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How 413 words triggered an attack on journalism in Baltimore in 1812

How 413 words triggered an attack on journalism in Baltimore in 1812
The book is available online and in major bookstores. (Courtesy of Josh Cutler)

Nearly 30 years after the 13 colonies went up against the world’s biggest superpower, America decided to do it again.

The decision in 1812 to engage in war with Great Britain was over its persisting infringement of U.S. maritime rights. The Senate and House of Representatives authorized President James Madison to declare war against the British.

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This choice was politically polarizing, writes Josh Cutler, author of “Mobtown Massacre: Alexander Hanson and the Baltimore Newspaper War of 1812.”

At 2 p.m. Sunday, Cutler will speak about his book — and about the career of Hanson, who wrote for the Baltimore Republican newspaper — at the Miller Branch library in Ellicott City. The talk is being held in conjunction with the Howard County Historical Society.

Cutler’s book tells not only of politics of that era and the controversy of a war that ultimately led to the burning of the White House and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, but also how it challenged America’s devotion to a free press.

In 1812 the Democratic-Republican party, whose membership included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Madison, were supportive of the war declaration, believing the British to be encroaching on American liberties at sea and on the western frontier.

Federalists, on the other hand, were opposed. That party, whose membership included Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Hanson, were opposed to going to war, believing the “nation was ill-prepared for another foreign entanglement, especially against Great Britain, the world’s greatest naval power,” Cutler writes.

Josh Cutler serves as a state lawmaker in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He represents the town of Hanson.
Josh Cutler serves as a state lawmaker in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He represents the town of Hanson. (Courtesy of Josh Cutler)

Hanson, at the time was a resident of Rockville, wrote an “anti-War of 1812” editorial in his newspaper, The Federal Republican, just four days after the declaration.

“Without funds, without taxes, without an army, navy or adequate fortifications… our rulers have promulgated a war against the clear and decided sentiment of a vast majority of the nation,” Hanson wrote.

“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,” he added.

Hanson was no stranger to writing illustrious, politically charged editorials that enraged Baltimoreans, a stronghold for Democratic-Republicans. But this particular 413-word editorial “was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Cutler.

A mob of “shopkeepers, craftsmen, merchant sailors and recent immigrants” equipped with “axes, ropes and fire hooks” descended upon the newsroom in Baltimore’s Old Town. Though Hanson was not there, the incident set off two weeks of rioting throughout the city. In defiance of the mob, Hanson published a second edition that “was met with just as much anger,” said Cutler.

“Hanson became determined to show the nation to defend the liberty of the press,” Cutler said. “He recruited the whole band of federalists and to reassert the freedom of the press.”

That band included Henry Lee, future governor of Virginia and father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and James Lingan, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.

Local officials were against the rhetoric spouted by Hanson, but nevertheless chose to move Hanson and his band of Federalists to the jail for their own protection. The choice would prove to be disastrous — the mob broke into the jail and tortured those imprisoned. Hanson was gravely injured, Lee’s eyes were torn out and Lingan was killed, Cutler said.

Cutler notes the role of the press in the sentiments regarding the War of 1812 — and hints at the parallels today. An online listing of the Cutler talk notes a quote from Jefferson that almost seems like a reference to the “fake news” allegations of today: "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” wrote Jefferson in 1807.

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Indeed, the Hanson incident “opens up an episode in history where the press was really under attack,” Cutler said.

“I hope we can learn from this situation as well,” he said.

Hanson survived the controversy, and after marrying Priscilla Dorsey, he moved to Belmont Manor in Elkridge.

In addition to being an author, Cutler is a representative the 6th Plymouth District in the Massachusetts State Legislature. He is also a former newspaper editor and publisher.

He worked on his book for nearly three years and used the public library in Ellicott City to assist in his research. He plans to donate proceeds to Hanson Historical Society in Massachusetts and the Baltimore Historical Society.

Registration for his Feb. 24 talk, in a program called “When the Press Really Was Under Attack: The 1812 Mobtown Massacre,” is preferred; call 410-313-1950.

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