American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
1835

Year of Violent Indecision

The law Protects us not. Then why should we be tender To let an arrogant piece of flesh threat us! Play judge and executioner.

-- Shakespeare, Cymbeline

The South wants justice, has waited for it long. She will wait no longer. You have not aided her or even heeded her cries. . . . You will find now that your interests are as much South as North. What destroys her institution and happiness will destroy your own. . . . She cannot live while the Republican principles still exist.

-- John Wilkes Booth, speech, 1860, in Hampden-Booth Theatre Collection, New York City

Angry differences between the people of the North and South had never been so much in the fore as they were by August 1835, but on one thing observers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line agreed: since early July the nation had demonstrated a penchant for riotous violence that raised doubts about its future stability. "Our whole community seems to be under an unnatural excitement," wrote the Columbia South Carolina, Southern Times. "Mobs, strikes, riots, abolition movements, insurrections, Lynch clubs seem to be the engrossing topics of the day. . . . The whole country . . . seems ready to take fire on the most trivial occasion." The Richmond Whig lamented "the present supremacy of the Mobocracy," and northward the Philadelphia National Gazette claimed, "The horrible fact is staring us in the face, that, whenever the fury or the cupidity of the mob is excited, they can gratify their lawless appetites almost with impunity." Hezekiah Niles, the most thorough compiler of these events, could only answer, in fumbling explanation of riot rather like subsequent theories, "Many of the people of the United States are 'out of joint.'" 1

This change, which seemed to turn editing into "the mere chronicling of atrocities," was sudden. The United States had known only few and scattered riots in the nineteenth century prior to Andrew Jackson's presidency, and the most recent and destructive mobs had been Irish immigrant faction fights along the railroads and canals, which roused little fear of indigenous lawless tendency. 2 When a mildly unruly celebration followed Andrew Jackson's inauguration, Supreme Court Justice

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