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Colt Tarnished? Only By Smears

October 1, 2006
Commentary By HERBERT G. HOUZE

One of the objectives of "Samuel Colt: Arms, Art and Invention" is to dispel the myths and biases that have been trotted out on various occasions over the past decade.

Although most of Hartford felt kindly toward Colt during his lifetime, those sentiments have long since been replaced by vicious misrepresentations of what Colt actually did.

To place this change in perspective, it is best to begin with comments that appeared in an 1849 issue of this newspaper. Under the pseudonym a "Man about Town," a correspondent wrote that "Probably our city has never produced a genius, the invention and mechanical qualities of whose mind have accomplished results more universally celebrated, or whose inventions have attracted so wide attention and `made more noise in the world,' than have those of our townsman, Mr. SAMUEL COLT."

In counterpoint to this, a historian in the mid-1990s posed the rhetorical question "Had Colt died too young or not young enough?" Hardly a ringing endorsement of Colt's life. The same author, William Hosley, wrote in his 1996 book "Colt: The Making of an American Legend" that Colt never invented anything except myths and that he was an "autocratic maniac" who held his employees in virtual serfdom.

And on this page last week, Colt was charged with being anti-labor, a Southern (that is, Confederate) sympathizer and a supporter of slavery. (See "Don't Glorify Colt" at www.courant.com/colt.)

The transformation of Samuel Colt from a civic asset into Satan Sam began while he was still living and continues to this day. Although some of the stories have a basis in truth - for example, his bribing of congressmen - others have been embroidered from whole cloth. So let's examine some of the more outrageous claims in circulation.

It is widely believed that Colt exploited the workforce at his Hartford armory and used fear of unemployment to keep employees in line. Although working conditions in the United States during most of the 19th century were far from pleasant, Colt's contract workers were well-paid, provided with decent - indeed, modern - housing, social amenities, a school for their children and so on. Positions at the armory were highly prized. Consequently, when rumors of Colt's death began to circulate on Nov. 22, 1858, there was a panic that subsided only when Colt rose from his sickbed to show himself at a window of his home, Armsmear. This is not the reaction of people held in semi-bondage or indentured service.

The charge that Colt hired and fired employees at will reveals a profound lack of knowledge concerning his armory's operations. Work in the various departments was carried out by independent contractors, who were responsible for hiring the men employed in their departments. Fluctuations in orders caused slowdowns and temporary layoffs, but these were not timed to coincide with elections or political events, but were dictated by market conditions.

The repeated claims that Colt did not invent anything are primarily of modern origin. That he did not invent the revolver is without question. What he did do was to make an existing concept a practical commercial product. However, his greatest contribution to the field of mechanics was to design a machine that held a raw piece of steel in one position so that it could be worked by a revolving series of cutters. Not only did this layout produce parts of continuous quality, but it also set the stage for the multiple-head tools of today.

With respect to Colt's oft-claimed Southern sympathies, it is true that his company shipped arms to the Southern states before April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter was fired upon. What is rarely if ever mentioned is that during the same period the U.S. Armory at Springfield, Mass., shipped more arms south than Colt did. Likewise, Northern manufacturers of other war materials (for example, wool for uniforms and brass for bullet molds, buttons and, more important, cannon) did not suspend sales until the same date.

The reasons for this had less to do with sympathies than a purely mercantile wish to make hay while the sun shone. It must be remembered that saber-rattling about states' rights had regularly occurred between 1820 and 1860. Despite dire threats of secession, none of the previous filibustering campaigns had been seen through. When actual hostilities did begin, Colt wrote President Abraham Lincoln offering to place his armory solely at the disposal of the United States.

Now, to the charge that Colt supported slavery: Simply put, it is not true. The origin of the story can be traced to a piece written in 1838 by William H. Porter. Intended for a Southern audience, the account attributes the invention of the revolver to the suppression of slave rebellions. Despite its sensational nature, the story remained unchallenged until just recently, when it became apparent that facts could not sustain the claims.

Colt's own opinion about slavery was clearly set forth in a letter written to a Scottish acquaintance, Andrew T. Allen, on Dec. 6, 1849. Colt wrote that "the condition of slavry ther [in Turkey] I find particuly abhorrent." Yet perhaps the most eloquent argument against Colt's holding pro-slavery views is rarely mentioned: his felicitous marriage to Elizabeth Hart Jarvis. In an era when slavery was hotly debated, it is inconceivable that Elizabeth's father, the Rev. William Jarvis, would have given his approval to the union had Colt held pro-slavery sentiments. Moreover, her abolitionist views would have resulted in a very fractious marriage if Colt had held the opposite view.

Another point overlooked by detractors is that Colt distributed abolitionist pamphlets to employees on Dec. 30, 1860, and arranged for an abolitionist minister to deliver a sermon on the subject to the entire workforce. Hardly the behavior of a pro-slaver.

So why does Hartford decry Colt's memory? During his lifetime and in the years immediately following his death, Colt's detractors were driven by any number of reasons: jealousy, economic motives, a fear of change and so forth. Today, the reasons are different. Some intensely dislike what he made: firearms. Others see his armory as the harbinger of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Be that as it may, in the 14 short years between 1847, when he opened his Hartford factory, and the end of 1861, when he was confined to his deathbed, Colt forever changed Hartford. As an industrialist and inventor, he not only placed his native city on the world stage but also demonstrated that the United States was an emerging economic power. If for nothing else than these two contributions, his life should be remembered and celebrated. Hartford owes it to him.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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