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Samuel Colt, Warts And All

October 1, 2006
Editorial By Courant

The good burghers of Marlborough, Mass., are rethinking the celebration of one of their hometown heroes, Horatio Alger, honored annually with a street fair. The city might change the name of the fair because its leaders have belatedly discovered that Mr. Alger, legendary author and emblem of hard-working American values, was once accused of molesting two boys while minister of a Cape Cod church. Accused, but neither tried nor convicted.

Revisionist history is dangerous, especially when the accused is not around to defend himself.

Let this be a lesson to Hartford not to allow the scourge of political correctness to taint a longtime effort to honor the work of a favorite son, Samuel Colt. On the eve of a National Park Service vote to decide whether Sam Colt's firearms manufacturing empire should be a National Landmark, a precursor to having it become a national park, debate has taken shape in The Courant's Commentary section this week and last about whether Mr. Colt is worthy of the honor, or of any special attention at all.

Surely, the gun maker, inventor, entrepreneur and international impresario deserves as much recognition for his influence on American manufacturing as Mark Twain receives for his literary contributions. Sam Colt put Hartford and America on the industrial map.

But he was autocratic, goes the argument against giving the man his due. He manipulated his workers to vote his way. He sold arms to the South before the outbreak of the Civil War. He hired women at lower rates than men to do dangerous work with ammunition at his South Meadows arms factory. He took credit for work that his employees did.

So what else is new? And so what if Sam Colt was not someone you'd invite home to dinner? If a generous disposition and a spotless record were prerequisites for enshrinement, museums and halls of fame would be empty. It's wrong to judge historical figures by today's standards and ignorant to expect human beings to be perfect. Even if the allegations against Mr. Colt were true - and many are debatable - his accomplishments can't be denied.

Like him or not as a personality, Mr. Colt was a marketing genius and a pioneer in precision manufacturing who is still a household name the world over. He may have been autocratic and opportunistic, but he wasn't alone. The textile mill operators of Lowell recruited young girls to work long hours for low pay under hazardous conditions. That is part of the Lowell story depicted at the national park there, as any negative aspects of the Colt empire should be as well.

There is plenty of evidence that Sam Colt paid his workers well, provided decent housing, education and even entertainment. Even so, the idea of a national park is to depict history, warts and all, not to sanitize the truth.

Is the manufacture of guns appropriate to celebrate? It's a common question, but the wrong one. The Colt story is about so much more than firearms. His widow, Elizabeth, ran the company longer than he did. She rebuilt the factory after a fire in 1864 and became one of Hartford's most generous civic benefactors. She built a church in memory of her husband and children that stands today. She bequeathed Colt Park to the city and her art collection to the Atheneum. She grew flowers in her greenhouses and helped the poor.

Thomas Jefferson had a child by his slave. U.S. Grant drank too much. Horatio Alger may have been a child molester. Human beings are complicated. So is history. Genius is worth celebrating nonetheless.

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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