The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

By Iver Bernstein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Two Tempers of Draco

For New York's middle and upper classes, no less than for its wage laborers, the riot week was a time of evaluating commitments and choosing sides. The riots provoked sharp disagreement among local elites over whether to declare federal martial law and allow a Republican standing army to enforce the draft in New York City. The debate over federal power also became a dispute over relations with the poor and between the races. By midweek there were two well-defined elite positions on the violence with no neutral ground in between. The polarization of the middle and upper classes turned the draft riots from a working-class challenge of unprecedented scope into something larger--a political crisis.

In what sense political? As one would expect, the plan to put New York under military supervision was generally a party issue, urged by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. But in 1863, as New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan observed, political divisions were determined less by party "antecedents" than by whether "men were now right" on the questions of the day. New Yorkers often chose the labels "radical" and "conservative" to describe the supporters and opponents of Lincoln's wartime expansion of federal powers. The same political categories were applied in the debate over martial law. "Certain Republicans of the radical sort," one writer recalled, "were busily engaged . . . in making efforts to get General Benjamin F. Butler sent to command in New York . . . [so as] to see a few hundred 'copperhead' corpses." Democratic General John A. Dix, who hoped to keep federal forces out of New York City, was regarded by such Republicans as "too mild and conservative."1 In this context, Democrats were almost always "conservative," but not all Republicans were "radical." Senator Morgan, wealthy city merchant, founding member of the Republican Party, and longtime Republican National Chairman, was a conservative critical of the Lincoln administration and opposed to martial law.2 The riot-week political crisis was a contest between Republicans and Democrats, but more accurately and broadly, between radicals and conservatives who argued the martial law question much as they had other administration policies.

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