A Further Look at Rioting

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

I want to delve a bit deeper into Maier’s Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth Century America before moving on. The whole paper deserves a read if you can find a copy, but the first section most interests me most. There Maier makes it clear that not all mobs gained the approval of eighteenth century contemporaries, but many did. Americans of the time understood the mob as a kind of organic part of the body politic which protested, if violently, unpopular laws and otherwise served as a voice of the community when the law failed or authorities refused to act. Maier gives many examples of the latter type, including one of the most famous disorders of the era:

The insurgents in Worcester, Berkshire, Hampshire, Middlesex, and Bristol counties-often linked together as members of “Shay’s Rebellion”-forced the closing of the civil courts, which threatened to send a major portion of the local population to debtors’ prison, only until a new legislature could remedy their pressing needs.

Clearly we have here mobs acting in what they consider the public interest, not some anarchic gathering of violent men. They had a policy and engaged in considered political action to see it carried out. Whatever their methods, they did not just get together to break things. Few people do, then or now. Lest one think these politically-motivated mobs unique to the countryside, Maier provides urban examples as well:

The history of Boston, where by the mid-eighteenth century “public order … prevailed to a greater degree than anywhere else in England or America,”is full of such incidents. During the food shortage of 1710, after the governor rejected a petition from the Boston selectmen calling for a temporary embargo on the exportation of foodstuffs one heavily laden ship found its rudder cut away, and fifty men sought to haul another outward bound vessel back to shore. Under similar circumstances Boston mobs again intervened to keep foodstuffs in the colony in 1713 and 1729. When some doubt a few years later whether or not the selectmen had the authority to seize a barn lying in the path of a proposed street, a group of townsmen, their faces blackened, levelled the structure and the road went through. Houses of ill fame were attacked by Boston mobs in 1734, 1737, and 1771; and in the late 1760s the New-York Gazette claimed that mobs in Providence and Newport had taken on responsibility for “disciplining” unfaithful husbands. Meanwhile in New London, Connecticut, another mob prevented a radical religious sect, the Rogerenes, from disturbing normal Sunday services, “a practice they … [had] followed more or less for many years past; and which all the laws made in that government, and executed in the most judicious manner could not put a stop to.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

One has the impression we would do better to ask who didn’t riot in the eighteenth century instead of who did. The case of the demolished barn especially interests me and the mob clearly acted as an unofficial branch of the legal government, a role Maier called “extra-institutional in character.” The Executive Committee of Kansas could call itself an institution if it liked, but nobody thought James Lane and company acted in conjunction with the legal government and in furtherance of its policies. Their refusal to do so brought them to forming the committee to begin with.

The real menace to the latter-day barns of Kansas came from the other side. John Stringfellow’s brother wrote a manifesto declaring extralegal violence justified to save Kansas and Missouri from freedom. John himself served as Speaker of the Kansas House, where he oversaw the passage of its laws to protect slavery. He also ran a newspaper with Robert S. Kelley, of lynch mob and mail censoring fame. You can almost imagine an anachronistic gathering of the Stringfellows and Kelley reading Maier’s article as a menu and ordering up one of everything. They had state policy from John and company. They expressed a white, proslavery community interest in the face of crisis, as Benjamin Stringfellow argued. And they had Kelley seizing Pardee Butler and writing dire threats in his newspaper to cover the rest.

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