The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

By Iver Bernstein | Go to book overview

by contemporaries. These narratives nearly all regard the revolt as a series of colorful scrimmages and fail to assess its broader political and historical meaning for the contesting groups and the nation. We have yet to understand why the draft riots occurred and what their implications were for the creation of modern urban America.3

This poverty of analysis may be explained in part by the refusal of any of the participants to parade the riots as part of their heritage. A nervous gentry sooner pretended the revolt had never occurred, only acknowledging it as if by some painful reflex during subsequent moments of social crisis. The labor movement disowned a grisly race riot with overtones of treason as well as an episode that revealed many wage earners uniting with their employers at the workplace to shoot down fellow workers in the crowd. Trade union leaders did not want their infant organizations linked with violence and destruction of property in the public mind and repudiated the riots. The immediate victims, the black community and the white poor who opposed the draft and fought federal troops, did allow versions of their story to filter into newspaper accounts, court affidavits, coroner's reports, and comptroller's office petitions. But this victims' record was fragmentary, well buried and embarrassing to the many metropolitan wage earners who came to prefer more orderly forms of protest in the decade following the riot. When in late 1863 Northern military victory began to appear imminent, an anachronistic reading back of national unity in a grand cause encouraged many Northerners to repress further the recollection and meaning of draft resistance in New York and around the country. What gradually ensued was an instance not of what historians call collective memory but rather of collective amnesia.4

Nor was this an event that future reform movements would readily incorporate into their usable past. As a communal uprising against the power of an expanding and centralizing federal government, the New York upheaval recalled American traditions of popular resistance to tyrannical regimes dating back to the Stamp Act riots and the colonial agitation against British rule. But an episode so tainted with treason and implicitly or overtly linked with sympathy for the Southern slaveowning aristocracy would not attract the attention of subsequent popular movements against excessive or intrusive governmental power. Protestant moral reformers would find the legacy of the riots equally ambiguous. These men and women saw the quashing of the violence as a crucial homefront victory for a righteous Northern cause. But the riots also exposed a cultural chasm between the reformers and their immigrant clientele. The benevolent empire, the riots made clear, might occasionally have to underwrite its program of moral uplift for the poor with coercion and bloodshed. Socialists would also shun or ignore the legacy of July 1863. Karl Marx saluted the Paris Communards of 1871 as Prometheans who dared to storm the gates of heaven to liberate all humanity.

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The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • Abbreviations xii
  • Introduction 3
  • Part I - Draft Riots and the Social Order 15
  • Chapter 1 - A Multiplicity of Grievances 17
  • Chapter 2 - The Two Tempers of Draco 43
  • Part II - Origins of the Crisis, 1850s and 1860s 73
  • Chapter 3 - Workers and Consolidation 75
  • Chapter 4 - Merchants Divided 125
  • Chapter 5 - Industrialists 162
  • Part III - Resolutions of the Crisis, 1860s and 1870s 193
  • Chapter 6 - The Rise and Decline of Tweed's Tammany Hall 195
  • Chapter 7 - 1872 237
  • Epilogue: The Draft Riots' Lost Significance 259
  • Appendix A - Uptown Social Geography, 1863 265
  • Notes 287
  • Bibliographical Essay 341
  • Index 349
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