The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880


Allen Steinberg brings to life the court-centered criminal justice system of nineteenth-century Philadelphia, chronicles its eclipse, and contrasts it to the system dominated by the police and public prosecutor that replaced it. He offers a major reinterpretation of criminal justice in nineteenth-century America by examining this transformation from private to state prosecution and analyzing the discontinuity between the two systems.

Steinberg first establishes why the courts were the sources of law enforcement, authority, and criminal justice before the advent of the police. He shows how the city's system of private prosecution worked, adapted to massive social change, and came to dominate the culture of criminal justice even during the first decades following the introduction of the police. He then considers the dilemmas that prompted reform, beginning with the establishment of a professional police force and culminating in the restructuring of primary justice.

Making extensive use of court dockets, state and municipal government publications, public speeches, personal memoirs, newspapers, and other contemporary records, Steinberg explains the intimate connections between private prosecution, the everyday lives of ordinary people, and the conduct of urban politics. He ties the history of Philadelphia's criminal courts closely to related developments in the city's social and political evolution, making a contribution not only to the study of criminal justice but also to the larger literature on urban, social, and legal history.


This book began a long time ago. As a teenager growing up in a lower- middle-class suburb, I was struck by the difference between the ideals about law we were taught in school and the realities of law in daily life. In the classroom, our teachers talked at length about democracy and consent, the manner in which the people chose their leaders, and how the laws they made served and protected us all. But outside the schoolhouse people expressed mostly contempt for their leaders, few participated in politics or government in a meaningful way, and for many of my friends, the law was something to be feared and avoided. Our relationship with most of its representatives was antagonistic, even hostile.

The tension between the commitment to, and respect for, law and the disregard of law in favor of competing values is a recurrent and intensifying theme in modern American life. Sadly, by the end of the Reagan era, disregard and contempt of the law seems to have reached even the highest levels of the state. The role of law in everyday life is, like other things, something that has changed over the course of the United States' two centuries, and it is worth asking whether its hold on the nation has always been this tenuous.

Although a study of primarily obscure people and minor crimes in one city in the nineteenth century, this book concerns the origins of the alienation, antagonism, and disrespect for law that is a prominent part of the relationship between the citizenry and the modern American state. The book has been taking shape for over a decade, and many people have contributed along the way. My parents, William and Beatrice Steinberg, have offered constant support and encouragement. David Rothman suggested the original topic and directed the research from which it is derived. During my years at Columbia University, I also benefited from the guidance of James Shenton, Eric McKitrick, and especially Eric Foner, who gave the manuscript an extremely useful and critical reading.

At various stages of my work, a number of friends and colleagues read parts of it. Jeannie Attie, Elizabeth Blackmar, and Joshua Brown provided me with helpful criticism and conversation. My good friends Michael Merrill and Leonard Wallock have watched this project develop from its inception, encouraged me to take it where I believed it should go, and have continuously . . .

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