Rioting in America

Rioting in America

Rioting in America

Rioting in America


From the Boston Massacre to the urban riots of the late twentieth century, rioting has been an integral part of American history. Popular disorder has forced acknowledgement of discontent, reshaped the economic order, changed the face of politics, and toppled once-powerful regimes.

In this wide-ranging survey of rioting in America, Paul A. Gilje argues that we cannot fully comprehend the history of the American people without an understanding of the impact of rioting. Riots are when people in the street make themselves heard, when the "inarticulate" become articulate. The history of rioting reveals how the ideas and beliefs of common Americans have shifted over time and how interactions between different groups in society have altered.

Basic to Gilje's approach is the assumption that mobs are rational, that they do not act merely on impulse. Exploring the rationale of the mob, he brings to light the grievances motivating its behavior, and the historical circumstances driving the choices it makes.

Though the specifics vary greatly from event to event and across time, Gilje detects some fascinating patterns. He proposes four phases of rioting in America, arguing that they reflect larger social and economic trends and developments. Gilje's unusual lens makes for an eye-opening view of the American people and their history.


Although I did not know it at the time, I began this book twenty years ago in my first year of graduate school. I was in a seminar in early American history with Gordon Wood and decided to write a paper on rioting in the early national period. I selected my topic almost capriciously. I had been reading about European popular disorder in other classes, Wood indicated that there was little published on the subject, and I thought that it might be appropriate for a working-class kid from Brooklyn to study collective violence. I had no particular political axe to grind and, even though it was the mid 1970s, I felt no compunction to rehash the radicalism of the 1960s.

What started out as almost a lark soon became more serious. Wood admonished his students to conceptualize their topics in broad terms and fit the detail of their research into a larger interpretive framework. As a novice to professional history I struggled along with the rest of the class and produced an essay on the Baltimore riots of 1812 and several years later completed a dissertation on rioting in New York City after the American Revolution. Eventually those works, after much revision, found their way toward publication in articles, essays, and a book. All the while, however, I kept in the back of my mind the need to look at the big picture urged upon fresh graduate students in 1975. I sought not only the changes that occurred in my immediate period, but the grand shifts and movements that preceded and followed it.

When Harvey Graff suggested in 1988 that I write a synthetic examination of rioting in American history I seized the opportunity to put my inchoate ideas into more definite form. I naively thought I could complete the book in two to three years. Time has proved that assumption wrong and shown the wisdom of the sage warning from a wary advisor that writing history out of one's own period is difficult. This book, then, is my effort at pulling together an interpretation of rioting that has been germinating for most of my life as a professional historian.

The task has been daunting. My first problem was determining how much rioting took place. Although for some periods lists of popular disorder exist, there is no comprehensive guide. Instead I had to compile my own file of rioting drawn from many different sources. Although this file now contains over four thousand entries, I know that it is still not complete. Every time I pick up a book or article close to the subject I find yet another example to add. At some point in my research I had to draw the line and decide that I have looked at the most significant examples as well as many less significant examples, and may therefore come to my conclusions. I expect experts—especially those who have concentrated on areas beyond the revolutionary and early national periods—may disagree with me. I only hope that they can be a little forgiving and keep my larger goal of synthesis in mind when making their criticisms.

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