When the Press Really was Under Attack: Alexander Hanson and the Mobtown Massacre

By Josh Cutler | Arcadia Author
Author Josh Cutler knows a thing or two about history. An attorney and legislator, he’s been studying the past for years. In his new book Mobtown Massacre: Alexander Hanson and the Baltimore Newspaper War of 1812, he examines one of the earliest examples of violence against the American press. He stopped by this week to give us some background on the book, and what really happened to US Senator Alexander Hanson.

Terms such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” may be relatively recent additions to the political lexicon, but attacks on the media are nothing new. Elected officials have been criticizing the journalists who covered them long before Thomas Jefferson, that putative champion of the free press, wrote in 1807 that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
Today, as throughout much of the nation’s history, “attacks” on the press are usually presumed to be figurative. Two centuries ago, with the young nation bitterly divided and on the brink of foreign war, freedom of the press was under attack in every sense of the word.
In 1812 Baltimore, a fiery young Federalist editor named Alexander Contee Hanson took a stand in defense of a newspaper that dared express unpopular, anti-war views. His caustic words provoked a series of bloodthirsty riots, a midnight jailbreak and a brutal massacre that crippled the city of Baltimore and stunned the nation. 

Alexander Contee Hanson Jr.The “Mobtown Massacre” (as it later became known) has been described as a pivot point in the nation’s history—a transition from the property-based rioting of the eighteenth century toward a more violent form of populist protest that endures today. The incident helped shape the course of the war, the Federalist party and the very notion of the liberty of the press.
Hanson himself barely escaped with his life, and he never fully recovered from the mob attacks, though the episode did help propel him to the U.S. Congress as one of the youngest U.S. Senators in history. 
Hanson was not the first newspaper editor to face threats of violence. The freedom of the press had been attacked before, notably during the reign of the Sedition Act, but even then most editors faced only the threat of legal jeopardy. Few put their lives on the line so resolutely as Hanson did, much less during a time of war, when the precarious balance of liberty and security is most imperiled. Hanson paid a heavy price for his sacrifice, but his willingness to jeopardize his own life for a principle gave the nation a lesson in democracy that resonates even now.
It all started with a headline.

This brief editorial in the June 10, 1812 issue of the Federal Republican newspaper provoked a violent series of attacks in Baltimore that stunned the nation.

“Mobtown Massacre: Alexander Hanson and the Baltimore Newspaper War of 1812” is published by History Press and is scheduled for release February 24, 2019. Author Josh S. Cutler is an attorney, Massachusetts state legislator and former newspaper editor.