HANSON — What does a deadly riot in Baltimore have to do with the founding and naming of Hanson, Mass., eight years later? More than one might think … and therein lies a tale.
Sixth-District state Rep. Josh Cutler, who represents Hanson, Pembroke and Duxbury, has put his previous career as a newspaper editor and publisher to work in tracing the story of early American politician Alexander Hanson and how the Maryland native’s name was adopted for the new town of Hanson, Mass., in 1820.
The work, “Alexander Hanson and the Mobtown Massacre,” will appear in an upcoming issue of The New England Journal of Historyand he is working to expand it into a book, currently looking for a publisher. He brought the story to a Thursday, April 5 meeting of the Hanson Historical Society to give its members a sneak peak.
“This has been a pet project of mine, and for those of you who know my background as a former newspaper editor-turned-politician, the whole idea of Alexander Hanson, a former newspaper editor-turned-politician, is intriguing to me,” Cutler said. “It’s been a fascinating journey for me. I’ve been working on in my free time over the last year and a half.”
The story relates how Federalist firebrand newspaper editor Hanson’s editorials against President James Madison and the United States’ prosecution of the War of 1812 in the midst of heavily Democratic-Republican Baltimore precipitated a three-day riot, which cost the life of Revolutionary War hero Gen. James Lingen as well as itinerant doctor Thaddeus Gale who was a leader of the rioters.
Hanson was born in Annapolis, Md., in 1786, the second son of a prominent family. His grandfather, John Hanson, served in the Revolutionary cause and as first president in Congress assembled under the Articles of Confederation — a title akin to today’s speaker of the house — and is viewed by some historians as the real first president of the United States.
At 22, Alexander Hanson launched his newspaper The Federal Republican and Commercial Gazette.
“He was a hard-core Federalist,” Cutler said of Hanson, who later merged the paper with another publication edited by Jacob Wagner, brought on board as a partner and co-editor. “The paper soon became known very quickly as one of the most extreme of what we call the partisan press of that era.”
With 46,000 citizens, Baltimore was at the time the third-largest city in America, after New York and Philadelphia, and was a Democratic-Republican stronghold.
His editorials had spurred a duel and court-martial when he was a member of the militia, before the 1812 riot.
“[Hanson] didn’t like [Democratic-] Republicans, number one, he hated Madison and he hated France,” Cutler said about Hanson’s opposition to the War of 1812.
An editorial of about 450 words was the match that ignited a plot by the Democratic-Republican mob in the first of two riots. Gen. Lingen and Gen. “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, who was the father of Conferderate Gen. Robert E. Lee, were members of Hanson’s Spartan Band defending the paper against the mob.
Emboldened, Hanson penned another editorial, critical of the “mobocracy” of the first riot.
“This was a different kind of rioting,” Cutler said. “Historians have agreed this particular riot marked a pivot point in rioting in the United States.”
In the 18th Century, riots were more civil and property-based, but the new kind was more violent.
The mob returned to attack Hanson’s house and, after Gale had been shot while trying to force his way into the house by Lee, Baltimore officials convinced the Spartan Band to take shelter in the jail for the night. Rioters got wind of it and tried to ambush Hanson and his supporters on the way to the jail, but missed the opportunity by about five minutes.
Once safely inside the jail, the Federalists were safe until rumors spread that they would be bailed out and the mob descended on the jail the next afternoon. With help from inside the jail, the rioters gained access to the jail and severely beat the Federalists, which ultimately cost the life of Lingen and caused injuries to Hanson from which he never fully recovered.
“It was really a gruesome scene,” Cutler said, noting that it took a suggestion by responding doctors that the wounded were dead and should be taken into the jail for safeguarding to be used as research cadavers to save them. “This probably saved the lives of a number of them.”
Hanson was later elected to Congress and appointed to the U.S. Senate, the second-youngest at that point.
He became a rallying point through which the Federalists were able to bounce back for a time while he, himself died from the lingering effects of his injuries in 1819 at 33.
“He had really sort of faded,” Cutler said. “Although one of the places he was most popular was here in Massachusetts and New England, which was a big Federalist area.”
During a fishing trip to Hingham, Cutler said, may be where future Hansonites got the idea to petition to name Hanson for the town splitting off from Pembroke in 1819-20.
As for Lingen, when Hillary Clinton was first lady, she honored him during the dedication of the Freedom Forum in 1996 as the first American to die in defense of the free press.