- Historic Sites
Gunmaker To The World
Samuel Colt’s life was brief but eventful. He was an imaginative inventor and an ambitious pitchman whose legacy included scandal and success—and firearms that were revolutionary in more ways than one
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
During the 1860 state elections Colt’s political convictions and their manifestations caused a stir in the press, the Courant leading the attack and the Hartford Times waging a vigorous defense. Colt was known to have used dubious methods in previous campaigns, including having ballot boxes watched to make sure his workers supported Democratic candidates. This time the hostile press accused him of discharging, outright, 66 men, of whom 56 are Republicans. … Many of these were contractors and among his oldest and ablest workmen.” Asserting that their dismissals amounted to “proscription for political opinion,” the discharged Republican workers resolved that “the oppression of free labor by capital, and the attempt to coerce and control the votes of free men, is an outrage upon the rights of the laboring classes.” Colt quickly issued a flat denial:
In no case have I ever hired an operative or discharged one for his political or religious opinions. I hire them for ten hours labor … and for that I pay them punctually every month. …
Yet a few months earlier he had suggested to a politician friend that he pen a resolution urging “us [manufacturers] all to discharge from our imploymen every Black Republican … until the question of slavery is for ever set to rest & the rights of the South secured permanently to them.”
Now Colt’s immense business responsibilities were beginning to wear down his seemingly inexhaustible energies. Bothered by frequent attacks of inflammatory rheumatism and distressed by the death of an infant daughter, he drove himself as if he knew his days were numbered. Smoking Cuban cigars, Colt ruled his domain from a roll-top desk at the armory, often writing his own letters in his left-handed scrawl.
Shortly before he died, he handed the family reins to his brother-in-law, Richard Jarvis, with the admonition that “you and your family must do for me now as I have no one else to call upon. You are the pendulum that must keep the works in motion.” Two of his own brothers were dead, and the other, James, a hot-tempered ne’er-do-well and petty politician, had proved a miserable failure as Colt’s manager in the short-lived London plant and later as an official of the armory. The entire estate, which Mrs. Colt and their son Caldwell controlled, was valued at $15,000,000—an enormous sum in those days—giving Elizabeth an income of $200,000 a year for life. Caldwell grew up to be a good sportsman, an international yachtsman, and a lover of beautiful women; although a vice president, he took little interest in the company, and died a mysterious death in Florida at the age of thirty-six.
Other than Elizabeth and Caldwell, Colt’s major beneficiary was Master Samuel Caldwell Colt, “son of my late brother John Caldwell Colt,” whom even Mrs. Colt regarded favorably. When Sam and his southern bride were married in a large and fashionable wedding at Armsmear in 1863, Elizabeth presented the couple with a house across the street; at her death she left them many of her personal effects. For a short time this handsome, retiring man worked at the armory; he became a director but eventually moved to Farmington and took up gentleman farming. He was always loyal to the memory of Colonel Colt, who his descendants believe was his true father.
Colonel Samuel Colt had adopted as his motto Vincit qui patitur , “He conquers who suffers.” But a better-fitting key to his character is found in a remark he once wrote to his half-brother William: ” ‘It is better to be at the head of a louse than at the tail of a lyonl’ … If I cant be first I wont be second in anything.”
Colt’s ambition was to be first and best, and his means were money and power, both of which he had in full measure. His patriotism, while stronger than that of the average munitions maker, was ever subordinate to his desire to see maintained a commercially favorable status quo between North and South. Colt was not above using bribery and was unashamed of profiteering; he seldom reflected on the moral implications of dealing in weapons of death and destruction.
In fairness, Colt was not alone in his evident amorality: the turbulence of the age had thrown out of focus more than a few of the old values for more than a few of his countrymen. Especially to Connecticut Yankees, who had made their state an arsenal for the nation since colonial days, gunmaking could be no sin. What did bother the diluted Puritan conscience of Colt’s time was that a Hartford aristocrat flouted the tenets of the Congregational Church to which he was born—by a bizarre career, a love of high living, and an over-bearing pride and flamboyance.
It can scarcely be denied that Sam Colt was one of America’s first tycoons, a Yankee peddler who became a dazzling entrepreneur. The success of his many mechanical inventions and refinements was due less to their intrinsic merits—which were considerable—than to his showmanship in telling the world about them. He achieved his goals despite continual adversity for nearly three fourths of his short life. Proud, stubborn, and farsighted, he was a man apart; he was impatient with the old ways, preferring, as he said, to be “paddling his own canoe.”