On July 28, 1812, nine men huddled together inside the Baltimore City Jail, not because they were being detained for criminal malfeasance, but for their own protection from the mob of 1,500 angry Baltimoreans gathered outside. The men inside the jail, led my Alexander C. Hanson, were members or affiliates of the unpopular Federalist newspaper, The Federal Republican. The crowd outside was predominantly composed of European immigrant wage laborers from Ireland who flocked to Baltimore following the Revolutionary War.
Without warning, the back door to the jail swung open and the angry mob rushed inside and descended upon Hanson and his cohorts. As described by Isaac Dickson, a Justice of the Peace in Baltimore City, “there a scene of horror and murder ensued, which for its barbarity has no parallel in the history of the American people, and no equal but in the massacres of Paris. ” In the wake of this destruction, as the mob finally dispersed after its two day rampage through Baltimore City, two men were left dead and ten others were severely wounded and permanently disabled or disfigured.
Given this unprecedented display of violence, the following important question must be answered: Why did the mob in Baltimore City target a local Federalist newspaper and what motivational factors led to such unexpected displays of violence towards members of the press? As European, mainly Irish, immigrant laborers converged onto the ports in Baltimore City for work, their survival became dependent on the city’s economic prosperity, which ultimately relied upon the stability of the Atlantic trade market.
During the years preceding the War of 1812, American trade rights, sovereignty, and neutrality were infringed upon and largely ignored by Britain and France. The laborers sided with the Democratic-Republicans who sought to assert American sovereignty through hostilities with the British because war aligned with their nationalist and economic interests. A local Federalist newspaper that espoused neutrality and unequal trade with the British was met with violence from the laborers who despised British meddling with American trade.
The political and economic motivations were each necessary causes for the violent event, but were not individually sufficient. Most importantly, based off of first-hand accounts of wage laborers present during the riots, the origins of a working class consciousness emerged in Baltimore City, mixed with the turbulent political and economic factors, and produced the violent riots of 1812.
This paper argues that the peaceful demonstrations, similar to the ones common in the early republic, unexpectedly turned violent in Baltimore City in 1812 because of the interaction between Federalist anti-war newspaper editorials and the local Democratic-Republican dominated and nationalistic subsistence wage laborers. The incendiary articles, published on June 20, 1812, and July 27, 1812 in The Federal Republican, which ignited the two days of non-consecutive violence, were the result of the United States’ declaration of war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on June 18th, 1812.
Alexander C. Hanson and Jacob Wagner owned and operated The Federal Republican newspaper in Baltimore City with five other staff members. In the period of time between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the United States was embroiled in a political conflict between the Federalist Party, which favored a strong central government and closer ties to Britain, and the DemocraticRepublican Party, which favored a weak central government, preservation of slavery, expansion into Indian land, and a stronger break with Britain.
These conflicting views lived in relative harmony in Baltimore, but eventually manifested in violence following the pro-British articles published by The Federal Republican two days after war was declared. On June 20, 1812, the newspaper took a defiant stand calling the war “unnecessary,” “inexpedient,” and bearing “marks of undisguised foreign influence,” a crowd of several hundred men. Mainly Irish, German, and native-born laborers, gathered outside the newspaper office. Hanson and his staff escaped minutes before the crowd tore down the frame of the building and destroyed the contents inside.
Determined to resurrect his newspaper, Hanson returned to Baltimore City on July 25 and moved into a new office building on Charles Street. On July 27, the paper ran a caustic editorial chastising the Baltimore officials for permitting the violence against their newspaper on June 20, and asserted that those who took part in the rioting were merely “misguided instruments” of more powerful Democratic-Republican men in Washington. At around 10:00 pm the night of July 27, a crowd reached critical mass outside the Charles Street office.
Mayor Edward Johnson and Brigadier General John Stricker attempted to quell the crowd, but to no avail. They both agreed to move Hanson and his companions, under protection of the local militia, to the city jail, as it was the nearest fortified structure. At about 6:00 am on July 28, the crowed surged to 1,500 or 2,000 and some participants forced their way into the jail. All nine of the Federalists were severely beaten and deposited in a heap in front of the jail where they were then subjected to repeated beatings, stabbings, and other indignities resulting in two deaths.
The Maryland House of Delegates Committee of Grievances and Courts of Justice was ordered on November 18, 1812, to inquire into the June and July riots which occurred in Baltimore City. The thirteen page report synthesizes 77 unique depositions, all of whom were asked the same scripted interrogation questions, into a comprehensive narrative of the events and also illuminates the committee’s findings. Moreover, the committee’s report seeks to exonerate or accuse highranking government and military officials involved in the riots.
Written five months after the riots, the report culminates in the call for a fair and impartial trial for Tobias E. Stansbury, who was Brigadier-General in the militia and became a Delegate to the General Assembly of Maryland from Baltimore County. The report is a government document supported by ample depositions of various community members resulting in logical and reasonable resolutions. Most importantly, occupations are provided for each man being interviewed providing additional layers of depth for historical analysis.
At eighteen pages, Mayor Edward Johnson’s deposition is one of the longest in the entire report. Similar to the others deposed, Mayor Johnson’s deposition was taken in late 1812 and begins with a narrative of events followed by scripted lines of inquiry. At the end, Mayor Johnson admits to the committee that he included much of his own motives and conduct because “the interrogatories embrace them, and direct me to it. ” The narrative and answers to the interrogations given by Mayor Johnson are extremely thorough and well-structured.
Mayor Johnson blames the “spirit of insubordination” to the “violent and inflammatory publications in the Federal Republican” and seeks to absolve himself of all blame. The deposition closes with an open letter from Mayor Johnson to the committee explaining his thought processes and motivations throughout the day’s events; a unique attribute amongst the catalog of depositions. So, not only does Mayor Johnson’s deposition offer a glimpse into the relationship between early nineteenth century mayors and militias, but also the volatility and passion surrounding political views of working class Americans in the young republic.
The purpose of Mayor Johnson’s deposition, and the overarching report, was to ascertain what caused the riots in Baltimore on June 20th and July 27th-28th, 1812, and if any government or military officials were derelict in their duty. Naturally, as mayor, Edward Johnson would have been the focal point of questioning even if he was not directly involved in the events, which he was. Moreover, Johnson’s deposition is invaluable because he references people’s actions and whereabouts at specific times. Many of the people named by Mayor Johnson also gave depositions which, mainly, corroborate Johnson’s story.
Ultimately, Mayor Johnson is attempting to protect his actions, name, and position from being targeted by the Committee as the source of blame for the civil unrest. Given that he remained mayor for another decade, the Committee members and Baltimore voters did not suspect Mayor Johnson of wrongdoing or dereliction of duty. After deflecting personal responsibility for the riots, Mayor Johnson redirects the deposition to raise two important questions. First, Mayor Johnson raises the issue, why the militia was unable to quell the rioters before the mob reached critical mass at the jail.
As a private citizen, Mayor Johnson claimed he did all he could to calm the people down and protect the future victims, but did not exercise enough influence over the militia commanders Gen. Stricker or Brigadier General Stansbury. The concern over the militia’s actions is prevalent throughout the report, not just Mayor Johnson’s deposition. Second, he mentioned the newspaper articles in the Federal Republican and blames the “spirit of insubordination” to the “violent and inflammatory publications in The Federal Republican.
It is important to note that, according to the deposition, Mayor Johnson placed himself in harm’s way to protect the members of the newspaper from the disgruntled and violent mob stating, “I will go with you and share your fate. ” So, even though he admitted that the newspaper was the source of violence, by protecting them from injury, it is clear that Mayor Johnson felt they were within their Constitutional rights to print and publish their anti-war sentiments and were not criminally at fault for the violent mob.
Therefore, by absolving The Federal Republican staff, Mayor Johnson effectively and implicitly blamed the militia commanders for not doing enough to allay the rioters. However, through a careful analysis of the working class depositions, meaning, men who self-identified as carpenters, tanners, mariners, or other occupations of similarity, the third facet of an emerging class consciousness is seen interacting with existing political and economic motivations.
Historical Context In order to full comprehend the causes and effects of the Baltimore Riots of 1812, the events must be observed relative to national and international early nineteenth century historical context. If observed in a vacuum, the riots are reduced to inconsequential and tragic violent episodes instead of critical moments in the early American history which would influence domestic politics for the next thirty years.