I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked the first time I walked into the Hartford church built by Elizabeth Colt in memory of her late husband Samuel, the millionaire gunmaker. But there he was: Sam Colt’s life-size figure, dressed as Joseph of Egypt in Old Testament robes, immortalized in a stained glass window. It was, well, disturbing.
Is there anyone less deserving of the lavish honors underway this weekend in Hartford for Samuel Colt? The inventor has been the subject of many books, exhibits, and documentaries ever since his widow Elizabeth spent millions boosting his image as a businessman and humanitarian.
But let’s step back and take a deep breath. It’s not too late for today’s Colt cheerleaders to admit they’re so profoundly wrong.
I’ve written before that there are any number of Colt’s Hartford contemporaries who should share a bit of his limelight: Rev. James Pennington, the abolitionist; Sam Easton, the African American livery driver who dared to publicly honor John Brown; newspaper editor J.D. Baldwin, who supported the Underground Railroad. But they receive almost no recognition; their stories are buried under the “Great (white) Man” theory of history, which places Sam Colt at the top of the heap.
You only have to scratch the surface to find the real man behind the myth. We can stipulate that Colt was an innovative, highly successful manufacturer of weapons. But is that all? Should the rest of his life be allowed to take a pass?
What about Colt’s moral character? Sam Colt married a 16-year old girl, Caroline Henshaw, after they met in Scotland. There is no evidence he ever divorced Caroline, but he did marry Elizabeth Jarvis some 20 years later. By this time Caroline’s son, young Sam Jr. was a teenager. Junior was supposedly Sam’s “nephew,” but when the old man died, a marriage certificate between Caroline and the industrialist was produced so the young man could secure his rightful share of the Colt millions.
What about Colt the patriot? It was bad enough that he was a “copperhead,” a northern Democrat with sympathy for the South. Colt even sponsored a gathering of Hartford manufacturers and merchants who opposed the coming Civil War because it would be bad for business. He monitored how his employees voted and discharged those he considered “black Republicans” (a practice used by employers of both parties). Colt’s flaw here is brushed away with “Ah, well, he was all about the business.”
But there is much more. Sam Colt was labeled “the revolving patriot” (a play on words; he was famous for the revolving handgun cylinder). He shipped arms to the Confederates three days after the start of the Civil War.
In fact, he had been building up the Southern war machine for several years, knowing full well that it might be turned against Connecticut soldiers. Once again, he is excused. “Easy to condemn in hindsight,” say his apologists. In fact, the Connectiut General Assembly passed an espionage law in May, 1861, for “direct or indirect written or verbal contact with a rebel, any selling or transport of war goods.”
Sam Colt made it under the wire; a few weeks later and he could have been charged as a traitor. As it stood, he clearly violated the federal sedition laws.
What about Colt the ethical businessman? Okay, maybe his fans have never made this claim. After all, he earned his first money by getting his customers high (nitrous oxide was an early recreational drug). When he received gun orders from the U.S. Army, Colt billed the government ten pecent more than he had charged the Southern states.
Shortly after the Civil War started, Colt threatened the Hartford Common Council that he would move to East Hartford if the city didn’t lower his taxes, build him sewers and create new paved streets. It seems that “Coltsville” was his domain as long as he didn’t have to foot the whole bill.
Sam Colt was acquitted in 1854 on a charge of bribing Congress in order to win a patent extension. Five years later he privately assured his Washington agent that this time he was “willing to pay handsome contingent fees” under the table for politicians who helped him.
Despite all Colt’s embarrassing flaws, why is he still admired?
Some Hartford boosters will grasp at almost anything to shine up Hartord’s image– witness the recent baseball stadium plan that is dissolving before our eyes. This same urge fuels the effort to transform the old Colt factory into a national historic park (even though the original structure, including the blue onion dome, was completely destroyed by fire two years after Sam Colt died).
Efforts like these may be well-intentioned, but they are also a waste of money and energy that could be used to actually repair our city. The upcoming “200th Colt Big Bash” has no resonance among the people who really count: the vast majority of Hartford residents.
Steve Thornton is a 40-year Hartford resident who writes for The Shoeleather History Project. www.ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.