Historical Baltimore Riots

[ Posted Thursday, April 30th, 2015 – 17:18 UTC ]

Introduction: Below is an excerpt from a writing project of mine, presented as a historical interlude. It is not presented, however, as any sort of commentary on recent events in Baltimore. For the time being, I leave that to others. I am drawing no parallels here, and not in any way attempting to tie events 200 years ago with what is happening now. I just had this piece of writing available and thought it'd be an interesting detour through the past, that's all.

The year was 1812, and the political parties of the time were in violent disagreement over whether America should go to war or not with Great Britain. One Baltimore newspaper publisher wrote a scathing anti-war editorial, and as a direct result unruly mobs and rioting took place in Baltimore for an astounding period of two months. The mobs ruled the streets at night, and all sorts of ugliness was unleashed. This story is, somehow, almost unknown today and is considered no more than a footnote in history (and who actually reads the footnotes?). So I thought it was worth a slight detour into history today, just to remember that Baltimore has seen riots before, even if few today remember it.

One piece of context is missing from this excerpt -- a conclusion. What happened afterwards (on a national scale) was that the Federalists went so overboard in their condemnation of the war that they actually disappeared as a political party (then called a "faction") almost immediately thereafter, ushering in the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" (essentially, one-party rule in America). One other technical note: if anyone is truly interested in my own footnotes and citations which accompany this piece, please ask and I'll post them as a separate page (there's a lot of formatting necessary to do so, which is why I didn't). That's enough of an introduction, I think, so please now sit back and enjoy the following historical interlude.


One of the journalists was killed on the spot and the others left for dead

Jefferson's embargo did set the stage for the next major American political crisis, which proved both the Federalist and Antifederalist political factions were equally capable of radicalism in showing their distaste at being the Out party. In 1809, Jefferson was succeeded in office by fellow Antifederalist James Madison, who then led America into what some historians consider one of the most pointless wars the country has ever fought: the War of 1812. The Federalists' over-reaction to this war would bring an end to America's first partisan era.

Federalists, ignoring their previous fervor for the Alien and Sedition Acts, now saw the value of having their own newspaper network capable of attacking the sitting administration. The factional struggle for American public opinion was now to be fought in the editorial pages, and the Federalists quickly adopted their rivals' tactics in an effort to stay relevant and influential on the American political scene. This was a complete reversal of the Federalist position when they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the first place, of course. But strict logic and partisan politics have never shared all that close a relationship in American history -- neither then, nor now.

During Jefferson's presidency, the embargo rallied the Federalist opposition. The 1812 declaration of war, however, caused outright apoplexy in the Federalist press. Editor Alexander Hanson of the Baltimore Federal Republican responded to the declaration by editorializing:

[O]ur rulers have promulged a war, against the clear and decided sentiments of a vast majority of the nation.... We mean to represent in as strong colors as we are capable, that it is unnecessary, inexpedient, and entered into from partial, personal, and as we believe, motives bearing upon their front marks of undisguised foreign influence, which cannot be mistaken. -- We mean to use every constitutional argument and every legal means to render as odious and suspicious to the American people, as they deserve to be, the patrons and contrivers of this highly impolitic and destructive war, in the fullest persuasion, that we shall be supported and ultimately applauded by nine tenths of our countrymen, and that our silence would be treason to them. -- We detest and abhor the endeavours of faction to create a civil contest through the pretext of the foreign war, it has rashly and premeditetely commenced, and we shall be ready cheerfully to hazard every thing most dear, to frustrate any usurpation leading to the prostration of civil rights, and the establishment of a system of terror and proscription, announced in the government paper at Washington, as the inevitable consequence of the decisive measure now proclaimed. We shall cling to the rights of a freeman, both in act and opinion, till we sink with the liberty of our country, or sink alone.... We are avowedly hostile to the presidency of James Madison, and we never will breath[e] under the dominion direct or derivative of Bonaparte.

Hanson followed this up with what can only be termed a provocative call to arms, where he taunts the opposition and all but dares them to attack him. He opens with a report that "terror and disorganization" have been unleashed by riots in Savannah, with "a base and assassin like attack upon the editor of the American Patriot," and then continues:

When lawless violence, fomented by executive intimations, openly attempts to subvert the liberty of the press and to immolate the most respectable individuals, for no other cause than a difference of opinion, it is high time for the proscribed party to retreat from the danger or make preparation to face it. If the magistrate & the citizens of Savannah fail to bring the perpetrators to prompt and exemplary punishment, & to be ready to meet any future similar outrage, it will not be long before their city will resemble Paris in the bloody days of Robespierre. Let them but suffer one or two more examples of a mob's usurpation, and individuals will cease to look for protection to any other shield than their own strength, or by crouching in slavish submission; & they will thereafter find their lives their property at the disposal of a banditi, whose authority will be founded upon terror, and whose maxims in executing their ferocious decrees will be derived from a diabolical excess of the worst passions which sway the human heart.

Despite being previously publicly warned that his offices would be "demolished" for his paper's anti-war editorializing, Hanson then actually threatens anyone contemplating such terror in Maryland, whom he insultingly calls

an insignificant few, whose ignorance and want of reflection are upon a par with their malignity. But were any irregularity for a moment to break out here, it would be met in a manner, which would do honor to the spirit and enlightened patriotism of the citizens. Those who should dare to disturb public order would be the only and certain victims of the attempt.

Things didn't turn out as well as Hanson expected, though. On June 22, 1812, two days after this was printed, an Antifederalist mob responded to what they considered openly-declared treason by destroying the newspaper's office. Hanson fled Baltimore, but kept printing his paper from nearby. The mobbing of the Federal Republican would lead Hanson to charge that there was a conspiracy led by "terrorists on the floor of congress." It also led to mobs nightly controlling the streets of Baltimore for an astounding period of two months. Houses were pulled down, racial tensions were stoked, ships were destroyed in the docks, and many Federalists fled the town in fear of being tarred and feathered -- or worse -- at the hands of the rioters. Hanson spent this time planning his return. On July 27, Hanson printed the Federal Republican from a rented house in Baltimore. Alexis de Tocqueville recounted what happened next, from Democracy In America (with considerable condensation of the actual timeline):

At Baltimore during the War of 1812 there was a striking example of the excesses to which despotism of the majority may lead. At that time the war was very popular at Baltimore. A newspaper which came out in strong opposition to it aroused the indignation of the inhabitants. The people assembled, broke the presses, and attacked the house of the editors. An attempt was made to summon the militia, but it did not answer the appeal. Finally, to save the lives of these wretched men threatened by the fury of the public, they were taken to prison like criminals. This precaution was useless. During the night the people assembled again; the magistrates having failed to bring up the militia, the prison was broken open; one of the journalists was killed on the spot and the others left for dead; the guilty were brought before a jury and acquitted.

Tocqueville, however, was writing about this event over two decades after the fact. He omits the part where: "[T]he mob had swelled to almost two thousand men, and they had dragged a cannon to the scene to destroy the home and the Federalists inside it. The editor of the rival Republican newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, stood at the head of the cannon urging his fellow rioters to ignite it."

Hanson and his friends -- including such luminaries as General "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, Revolutionary War hero and father of General Robert E. Lee -- were besieged within the house. Light-Horse Harry was so crippled by the beating he received during the mob's jailbreak (the mob attempted to cut off his nose and stab him in the eye) that he never fully recovered his health. General James McCubbin Lingan, also a veteran of the Revolution, was beaten to death. Hanson himself was "dreadfully beaten, trampled on, and pitched for dead down the high flight of stairs in front of the gaol." Eight others were given the same treatment, and the nine bodies

lay in a heap nearly three hours. During this whole time the Mob continued to torture their mangled bodies, by beating first one and then the other; sticking penknives into their faces and hands, and opening their eyes and dropping hot candle grease into them, &c.

Anti-war newspaper editorializing was dangerous during the Revolution, it was dangerous during the War of 1812, and it would remain dangerous throughout the rest of American history as well.

To be fair, the Baltimore mob scene also prompted a Federalist mob in Boston to seize Antifederalist congressman Charles Turner of Plymouth, who they then "kicked... through town." After all, violent political actions in America have never been limited to one party alone.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “Historical Baltimore Riots”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    In a weapons producing nation under Jesus
    In the fabled crucible of the free world
    Camera crews search for clues amid the detritus
    And entertainment shapes the land the way the hammer shapes the hand
    Gleaming faces in the checkout counter at the Church of Fame
    Lucky winners cheer Casino Nation
    All those not on TV only have themselves to blame
    They don't quite seem to understand the way the hammer shapes the hand

    Jackson Browne

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    But strict logic and partisan politics have never shared all that close a relationship in American history -- neither then, nor now.

    Ain't THAT the truth!! :D

    Great commentary, CW.... Yer history lessons are always fun and entertaining in addition to being informative..

    Ya missed yer calling.. Shoulda been a history teacher. :D


  3. [3] 
    Paula wrote:

    My visceral response to reading this post was "yowch."

  4. [4] 
    Paula wrote:

    Hey Chris: did you receive my reply to your email? Thanks!

  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    How's the book coming?

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    How's the book coming?

    Yes! That's all I want to know.

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws and LizM -

    I'm thinking of releasing what I've got as a low-cost e-book. What do you think?

    Paula -

    Check your email. :-)


  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Don't release it all and do it in installments - leave them demanding more so that the book can still happen.

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM -

    That was what I was thinking. I've got about a third of the book done, so maybe vol. I, II, and III, making one complete book (if a publisher ever picked it up).

    Whaddya think?


  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I think I can't wait for that to happen!

    As for publishers, have you tried the national education association and think tanks like brookings. What you're writing is right up their alley ...

Comments for this article are closed.