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When President Barak Obama traveled to Tucson, Ariz., in January in the wake of the shooting rampage at a meet-and-greet gathering for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he urged Americans to talk “with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” At the same time, in perhaps the best speech of his presidency to date, Obama gently reminded those who rushed to blame the violent actions of an apparently mad gunman on rancorous politics that the democratic process in the United States is “sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious.”

That’s putting it mildly. The rancor that has infected American politics these days is nothing compared to the vitriolic debates during the first quarter-century of our republic. In those days the democratic process was not just frustrating and contentious but also downright deadly. Passions came to a boil during the first months of the War of 1812, when enraged political partisans battled each other in riots. But the anger eventually dissipated and an era of good feelings ensued.

The U.S. declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, in a close vote—79-49 in the House, 19-13 in the Senate—that reflected the bitterness of the country’s first two-party system. The Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (ancestors of today’s Democrats) had controlled the presidency and Congress for over a decade, and had recently been strengthened by an infusion of new blood. But their rivals, the Federalists, still held on in regional bastions. The two parties disputed a range of issues from the power of the federal government to foreign policy. Republicans supported the new war; Federalists opposed it.

Maryland was a battleground state, regularly dividing its electoral vote between Republican and Federalist presidential candidates. Baltimore, its largest city, was a boomtown, a center of shipping and privateering with a rough immigrant underclass. In 1808, this tinderbox found its match when Alexander Hanson started a Baltimore newspaper, the Federal Republican, which despite its seemingly bipartisan name was actually an aggressive Federalist organ. Republicans in the state militia court-martialed Hanson when he published an antiadministration editorial they considered “mutinous.” In 1812, two days after war was declared, Hanson went back on the attack, calling the war “unnecessary” and warning against any attempt to silence criticism by “terror.”

The very next day, the Federal Republican was indeed silenced by a simple expedient: A mob of several hundred war supporters demolished the paper’s wooden headquarters on Gay Street. But Hanson would not give up. He spent a month rallying Maryland Federalists, and found about two dozen who were willing to defend a second building he rented on Charles Street. On July 27, the Federal Republican reappeared, blasting local Republicans as “remorseless rabble.”

The lid blew off Baltimore. By nightfall Fort Hanson, as the new newspaper office was nicknamed, was surrounded by a crowd and pelted with stones. At 10 p.m., the besieged Federalists fired a warning shot, which only encouraged bolder spirits to charge the front door. A second Federalist volley killed the first man to break in, a doctor named Thadeus Gale. By the time a troop of cavalry appeared on the scene, the angry crowd had swelled to 2,000 (the population of Baltimore was 41,000). The commanding officer, after hours of talk, persuaded the Federalists to surrender, and on the morning of the 28th they were marched to the city jail for their own protection. There they were safe—until evening, when yet another mob broke down the jail door. “Blood cries for blood!” the ringleader shouted.

About half the Federalist prisoners escaped in the chaos, but a dozen were seized and tortured for hours: beaten, stabbed and scorched with hot wax to test whether they were still alive. Republican doctors whom the mob trusted at last persuaded it to relent; one of the rioters remarked that the victims had been “beat enough to satisfy the devil.”

James Lingan, a 61-year-old Revolutionary War veteran, died on the spot. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, another Revolutionary veteran who had come from neighboring Virginia to help his fellow Federalists, was crippled for life; he would die in 1818. Hanson suffered injuries to his nose, hands, collarbone and spine.

But the Federalist editor still would not quit. The Federal Republican came out again on August 3, printed in Georgetown and mailed into Baltimore. A mob threatened to destroy the post office if the copies were distributed.

Law enforcement slept throughout the Baltimore riots. Mayor Edward Johnson appeared on the fringes of every disturbance, pleading for calm. But he was reluctant to call on the militia, or on federal troops in the city, lest he rile his constituents. For their part, officers would not act without civilian orders, and when they did appear on the scene, as at Fort Hanson on the night of the 27th, they relied on talk rather than force. When the post office was threatened in August, the postmaster sent an express to Washington asking for help from the federal government. President James Madison decided that “defensive measures” were not “within the executive sphere.” This time Mayor Johnson did call out the militia, and the post office was not attacked. But even after order was restored, the rule of law was shaky: Baltimore juries acquitted most of the rioters while Hanson, indicted for the death of Gale, got the venue of his trial moved to Federalist Annapolis where he too got off.

As a Republican show of force, the Baltimore riots backfired. Horrified Federalists likened the violence to the French Revolution; “Paris of America” became an epithet for Baltimore. The Federal Republican flourished, embraced by Federalists nationwide; in Boston an aged Paul Revere took out a subscription. Lingan’s funeral, in Georgetown, turned into a Federalist rally; the eulogy was delivered by George Washington Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson. In the fall of 1812, Hanson was elected to Congress; for a seriously injured man he was quite active.

Partisan strife continued to dog the war effort. Federalists bickered with the major- ity Republicans over ends and means— the ordinary stuff of politics. But the Baltimore riots had set an ugly tone. Federalists were convinced that supporters of the Republican government were out to get them—and that sympathetic authorities would allow them to do so. Extreme Federalists wanted to wash their hands of Republican America. In December 1814, a convention in Hartford, Conn., drew up a list of constitutional amendments, including the requirement of a two-thirds vote by both houses of Congress to declare war. If the amendments were not ratified, the Hartford Convention pledged to meet in six months to decide what “a crisis so momentous may require”—a not-so-veiled threat of secession.

The convention never met again. Britain and America, equally tired of the conflict, were negotiating peace in Ghent, Belgium, and the last-minute American victory at New Orleans in January 1815 ended the War of 1812 on a surprisingly high note. Peace broke the political fever: Americans had been so keyed up fighting Britain and each other that they welcomed an era of good feelings during the administration of President James Monroe, who strived to downplay political partisanship.

Peace also showed the resilience of America’s institutions and national character. The wrath that characterized Republican/Federalist rivalry had been magnified by the nation’s newness. Americans were not sure in their bones that their new republic would last—hence their anxiety. When America emerged from war in reasonably good shape, Americans could afford to calm down.

That was too late for Thadeus Gale and James Lingan, the first dead of the War of 1812— Americans killed by Americans. In American politics, there is a difference between argument, even bitter argument, and fighting words: Fighting words often do lead to fights.


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here