MUCH HAS CHANGED in the national discourse since a pro-war rabble two centuries ago tore down a Baltimore newspaper building, besieged the paper’s editor, and later broke into the city jail to attack him yet again.
But while legal and conventional structures have been erected to protect a robust free press, the baying mob hasn’t exactly gone away, according to Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, and Rep. Josh Cutler of Duxbury, author of the new book Mobtown Massacre: Alexander Hanson and the Baltimore Newspaper War of 1812.
The two appeared on the Codcast to talk about the violence that followed Alexander Hanson’s decision to publish an anti-war editorial, and to then double-down with another screed after political opponents tore down his newspaper building.
“I was struck on many occasions with the parallels today,” said Cutler. “We owe some of the liberties that we see today because folks like that literally put their lives on the line to defend the freedom of the press.”
The first American to die in defense of a free press was General James Lingan, a veteran of the American Revolution who helped to defend Hanson. He was slain after the mob busted into the city jail to attack the publisher and his compatriots.
Today, those unhinged by what they read generally (but not always) take to the keyboard rather than literally assailing people in their homes or on the streets.
“We have social media, which has given an incredible platform,” said Silverman. “While we might not be using cannons or muskets, we’re certainly using information or misinformation to attack the credibility of that news story, that editorial, tarnish the reputations, perhaps, of those who wrote it.”
One other big change is that government has stepped up to protect the freedom of speech, or at least to ensure the safety of those creating the speech. The mayor of Baltimore in 1812 was feckless in Cutler’s telling, and unable to enforce the First Amendment on his city’s streets.
“In some circumstances, you see the government being more proactive and preventing that kind of violence and stepping in – almost to a fault,” said Silverman. On the whole, the media is in a much better place today than it was 200 years ago, Silverman said.
There is also a chilling and sad coincidence that drives home the fact that despite the additional safeguards, merely practicing journalism can invite real violence even today.
Rob Hiaasen, writing for the Baltimore Sun in 1996, related the circumstances of Lingan’s death in an article about a monument in the old general’s honor. Last year, Hiaasen and three of his colleagues at the Capital Gazette were murdered, allegedly by a man with a history of bizarre behavior and harassment of the newspaper’s journalists.