before the assassination of President Lincoln should have gotten him fired, including several cases where he was found drunk on the job.
On the day of Lincoln’s visit to the Ford’s Theater, Parker was three hours late to his post, and when he did show up and accompanied the president to the theater, he didn’t stay at his post. According to historical reports, specifically from the Smithsonian, Parker moved away from his post a the door to the President’s box and into the front row of the theater to watch the play. He was nowhere near close enough to where he should have been to prevent John Wilkes Booth from shooting Lincoln that evening.
Even without corrupt or incompetent security, protecting the President was hard in those days, as presidents were unused to having security with them. After the Civil War ended, security at the White House went back to the fairly lax state it had been in before the war, with almost no protection for the President.
It wasn’t until the 1890s when Grover Cleveland was in office that the iron gates at the White House were closed to the public, and that was at the instruction of his wife, who wanted to protect their children who often played out on the South Lawn.
In 1902, after the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo, New York, the Secret Service was finally tasked with protecting the President alongside its investigative duties that it had been doing since its inception in July of 1865. McKinley was the third US President to be assassinated, James A. Garfield was the second.
The most ironic thing of this entire story is that the night before he was assassinated, President Lincoln had signed into law a bill that gave funding for an organization called the Secret Service, which would one day take over the task of protecting the President of the United States of America.
Obviously, the Secret Service hasn’t always been successful in preventing attacks on the President. Their job is hard, and has gotten harder as more and more people have gotten interested and involved in politics. Between 1865 and 1960, there were at least 7 attempts on the life of the President. Between 1963 and the present there were 17 attempts. Again these do not include the successful assassinations of Garfield (1881), McKinley (1901) or Kennedy (1963).
For obvious reasons, then, it is unsurprising that the security surrounding the President, the First Family, and even members of congress and the Presidential cabinet (who are protected by the Capitol Police and not the US Secret Service in most cases), has become much more intense since the end of the 19th century. 1917 is when the First Family first received protection from the Secret Service. It wasn’t until 1952 when the Vice President was finally given Secret Service protection.
However, after the inclusion of all Presidential Candidates in 1968 (after the assassination of Robert Kennedy after his victory speech following the California primary), the scope of the Secret Service’s duties was greatly expanded. Today they are responsible for protecting:
POTUS, vPOTUS, the First Family, the President and Vice President Elect, and all the immediate families of those individuals.
Former presidents and their wives, and their children until age 16.
The widow of former presidents.
In conclusion, times have drastically changed the security surrounding the President of the United States. It is no longer a possibility for the average US Citizen to walk up to the White House and expect to meet the President sometime during their visit. Despite Jefferson naming the White House “The People’s House,” the public is no longer allowed on site unsupervised.