By Dave Kopel and Michael Brotherton
National Review Online. September 23, 2002 9:00 a.m. More by Kopel on the American firearms industry.
[Update: Coltsville was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2008. The campaign continues to make is National Park.]
As our nation discovers that the corporate headquarters of some of the nation's largest companies have become a den of thieves, it seems clear that our business schools — and other parts of the educational system — have been remiss in teaching future business leaders about the virtues of America's greatest and most ethical businessmen. Rather than spend too much time perusing stories of the squalid morals of the "leadership" of companies like Worldcom and Tyco, we would do well to also direct our attention upward, to reacquaint our culture with the exemplary character of businessmen who have embodied civic virtue. A bill currently before Congress, S. 2519, sponsored by Senator Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) would take an important step towards teaching future generations about business ethics. (The parallel House bill, H.R. 4736, is sponsored by Hartford Democrat John Larson). The legislation would direct the secretary of the interior to begin a three-year study about adding a new site to the national-park system. That site is Coltsville, the Connecticut community founded by Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.
The report of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources summarizes the significance of Coltsville to innovations in American industry:
In addition to manufacturing the famous Colt six-shooter, the Colt Manufacturing Company was a center of industrial innovation and development of technology that changed the way of life in the United States and flourished during the Industrial Revolution. Some of the company's major innovations included the development of telegraph technology and advancements in jet engine technology. . . the Coltsville region contains an unequaled concentration of historic resources relating to precision manufacturing
Yet while the contributions of the Colt Manufacturing Company to American industrial success are undeniable, the most urgent reason for moving forward with a national-park study is the character of Colonel and Mrs. Colt, and the importance of setting their example before the American people.
The definitive story of the Colts and their company is Jack Rohan's book Yankee Arms Maker: The Story of Samuel Colt and His Six-Shot Peacemaker. From very humble beginnings, Colt built a multimillion-dollar corporation, and did so in a way that enriched his community.
When Samuel Colt began to search for factory land near Hartford, Connecticut, he purchased 200 acres in the South Meadow area along the Connecticut River. The river location would facilitate easy export of his firearms all over the United States and the world, and provided plenty of room for growth. Yet Hartford business elite wondered aloud about Colt's sanity. It was commonly known that the Connecticut River flooded every spring, primarily in the South Meadow area.
Colt retorted: "Had any of the Hartford wise ones been to Holland?" He was sure that a dike could be built to protect the factory. In fact, he offered to supervise the construction of dikes for the entire city, including private homes. He wrote to the municipal government, "if the City of Hartford will agree to pay for it, I will agree to dyke the Connecticut River from end to end of the city, so that nothing less than Noah's flood can reach the houses which are now inundated." He did, and the dikes worked.
Elsewhere in New England, the factory owners of the Industrial Revolution were treating employees like easily replaced machinery, subjecting them extreme hours and unsafe working conditions, and paying them the lowest wages possible.
Colonel Colt, though, understands that his factory was using precision tools to produce tools whose proper function was, quite literally, a matter of life or death. He wanted the best employees performing at the highest levels. Accordingly, the conditions in the Colt Manufacturing Company had little in common with the New England textile mills.
Rohan explains that Colt realized "no man could give his best on the Colt assembly line for twelve or thirteen hours every day." Colt ensured that no employee was required to work more than ten hours a day. (It would be many decades before the ten-hour day became the norm in most American factories.) Further, each man was required to take a full hour lunch break. Said Colt, "Only fools or slaves would gulp their midday meal in half an hour; I want neither in my employ."
In era when only a few progressive physicians had begun to wash their hands before performing surgery, Colt made sure that every employee could return home clean. The Colt factory was filled with wash basins, towels, soap, and hot and cold water.
Sometimes, production bottlenecks would force Colt to contract for the manufacture of certain parts for his revolvers. When the outside contractors attempted to abuse their workers with lofty production quotas and long workdays, Colt intervened, and demanded that contracted workers be treated with the same respect and dignity as any on-site Colt employee. Colt who set the minimum production quotas along with minimum pay levels for the contract employees. Outside contractors who tried to push their employees too hard were discharged from their relationship with Colt.
Throughout the 19th century, factory owners who imposed twelve- or fourteen-hour days claimed that the extreme working hours were a favor to the employees and society, since long hours left no time for idleness or vice. Colonel Colt believed that factory workers were just as entitled to leisure as were factory owners.
Rohan tells how Colt built Charter Oak Hall, "probably the first social center erected by an employer in the United States." The hall contained games, books, newspapers, and periodicals. Colt also hosted fairs, art exhibitions, musicals, and theatrical performances for his employees. He even hired instructors to teach his employees to play musical instruments, hoping to form an armory band.
After building the Connecticut River dike, Colt had planted hundreds of willow trees along dike. As the trees flourished, furniture manufacturers approached Colt to purchase his outstanding trees. Instead, Colt decided to move into the furniture business.
Colt lacked skilled furniture craftsman. The world's best lived in small communes in Germany. Colt signed a contract to bring these craftsmen and their extended families to Hartford. Prior to the Germans' arrival Colt requested a detailed sketch of their old commune. Colt built an exact replica of their town next to the furniture factory. He also built a beer garden and purchased folk music instruments for the immigrants. "Potsdam Village" became a major part of Coltsville.
Later, Colt introduced machinery that significantly cut the production time of furniture. Instead of paying these highly skilled craftsmen less, or firing some of them, he maintained their original pay as if they were making the furniture by hand. High wages and a grateful workforce helped the Colt furniture business achieved such tremendous efficiency that it could undersell other furniture makers in the United States. Colt's willow furniture sold as far away as California and Cuba.
Mrs. Elizabeth Colt, meanwhile, was involved in every charity event held in Hartford. Mrs. Colt founded the Union for Home work, an organization that helped needy women and children — especially Irish immigrants — and improved sanitation. Today the organization continues, under a new name, to provide self-help programs for young mothers in the Connecticut River Valley. Elizabeth Colt also organized the first Suffragette convention in Connecticut.
American firearms owners have long revered Colonel Samuel Colt, the man who invented the reliable repeating firearm, and then created the factories that supplied these "high-tech" products at an affordable price for a mass democratic market. Yet the most important reason to begin considering Coltsville for a national park is not to recognize a great inventor and industrialist. It is to honor — and begin to recover for our nation's business culture — the values of a captain of industry who saw his workers as more than fungible units of production, who realized that the best path to business success is treat your employees much better than your competitors do, and then watch your company far surpass the competition.
— Dave Kopel and Michael Brotherton both write from the Independence Institute.