Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching

Article excerpt

The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching. By Michael J. Pfeifer. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 143. Acknowledgments, maps, appendix, notes, index. $40.00.)

The last generation of scholarship on lynching in the United States has deepened our knowledge of collective murder substantially. Michael J. Pfeifer, who contributed to that literature in 2004 with his book Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947, has now published an important volume in which he asks where lynching culture came from, and when and how it became common in the United States.

It is a mistake, Pfeifer claims, to think of lynching as peculiarly, "exceptionally," southern. One must understand lynching in a national, even transnational, context. Pfeifer describes the early modern Anglo- American legal heritage and argues that "informal group murder" and other violence was not unknown in the British Isles and could be found sometimes in colonial America, especially during the "regulator" movements of the 1760s and 1770s. The Revolutionary era, especially the crowd violence directed at Tories, brought wider legitimacy to these extra-legal acts.

For Pfeifer, lynching is not necessarily lethal violence. Some people were flogged or tarred and feathered by mobs but not killed. By the late 1830s, however, non-lethal lynching in America had declined. More lynchings were southern. Pfeifer collected (non-comprehensive) data and tallied fifty-six lynchings of black southerners (not including people killed during insurrection scares) between 1824 and 1862. Most victims were burned or hanged. Elsewhere, whites used lynching to control and enforce social norms among non-whites, especially American Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans. In the West, numerous lynchings occurred during the gold rush of the late 1840s and 1850s, while others took place in locales such as Wisconsin or New York.

Illegal collective murder, according to Pfeifer, took place when duly constituted authorities seemed unable or unwilling to control crime or administer justice. …

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