Samuel Colt's Legacy Is Tarnished By His Support For Slavery And His Treatment Of His Own Workers
September 24, 2006
Commentary By STEVE THORNTON
Hartford residents must be pretty desperate for heroes. What other explanation could there be for the recent attempts to glorify gunmaker Samuel Colt? He is the subject of yet another exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum and is featured in yet another biography. His 19th-century factory awaits designation as a National Historic Landmark.
But does Colt really deserve all this attention? Or are there others who might better qualify as local heroes in Hartford history?
Interpreting the past is a tricky business, but there are some things we know for sure. Colt started his career by selling hits of nitrous oxide to curious audiences for a cheap high. Eventually he became a "colonel" who never saw battle, and used bribery to secure lucrative government contracts. He sold weapons to both the North and the South in the arms buildup before the Civil War.
Colt coerced his employees to vote the way he wanted them to, sometimes by stopping the machines and forcing workers to listen to his "suggestions" for which candidates to support. He timed layoffs around elections as a warning to workers that their fate was in his hands. He positioned his secretary at the ballot box where his workmen voted. Colt even kept a secret journal on his employees' political affiliations, and fired workers who were anti-slavery Republicans.
The colonel was described as an "autocratic maniac" who ran his operation like a Southern plantation. "While Colt's workers were not legally enslaved, it was always more a matter of degree than kind," wrote William Hosley in "Colt: An American Legend."
The young, unmarried women who worked for him were employed to produce ammunition, dangerous jobs that Colt kept a safe distance from his precious weapons factory. For this extremely risky undertaking, the women were paid a fraction of what Colt's male employees earned.
But it was Samuel Colt's position on slavery and abolition, the primary moral questions of the day, that became his most shameful legacy. His defenders say Colt actually opposed slavery, but the facts tell a different story.
Colt decried the "Black Republican Devils" he employed, and asked a politician friend to publicly encourage manufacturers to fire employees who supported abolition. Northern business interests "promoted, prolonged and profited from slavery," according to "Complicity," the book recently written by three Hartford Courant reporters, who documented Northerners' dependence on slavery in building financial empires.
This profit connection was made crystal clear on Dec. 16, 1859, at Hartford city hall. The building was packed with local supporters of "states' rights," a coded phrase that justified Southern slavery. Southern states were being unjustly attacked "from a class of men at the North who constantly harp at Slavery," said one speaker. Another used thinly disguised racist rhetoric to make his point. "Lovers of negroes become haters of white men," former Hartford Mayor William J. Hamersley told the crowd.
William W. Eaton, who later became a U.S. senator, connected the dots when he addressed the crowd of politicians and businessmen. "Look to your pockets," he told them. "We desire Southern cotton and corn. She is agricultural. She comes to us for her loans, insurance and goods. She is our best customer; and I have yet to learn that a sane business man will kick his best customer out of doors."
Samuel Colt was one of the principal sponsors of the mass meeting, and he joined the unanimous vote to condemn abolition and the increasing pressure on the South for emancipation.
There are other men and women who might be promoted in his place as hero of Hartford. One contemporary of Samuel Colt was James Pennington, the Hartford minister who was actually a fugitive slave. Pennington risked his life to escape to freedom, then risked it over and over again by advocating abolition from his Talcott Street pulpit.
We can even look within the industrial empire Colt left after his death for likely candidates. There was William C. Beausang, the Colt employee who led more than 100 machinists on strike in 1912 when the company cut workers' pay in half. And there was Frank S. Cushman, an inspector of .45-caliber pistols in 1918 who was disturbed about the quality of production at the factory. He wrote to his congressman as a whistleblower and was fired on the same day, with no explanation.
Certainly, Rose Santangelo should be considered. Rose was one of 500 workers who, in 1935, risked everything when she went on strike at the Colt factory to win union recognition. With other female strikers, Rose raised funds on downtown street corners and was arrested on the picket line.
And there is Dorothy Rookwood, who left the Jim Crow South to build a decent life in Connecticut. Dorothy and her husband were employees at Colt Firearms and members of the United Auto Workers union in 1986 when they joined 800 co-workers in a walkout that lasted for four years. The National Labor Relations Board declared Colt guilty of unfair labor practices and ordered their reinstatement with back pay. Ultimately, the workers won the longest strike in state history, and ended up buying the company.
Colt supporters can put up as many memorials to the colonel as they want. But let's get the history straight. Thousands of Hartford people built the industry for which Samuel Colt is given credit. They are the ones who deserve to be remembered.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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