First Blood: the Baltimore Riots

Before and during the War of 1812, newspapers and printers played a central role in politics. Openly partisan, they minced few words in supporting candidates and policies.

The last hope of civilization, law, and order was old Mother England. Alexander Contee Hanson, publisher of the Federal Republican newspaper

Cartoon of 19th century gentlemen holding axes
This 1812 political cartoon shows the warring Federalists and Republicans planning to attack

Maryland Historical Society

On and off for years, publishers provoked backlash with inflammatory rhetoric. In 1798, for example, a Philadelphia mob threatened the home and office of printer Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s outspoken grandson.

The riots that occurred in Baltimore in 1812, just days after the June 18 declaration of war, not only continued the tradition of mobs in the streets but elevated verbal conflict beyond physical violence to murder.

Supporters of the war labeled opposition as treason, and the publisher of the Federal Republican newspaper, Alexander Contee Hanson, gave them plenty to condemn. Hanson viewed Baltimore’s Democrat-Republicans as “mostly European rabble out to pervert the true principles of the Constitution.” He embraced a straightforward goal—“attack the administration in any and every way;" show that the Jeffersonians had sold out to France and were supporting Napoleon. “The last hope of civilization, law, and order,” Hanson wrote, “was old Mother England.”

A mob took the verbal bait, attacked, and destroyed Hanson’s office. When the paper reopened, defenders fired into another mob and killed two. After surrendering, Hanson and his supporters were hauled from jail and beaten. Revolutionary War veterans Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of five-year-old Robert E. Lee, and James Lingan both received crippling injuries; Lingan died from his wounds.

The first casualties of the war occurred on the streets of Baltimore not the battlefield.

Last updated: August 15, 2017