Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"We Will Dirk Every Mother's Son of You": Five Points and the Irish Conquest of New York Politics. *

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"We Will Dirk Every Mother's Son of You": Five Points and the Irish Conquest of New York Politics. *

Article excerpt

NEW YORK'S Five Points neighborhood was the most infamous slum in nineteenth-century America. Located just north of City Hall in what is now Chinatown, the district was laid out in the first years of the nineteenth century when city officials decided to cover over a freshwater pond to create new space for the city's ever-increasing population. When the city added new streets to the irregular ones that had once skirted the lake, it created some unusual intersections, including a five-cornered one where Orange, Cross, and Anthony Streets converged. As a result, the neighborhood soon became known as "Five Points." (1)

Because the ground over the old lake was damp and unstable, the buildings in Five Points quickly began to sag and buckle, and as a result only the poorest New Yorkers and the least respectable businesses chose to locate there. By 1840 the district's concentration of seedy saloons, bawdy dancehalls, filthy tenements, and brazen prostitutes was notorious throughout the US--and much of Europe as well. Writers of every background visited Five Points to witness the depravity for themselves. Journalist and reformer Lydia Maria Child reported that "there you will see nearly every form of human misery, every sign of human degradation." Frontiersman Davy Crockett said of the Five Points inhabitants: "I would rather risque myself in an Indian fight than venture among these creatures after night." Scandinavian author Fredrika Bremer asserted that "lower than to the Five Points it is not possible for human nature to sink." (2)

It is significant, I believe, that Crockett's account of Five Points--the earliest of the three--also speaks disparagingly of Five Pointers' political proclivities. The frontiersman (or his ghostwriter) noted that Five Points "is part of what is called by the Regency the `glorious sixth ward'--the regular Van Buren ground-floor," a reference to the neighborhood's propensity to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic party. Soon the Five Points political district would become known citywide as the "Bloody Sixth" Ward because violence and intimidation were more prevalent at its primaries and general elections than in any other portion of the metropolis. Five Points Irish-Americans helped to revolutionize urban American political culture with this rough-and-tumble style of politics. Their use of these tactics helped Irish-Americans to gain their first real positions of power in New York City politics.

Like all New Yorkers, Five Pointers in the early nineteenth century deferred to their neighborhood's elite citizens in political matters. Prominent merchants and manufacturers occupied most elective offices of importance. This deference began to wane, however, in the early 1830s. A terrible election riot in 1834 announced the sea change in Five Points, with the violence reflecting non-elite voters' determination to take political power into their own hands. The modern historian of antebellum New York rioting has accurately portrayed this riot as a watershed in New York City social and political history. "Never before had an election pushed the city so near the brink," he writes. "Never before had there been such anarchy." Because the well-to-do in these years were already rapidly leaving the Sixth Ward--the political district in which Five Points sat--for more prestigious neighborhoods, few of the old elite bothered to contest this transfer of power to the brawling multitude. The 1834 riot was in some senses a last-ditch attempt by the old guard to "keep those damned Irishmen in order." Five Pointers were among the first New Yorkers of modest means to take control of their political destiny, and as a result they were the first to experience the new riotous style of mass politics. (3)

In the new political environment, manufacturers and wealthy merchants were replaced by saloonkeepers, grocers, policemen, and fire-company foremen in the district's positions of political leadership. …

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