Riotous Democracy and American Political Culture in the Nineteenth Century

AHA Session 199
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Ryan L. Dearinger, Eastern Oregon University
Zachary M. Schrag, George Mason University

Session Abstract

This panel speaks directly to the concerns of the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association. Riotous democracy, in the sense we mean, evokes moments when civil debate and discussion were unable to resolve seemingly intractable disagreements, leading ultimately to popular violent confrontation. Our papers range widely across different times and places in nineteenth-century American political culture within the territorial United States and its colonial settlement in Liberia. The thread that ties us together is our approach to rioting. Each of us will provide a cultural history of a riotous moment that locates its actors within a wider world of meaning, turning to discourses on gender, nationality, and race, as well as the institutions that Americans believed would most effectively achieve justice and restore order, namely the posse, the National Guard, and official interpreters of the law such as the courts. Collectively, our papers will contribute, we hope, to a robust discussion about the historical possibilities and limits of popular justice as Americans have differently imagined and enacted them.

Chair Ryan Dearinger and commenter Zachary Schrag are perfectly suited as experts in the relevant fields to address the claims our papers make about American political culture. Robyn Schroeder will discuss her research on an 1835 riotous demonstration in Monrovia, Liberia, led by African American and Afro-Caribbean “colonists.” Reflecting their paradoxical status as subaltern colonizers, a subordinate class from the powerful American slave republic and its environs, these black “Americans” violently contested their low civil standing in public culture by attacking its representative institutions: the printing press, the court, and the colonial office charged with overseeing their affairs. Schroeder turns fruitfully to civil memory, in particular the Constitution, to explain the kind of cultural claims that these post-colonial colonial rebels made. Alex Elkins will share his research on the implicit police power of white “mob justice” in Philadelphia in 1838, before the city established a department equipped with executive powers to police preemptively public spaces. In this incident white Philadelphians burned down an abolitionist meeting place, Pennsylvania Hall, deeming it a nuisance, a threat to the social order. White elites agreed with the verdict, though they disapproved of any destruction to private property. Black Philadelphians, meanwhile, invoked the supremacy of the law in a world without municipal police as the best possible resource to secure their well-being. Shannon Smith will move the panel forward to the decades during and after the Civil War. Her research on the violent battles in the Ohio Valley between labor and capital has unearthed that these bitter foes could at least agree that riotous democracy was a masculine space. Popular press accounts strategically elided women’s participation to make the point that politics was a masculine sport as it could turn violent. These gendered understandings, Smith shows, directly led elites to finance the National Guard to keep the peace and protect the honor and safety of women.

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