The Great "Riot Year": Jacksonian Democracy and Patterns of

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Carl E. Prince
New Yorkers characterized the tumultuous months of 1834 as
the great "riot year."' Philip Hone, the New York City
patrician and diarist, had reason to apply his barbed pen to
the events of that year as disturbances swept the city. New
York was not unique. Rioting that reached an intense climax
in 1835 and 1836, broke out across America after a generation
of relative civil peace. Race riots in 1834 marred the landscape
from New Orleans to Philadelphia. Irish labor violence erupted
on the construction sites of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in
rural Maryland, the Chenango Canal in New York State, and
the Baltimore and Washington Railroad outside the nation's
capital. While severe rioting continued through the next two
years, it was the 1834 uprisings that first broke the peace and
alarmed a nation.
Anti-Catholic, anti-Irish tensions were manifest both at the
Charlestown Convent Riot in Boston and the "anti-foreign"
crowd actions in New York City. Small upheavals of an individually minor character, but in fact part of a larger pattern,
occurred across America, alongside great economic confrontaMr. Prince is a member of the Department of History at New York
University. This paper was delivered on July 20, 1984, as the presidential
address of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic during
its sixth annual conference at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.
Allan Nevins, ed., The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (2 vols., New
York 1927), I, 134.
JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC, 5 (Spring 1985) @ Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
tions like the riot that broke out in Baltimore in the wake of
the failure of the Bank of Maryland. Election riots in New
York and Philadelphia marked America's return to an older
tradition of "politics-out-of-doors."
Finally, newly organized
abolitionist militancy was met by anti-black, anti-reform mobs
in Newark, New Jersey, Norwich, Connecticut, Cincinnati,
Ohio, and elsewhere across America.
These were only some examples of renewed community
violence that washed over the nation after a generation of
comparative internal peace in a superficially placid republic.
The year 1834 marked the end of that surface tranquility. Hints
of what was to come may, in retrospect, be evident in the
sporadic civil disorders of the years 1829-1833. But 1834 marked
the year when a pattern akin to social chain reaction came to
light. At the same time, the events of 1835 must be taken into
account. While the violence of 1834 must be taken as of a piece
with those events both before and after, it is useful to concentrate on immediate origins as the full pattern emerges; 1834
marked the opening salvos, in this sense, of a new period of
civil disorder in Jacksonian America.
For these reasons I propose to turn to those twelve months
to see what can be found about why and how it happened.
Waves of violence have always characterized the history of this
open society. The year 1834 opened only one such epoch, this
one associated with what historians still call the era of "Jacksonian Democracy." Other violent epochs included the American revolutionary years from 1763 to 1787; the generations of
upheaval following the Civil War; industrial strife that characterized the period from 1894 to 1914; the years after World
War I, touched by the "Red Scare"; post-depression violence
in the early 1930s; and the black and youth revolutions of the
On the face of it, the violence and destruction inflicted by
ugly mobs may not be appetizing fare to a nation that prides
itself on its tolerance, opportunity, openness to change, and
civility. The events of 1834, however, demonstrate not only a
society in stress, but underscore as well the workings of a
dynamic political and social process reasserting itself after a
relatively calm period of perhaps a generation's duration.
I noted at the outset that Philip Hone commented on 1834
riots. Like many contemporaries, he saw causation in simple
IN 1834
terms. Hone wrote gratuitously of Irish rioters as "a band .
of the lowest class," of abolitionists who held mass meetings
protesting legalized human bondage as "a set of fanatics,"
and, indeed, he characterized 1834 in general as a year of
widespread "insubordination to the laws.'"2 Hone was not alone
among contemporaries in his perception that 1834 was a singular year. Armageddon, notable Americans perceived, was at
hand. Theologian and social critic William Ellery Channing
remembered that in 1834 "society was shaken to its foundations,
all its joints loosened, all its fixtures about to be swept away."'
Ralph Waldo Emerson observed after the 1834 Charlestown
Convent Riot in Boston: "If the wishes of the lowest class that
suffer in these long [Boston] streets should execute themselves,
who can doubt that the city would topple in ruins."4
And that venerable curmudgeon John Quincy Adams, at
the height of his effective post-presidential stint in Congress,
balefully noted the societal earthquakes of 1834 in his diary
for that year: "My hopes of the long continuance of this Union
are extinct. The people must go the way of all the world, and
split up into an uncertain number of rival communities. . . ."
The "universal cry of distress," he testified, stretched "from
Portsmouth to Charleston, and from Baltimore to Frankfort,
Kentucky," with "no appearance of a disposition to afford
Hezekiah Niles, publisher of one of the most influential
newspapers in America in the Age of Jackson, wrote on August
23, 1834: "Does it not appear that the character of our people
has suffered a considerable change for the worse? If so-what
is the cause? We fear that the moral sense of right and wrong
has been rendered less sensitive than it was-that
a spirit of
force, in certain cases, has begotten it in others. The saying of
the sage, that 'truth is a victor without violence,' is passing
Ibid., 122-124, 134-135, 136-137.
William Ellery Channing, Memoir of William Ellery Channing, With
Extracts From His Correspondenceand Manuscripts (3 vols., Boston 1848), III,
4 Lewis Mumford, ed., Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Journals (New
York 1968), 634.
SJohn Quincy Adams, "Diary," in Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, ed.
Charles Francis Adams (12 vols., Philadelphia 1876), IX, 97, 162.
into disrepute and sober and peaceable individuals are called
upon to defend their own personal rights, or those of their
neighbors by . . . force-instead of relying upon . . the law.
Political myopia knew no ideology. Jacksonian pols were
no more astute than their Whig counterparts. Amos Kendall,
of Jackson's Kitchen Cabinet blamed "the agitation
a member
in congress and country" on the failure to recharter
the Bank of the United States. The Great Chieftain himself,
Andrew Jackson, confronted a delegation at the White House
who dared to tell him to his face that the many manifestations
of "politics-out-of-doors" evident in 1834 would increase in
intensity so long as Old Hickory continued his assault on the
Bank. "The people," his visitors continued, "might seek redress by force." Jackson responded, "if violence be your game,
come on with your armed Bank mercenaries, and by the
Eternal! I will hang you around the Capitol on gallows higher
than Haman's."
The game of the elephant and the wise men, wherein every
blindfolded sage felt a different portion of the mammal's anatomy, and pontificated learnedly and ridiculously on what he
was feeling, may have reached a high point with the observations of William Dunlap, founder of the National Academy of
Design. With the 1834 New York City Election Riot fresh in
mind, he visited an inmate friend in the New York City
Asylum. Dunlap observed that his compatriot "became insane
in electioneering," with an assist from "attendant drinking
But then again, maybe simple answers are the best. Dunlap
believed that if his disoriented friend stayed away from elections
and spirits in that order, he "would soon be well.7"7 Easier
said than done in 1834.
What in fact did make 1834 so traumatic? Historians have
sketched in some answers, and these generalizations are worth
laying on the table. Briefly, 1834 was a year that may be seen
as pivotal in an era of dynamic transformations. The rapid
Niles' Weekly Register, Aug. 23, 1834, 426.
William Stickney, ed., Autobiographyof Amos Kendall (Boston 1872), 409,
411-412, 419, 420-421; Diary of William Dunlap, New-York Historical Society
Collections (5 vols., New York 1930), III, 798.
IN 1834
urbanization of parts of America was well underway. That
urbanization expanded and changed economic and social relationships and impacted on the nature of community on the one
hand, and enhanced the potential for menacing confrontations
between and among hostile city dwellers on the other.8
Progress, if that is what it was, was rendered infinitely
more complex by the rising tide of immigration into the United
States, particularly but not exclusively into the cities, by Irish
and Germans. Complexity was compounded by the growing
numbers of urban free blacks populating northern cities, where
large indigenous black populations were augmented by escaping
slaves and southern "free persons of colour."9
The year 1834 was also notable for the first break in the
revival of industry, a revival that dates to about 1825. In
particular, the spread of the factory system and deep changes
in the nature of work were already in the process of transforming the demographic landscape and threatening social class
relationships. The brief panic of 1834 was unsettling to many
This theme has been dealt with in great depth by urban historians
writing about the Age of Jackson in the last twenty years. The best historiographical explication of this monumental transformation is Edward Pessen's
"We Are All Jeffersonians, We Are All Jacksonians: or A Pox on Stultifying
Periodizations," Journal of the Early Republic, 1 (Spring 1981), 1-26. Three
pioneering studies of the 1960s of this process of social change are Sam Bass
Warner, Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth (Philadelphia 1968); Seymour J. Mandlebaum, Boss Tweed's New York(New York
1965); and Stephan Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a
Nineteenth Century City [Newburyport] (Cambridge 1964). A seminal collection
of essays summarizing the early important work in the area of community
and social change is Stephan Thernstrom and Richard Sennett, eds., Nineteenth-CenturyCities: Essays in the New Urban History (New Haven 1969). The
best recent book, one on which I depended heavily for my insights into the
communities of 1834, is Thomas Bender, Community and Social Change in
America (New Brunswick, N.J. 1978; paperback ed. Baltimore 1982).
" With regard to immigrants, two standard works that make this point
well are Oscar Handlin, Boston's Immigrants, 1790-1865.: A Study in Acculturation
(Cambridge 1941), and Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 18251853 (New York 1949). The best study of antebellum free blacks in the
North is Leon Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860
(Chicago 1961). A good recent interpretive summary of the impact of both
free blacks and immigrants on antebellum American life can be found in
Leonard Dinnerstein, Roger L. Nichols, and David M. Reimers, Natives and
Strangers (New York 1979).
parts of the country.10 These changes occurred at a time of
perceived progress, political emancipation, and westward expansion. Clearly, however, the egalitarianism touted by politicians of both major parties in the Age of Jackson can only be
labeled cosmetic, evident more in the breach than the observance, as Edward Pessen has demonstrated." That egalitarianism, such as it was, functioned in a society close to the boiling
If one accepts that a huge gap existed by 1834 between
perception of the American dream and its untenable reality,
then in perspective the events of 1834 fall into place. The
tranquility of a passing agrarian society was shattered by inner
tensions with which historians are only just beginning to come
to grips.
As is so often the case, Richard Hofstadter found the words
to best summarize these changes. "The pathology of a nation
growing at a speed that defied control, governed by an ineffective leadership, impatient with authority, bedeviled by its internal heterogeneity," he wrote, "and above all cursed by an
ancient and gloomy wrong [slavery] that many of its people
had even come to cherish as a right," was a menacing pathology
indeed.12 Others who have looked at 1834 saw some of the
same things from a different perspective. David Grimsted,
examining the rioting, noted that "between 1834 and 1837
there was in some men's minds a sense of a real possibility of
social disintegration ...
." Grimsted saw, as Hofstadter had,
a nation tormented beneath the surface of outward progress.
His pantheon of problems included "ethnic hatreds; religious
animosities; class tensions; racial prejudice; economic grievances; moral fears over drinking, gaming, and prostitution;
political struggles; the albatross of slavery." As a result, Grimsted
0o Niles' Weekly Register commented frequently on the growing evidence
of economic dislocation in the spring and summer of 1834. That comment
from a Whig paper, of course, heaped much of the blame on Jackson
administration policies.
1 Edward Pessen,
Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics
(Homewood, Ill. 1969).
12 Richard
Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds., American Violence: A
DocumentaryHistory (New York 1971), 477-478.
IN 1834
concluded, "riot had regained its eighteenth-century status as
a frequent and tacitly accepted if not approved mode of behavior.
These historians, and some others who have looked at the
rioting and disorder of 1834, have commented only on fragments of the evidence of upheaval in that year. None has looked
at the total package. What did it all mean? Maybe Thomas
Bender offers the best insight in a general way into what it was
all about. In Community and Social Change in America Bender
concluded that "the most common sociological definitions" of
community used today "tend to focus on community as an
aggregate of people who share a common interest in a particular
locality." What happens when inhabitants of the same turf no
longer perceived that significant areas of interest were held in
common?14 That is the question I posit for 1834, the first year,
in my opinion, when the question applies forcibly in the nineteenth century. Bender goes on to raise other questions for
social scientists and humanists to examine. "What form or
forms does community take when the town no longer provides
the primary context for community? What is the relationship
of community to political and economic institutions? How do
those relationships change with large-scale transformations in
the structure of society?""15I hope to address these questions
by applying them to several locales in a single time period at
an eruptive moment in early nineteenth century America-a
kind of Mt. Saint Helens moment, if you will. By focusing on
the catastrophes of that instant, one can glimpse the causation
of great change at its origins.
The book Communityand Social Change in America goes on to
assess more specifically changes in the nature of community
beginning in the 1820s. Bender observed that "the initial
consequence of nationalism and metropolitanism was . . . an
enhancement of local identifications. However paradoxical it
may appear, nationalism and localism as basic orientations to
life were simultaneously enhanced, and in some respects they
I1 David Grimsted, "Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting,"
torical Review, 77 (Apr. 1972), 364.
14 Bender, Community and Social Change in America, 5.
" Ibid., 11.
American His-
even reenforced each other during the first half of the nineteenth
century."''6 It is a paradox I find intriguing.
That paradox descended upon the world of 1834. It may
be seen as starting with an inevitable localization of life in an
increasingly confusing society: the complex views of the native
laboring middle class family witnessing the loss of control over
the tools of its production; the rural eastern farmer facing an
exurban transportation revolution and geographic shifts in the
agricultural balance of power; the immigrant, alienated from
American society by differences of language, culture, religion,
and values; the free black, aroused to hope by the newly
organized abolitionists; and women growing restive in the wake
of a revolution of rising expectations in part borne of a mouthed
egalitarianism common to the Jacksonian era.
This displaced view of the world of the majority in 1834
must be balanced against a political doctrine that bespoke
equality, when there was none; opportunity, while the old
system disintegrated and the chance to succeed, such as it was,
passed gradually into the hands of a new entrepreneurial class;
and democracy, not much of a reality in light of developing
urban anonymity and changing small town perceptions of once
stable social and political relationships, both of which rendered
the word hollow in the ears of the economically and socially
marginal. The year 1834, then, saw a significant number of
Americans placed under imminent stress as they were caught
up in the impact of disorder and violence, almost as if in the
backwash of other, deeper changes in their lives over which
they exercised no control.
There were at least twenty-four events of a scope extensive
enough and of a character so significant as to give them national
importance. At least the same number would follow in 1835.17
Time and space constraints require that I sketch here only four
major examples. The important thing is what these episodes,
Ibid., 43, 87, and passim.
was culled from the entire year's publication
of Niles' WeeklyRegister. The episodes listed in Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain
of Violence(New York 1975), while helpful, is incomplete. It has nevertheless
been widely relied upon by historians in their characterizations of mob actions
and the crowd in the 1830s. The common denominators characteristic of all
of these crowd actions were people out of control and engaging in destructive
1" The list of twenty-four
IN 1834
taken together, say about a quickly changing American society
in the wake of perceived and real changes in the ways Americans
related to each other, their peers, their betters, and above all
their communities. The four include an Irish labor riot on the
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal site in January 1834; the New
York City Election Riot in April; and the Philadelphia Race
Riot in August. The circle of violence closes in November,
returning to the Irish in Maryland, in this instance the Baltimore and Washington Railroad Riot outside the nation's capital.
The year began with Irish fighting Irish at first, and then
confronting native Americans. The scene between January 17
and 27, was the construction site of the Chesapeake and Ohio
Canal between Hagerstown and Williamsport, in the northwest
corner of Maryland. "The contest is between two parties of
canalers," one newspaper reported. What was not reported was
that the Irish laborers were afflicted by epidemic disease, poor
diet, atrocious living conditions, and a long-standing failure to
be paid on time. "Corkonians," laborers from County Cork,
fought Irishmen from County Longford in a pitched battle near
Williamsport, on the Potomac River. Local residents in Williamsport and Hagerstown, meanwhile, organized themselves
against any spillover in the fighting.
Only some initial reports indicated deep economic causation. Niles' WeeklyRegister only once mentioned "dissatisfaction
about their pay" as a cause of conflict. The Hagerstown
Torchlightnoted at the outset that "the cause of the difficulty"
was either the suspension of work, or of payment, on "one or
more sections of the canal." But, within days, reports of the
miserable working conditions and the failure to be paid dropped
from the pages of the press. Newspapers concentrated instead
on the internal nature of the fighting between two groups of
"wild Irishmen." Numbers were not consistently reported, but
apparently as many as 1,500 laborers and their families were
involved, and dozens of deaths occurred. Andrew Jackson
eventually ordered out two companies of United States troops
public activity visible enough to draw public intervention and press reports.
See the Appendix for a list of 1834 and 1835 upheavals that meet this
from Fort McHenry, evidence of the seriousness of the situation,
and evidence too of the danger of native violence by Baltimore
"volunteers," perhaps vigilantes, who went into the countryside
to "keep the peace."'"
In retrospect, Niles' Register, published in Baltimore, reported that "laying on the lumber," an Irish colloquialism for
a melee, was a commonplace on the canal site. "The frequent
occurrence," one paper reported, "renders many indifferent of
any result provided only these foreign factions do not meddle
with the persons and property of peaceable people."19 "Peaceable people" was a common euphemism in 1834 for native
The next major upheaval I want to examine is the New
York City Election Riot of April 8-10. Before that action
occurred, a random pattern characteristic of the year was
already in the making. Weeks earlier, in March, a prolonged,
bitter, and widespread riot broke out in Baltimore, when the
Bank of Maryland failed under what were perceived by townspeople as corrupt circumstances.20 Thus the April election riot
in Gotham was an episode that astute watchers were beginning
to see as part of a greater malaise.
The April political riots should be seen against the backdrop
of the subsequent anti-abolitionist riots in the city during the
ensuing summer. Equal billing in terms of perceived causation,
however, must also be given to the growing hostility to Irish
Catholicism. Both blacks and Irish were targets of Protestant
antipathy.21 The anti-abolitionist crowd action of October 1833
"8Rioting erupted sporadically on the site into the summer. Niles' Weekly
Register, Jan. 25, Feb. 1, 8, 1834, 366, 382, 399; Hagerstown Torchlight,Jan.
23, 1834; Richard B. Morris, "Andrew Jackson, Strikebreaker," American
Historical Review, 55 (Oct. 1949), 54-56.
19 Niles'
Weekly Register, June 21, 28, 1834, 291, 300.
Several historians have touched on the Baltimore bank riots of 1834
and 1835. The best description can be found in Grimsted, "Rioting in Its
Jacksonian Setting," 379-383. A full primary account can be tracked through
Niles' Weekly Register from March 29, 1834 through the remainder of that
year and into 1835.
21 Leonard L. Richards,
"Gentlemenof Propertyand Standing": Anti-Abolition
Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York 1970), 113; Dixon Ryan Fox, The
Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, 1801-1840 (New York 1965;
original ed. pub. 1919), 373-374; Litwack, North of Slavery, 100, 102, and
IN 1834
and the street conflict of two politically hostile New York City
volunteer fire companies in February 1834 were more immediate precursors of this turn to "politics-out-of-doors" that was
so characteristic of the age of the American Revolution.22
The April election riot occurred, improbably, in a New
York City mayoral campaign, not a great national or state
contest. Yet on reflection, it was not so improbable; if these
riots were symptomatic of a deeply troubled community, what
better vehicle for expression than a local contest? National
issues made manifest in ways peculiarly local in character has
always been a hallmark of American political behavior.
The two parties opposed each other visually and colorfully
in the streets. Andrew Jackson's populist, anti-Bank of the
United States stance was twisted by the Whigs to read "Perish
Credit, Perish Commerce." A banner carrying the message was
"paraded everywhere" in the narrow lanes of New York City,
on April 8, the first of three election days. Merchant seamen,
usually Whig sympathizers, and volatile political actors in the
port cities since before the revolution, built a replica of the
ship U.S.S. Constitution. They mounted it on wheels and "paraded it through the streets and past the polls" as another
Whig party symbol.23 Sailors, carters, and other skilled and
unskilled native American laborers who lived off port-related
commerce, were Whig to the core.24
passim; Linda K. Kerber, "Abolitionists and Amalgamators: The New York
City Race Riots of 1834," New YorkHistory, 48 (Jan. 1967), 28-29. Richards
specifically links the April election riots in New York City to both antiabolitionist actions that summer and the August Stonecutters' Riot. For the
latter see Daniel J. Walkowitz, "The Artisans and Builders of Nineteenth
Century New York: The Case of the 1834 Stonecutters' Riot," in Around the
Square, 1830-1890 [Greenwich Village] (New York 1982), 84-94.
York American, Feb. 10, Mar. 3, Apr. 29, 1834; Richards,
•2 New
"Gentlemen of Propertyand Standing," 113.
Joel Tyler Headley, The Great Riots of New York: 1712-1873 (Indianapolis 1970; first pub. 1873), 69.
24 See, for example, Jesse Lemisch, "The Radicalism of the Inarticulate:
Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America," in Alfred F.
Young, ed., Dissent: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb,
Ill. 1968), 37-82; Graham Hodges, "The Cartmen of New York City, 16671801" (Ph.D. diss., New York University 1982); Lee Benson, The Concept of
Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (Princeton 1961), esp. chapter
Some 4,000 Whigs met in mass meeting that night, capping
the first day's campaigning. In New York City the Whigs drew
heavily on Protestant, native American support; patrician led,
the mass of followers were trade-oriented working class Protestants. The Democratic party drew no less heavily on the New
York gentry for leadership, but depended in part on newly
minted Irish Catholic voters as well as elements of the native
working class for popular support.
The second day of the election was marked by an accelerating violence. The replica of the Constitutionwas paraded anew,
and the Jacksonian Democrats attacked the ship at City Hall.
The mayor and perhaps fifteen watchmen were clubbed and
the municipal building sacked. On the third day, a Whig mob
took over the city arsenal, many arming themselves with guns
against a club-wielding Jacksonian crowd. Only the arrival of
federal troops saved a blood bath of perhaps heroic proportions.25
The "Bloody Sixth," the immigrant Sixth Ward, was the
scene of the greatest violence. In this community, as Philip
Hone put it, "the Irish and the Americans" were pitted against
each other. Yet the Democrats were led by New York City
patricians fully as pedigreed as the most powerful Whigs, so
perceptions of class depend on which political stratum one
chooses to put under the microscope, and which opposing group
one chooses to define as a "mob."
Even so partial a Whig as Hone unwittingly credited essentially republican virtues to the Democratic party "mob," noting
on the day after the polls closed that a partial Whig victory
was a "signal triumph of good principles over [Democratic]
violence, illegal voting, party discipline and the influence of officeholders [italics added].'"26 The last two can be seen more as
manifestations of normal involvement in the political process
than as the pejoratives Hone intended. The foreman of a grand
jury investigating the riot a month later also sent a mixed
signal. He deplored the violence and the breakdown of "the
good order of the community" on the one hand, but noted
Headley, Great Riots of New York, 67-78.
Nevins, ed., Diary of Philip Hone, I, 122-125.
IN 1834
also that "a proper zeal in conducting an election is commendable.
Whig sources essentially anti-Irish in character spoke of
"mob" and Irishmen as synonymous. Occasionally, however,
an unintended hint of the truth seeped through even Whig
reporting. The crowd was not uniformly Irish by any means.
When several Irish rioters were arrested, for example, a local
paper disclosed that "violent attempts to rescue them were
made, in which persons, who ought to be regarded as gentlemen, were concerned." And again, "Several persons of good
standing in Society have been . . . directing or abetting the
rioters." When a Whig middle class mob took over the city
arsenal, the Whig paper reported straight-faced that "the officers
at the arsenal werepassing out arms to the [Whig] citizens, to suppress
the rioters." A strange anomaly in peacekeeping this, and with
a real similarity to native American "volunteers" from Baltimore heading to Williamsport, Maryland, to "help keep the
peace" by attacking Irish canal insurgents.28 The Whigs armed
at the arsenal, of course, were not described as part of any
In the months following the New York City Election Riot,
crowd actions dotted the American landscape with growing
frequency. In late April, a Democratic party mob sacked the
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, branch of the Bank of the United
States. In New Orleans, at about the same time, a white mob
virtually destroyed the premises of a patrician white woman for
maltreating her black slaves. In June, Irish laborers rioted again
at the construction site of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as
well as the Chenango, New York, canal excavations. A wave
of anti-abolitionist riots in July were the immediate precursors
of the Philadelphia Race Riot in August. Abolitionist meetings
were broken up by mobs in New York City, Norwich, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey, that month.29
" Niles'
Weekly Register, May 24, 1834, 210.
Ibid., Apr. 12, 19, May 24, 1834, June 27, 1835, 101, 115, 210, 300.
Another major election riot occurred in Philadelphia in October; in many
ways it paralleled the New York City upheaval. See ibid., Oct. 18, 1834,
29 See
ibid., Apr.-Aug. 1834, passim, in particular Apr. 26, May 3, July
5, 12, 19, 26.
The Philadelphia Race Riot of 1834, known among contemporaries as the Moyamensing "Flying Horses" Riot, began
on August 12. The "Flying Horses" was a carousel, frequented
by both races, in the Moyamensing district of Philadelphia.
Whites attacked black patrons on the night of the 12th, after a
week-long heat wave and attendant social tensions on the merrygo-round.30 The carousel was destroyed, the blacks scattered,
and three nights of uncontrolled white rioting followed. Directed
primarily at black property, at least thirty-seven houses were
looted and destroyed and several hundred people made homeless. The houses destroyed were owned by middle class blacks,
and not located in a ghetto, but on streets where blacks and
whites both lived. Whites extended lamps from their windows
to distinguish their homes from those of the blacks.31 Black
homes, on the other hand, were often quietly abandoned to the
In assessing the cause of the "Flying Horses" Riot, an
1834 citizens committee "cited the frequent hiring of Negroes
during periods of depression and white unemployment and the
tendency of Negroes to protect, and even forcibly rescue, their
brethren when the latter were arrested as fugitive slaves.""32
Another meeting shortly after the riot "insisted that no blacks
shall be employed in certain departments of labor."33 The
rioting ended coincident with the rumor, probably true, that a
vigilante group of some sixty armed blacks had organized by
the fourth night to defend black homes.34
The citizens committee, meanwhile, enjoined influential
Negroes to impress upon their people "the necessity as well as
the propriety, of behaving themselves inoffensively and with
civility at all times and upon all occasions; taking care, as they
pass along the streets, or assemble together, not to be obtru-
Both Richards, "Gentlemen of Propertyand Standing," 9-19, and Michael
Feldberg, The TurbulentEra: Riot and Disorder in Jacksonian America (New York
1980), 37-43, offer good overviews of sources of racial tension in the Age of
" Niles' Weekly Register, Aug. 23, 1834, 426.
" Litwack, North of Slavery, 101.
:3 Niles' Weekly Register, Aug. 30, 1834, 441.
34 Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850:
Shadow of the Dream (Chicago 1981), 105-106.
IN 1834
sive.""5 The report of the committee speaks volumes about
large issues applied locally. As in New York and Williamsport,
white vigilantes, again referred to as "volunteers," "from all
parts of the city . . . came under arms." They were described
even by sympathizers as "an immense concourse of persons"
gathered to protect their community.36
On August 11, just before the Philadelphia Race Riot, the
most incendiary of the 1834 crowd actions began. A white
Protestant mob, inflamed by increasingly available anti-Catholic
pornographic literature and a growing perception that the rapid
influx of Irish in Boston was changing the community, sacked
and destroyed the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, a Protestant working class district of Boston. This episode alone
among the upheavals of 1834 has been adequately dealt with
by historians.3•
Other episodes, meanwhile, testified to an accelerating wave
of crowd actions through the late summer and fall, stayed only
temporarily by the onset of a cold winter. Another anti-Irish
riot hit New York City. A Philadelphia helium balloonist and
his woman friend were attacked by a restive crowd when the
balloon failed to launch. The airship was destroyed, the couple
roughed up."• Race riots broke out in Washington, D.C., in
September, and in Columbia, Pennsylvania, near Lancaster, in
early October. The latter was triggered by the marriage of a
well-to-do black businessman to a white woman, but causation
really involved "white resentment at the success and aggressiveness of black artisans and workingmen in a town economy
that was dominated by transportation, lumbering and business." In brief, all sense of community in Columbia disintegrated in the wake of rising economic and racial tensions.39
'" Litwack, North of Slavery, 101.
3" Philadelphia Intelligencer, Aug. 5, 1834.
37 The best recent study of the Charlestown Convent Riot is Theodore
M. Hammett, "Two Mobs of Jacksonian Boston: Ideology and Interest,"
Journal of American History, 62 (March 1976), 845-868. An older but still useful
essay is Ray Allen Billington, "The Burning of the Charlestown Convent,"
New England Quarterly, 10 (March 1937), 4-24. See also the account of the
riot in Handlin, Boston's Immigrants.
"" Niles' Weekly Register, Aug. 30, 1834, 441.
:'9 Ibid., Sept. 19, Oct. 11, 1834, 83; Brown, Strain of Violence, 207, 373;
Litwack, North of Slavery, 101.
Another election riot, meanwhile,
disrupted Philadelphia
The November rioting between Baltimore and Washington
was the last episode of this tempestuous year. I have singled it
out for scrutiny because of that, and also because it closes a
cycle of violence that began with an uprising of Irish workers
on the nearby canal site some ten months earlier. Most importantly, however, the Baltimore and Washington Railroad Riot,
after a year of ferment, aroused the neighboring countryside in
telling ways, ways that signaled by example the growing distress
in which the nation found itself after a year of buffeting.
The trouble began in the middle of November when one
of the railroad contractors accused several workers of stealing
$1,200. The same individual had already fired a number of
laborers, and he discharged several Irish cartmen over this
incident. On the night of November 17, he and another supervisor were attacked and killed by a mob of about forty
workers, who injured several other supervisors as well. The
rioters took over a nearby store and tavern. Local militia units
were activated and they rounded up some 300 workers, amid
no sign of further Irish insurgency. The 300 were taken to
Baltimore, arrested, and jailed for some three weeks. Only on
December 6 was it reported that all but a dozen had been
released. The incident in itself was minor in comparison to
other risings elsewhere in the course of the year. Its significance
lay in the fact that the local population in rural Anne Arundel
County reacted with a severity absent elsewhere earlier in the
year. On November 26, a public meeting attended by hundreds
in this "sparsely settled" area was convened, amid newspaper
barbs asserting that "the public peace must not longer be
violated with impunity." The "law of nature must be resorted
to," proclaimed a Baltimore gazette.41 This last was a thinly
veiled encouragement of vigilante and mob counterviolence.
The public meeting resolved that Irish laborers "have formed
secret associations" that enable them to "accomplish their
4I Feldberg,
The Turbulent Era, 58; Niles' Weekly Register, Oct. 18, 1834,
Baltimore American, Nov. 21, 1834; Baltimore Chronicle, Dec. 10, 1834;
Niles' Weekly Register, Dec. 6, 20, 1834, 218, 272.
IN 1834
hellish plots without being in danger of discovery." The postriot native local committee, also in evidence after the Philadelphia Race Riot in August, was a new and menacing addition
to the chemistry of community violence from the summer on.
In this instance, it reflected increasingly institutionalized antiIrish hostility, not dissimilar to charges made by a citizens
committee in Boston after the Ursuline Convent Riot. Native
American perceptions were clearly influenced both by the flood
of anti-Catholic pornography sweeping America and, in the
case of free blacks, the rising tide of anti-abolitionist newspaper
commentary abroad in the land.
"The Irish laborers," the Anne Arundel County meeting
concluded, were "a gang of ruffians and murderers," and it
called on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the parent company, to fire all Irish. A letter authorized by the meeting and
sent to the president of the B & O, threatened that the small
towns and villages of Anne Arundel "will muster a sufficient
force and drive every Irishman off the road from the Patapsco
to the big Patuxent" rivers. The point is that, in the ensuing
months, county residents did just that, temporarily driving the
Irish out.42
In retrospect, when one takes account of the rolling turbulence endured all over America in 1834, it becomes clear
that local response grew increasingly ugly as the year wore on.
Anti-abolitionist mobs, rising anti-Catholic crowd actions, and
election day working class riots should not be viewed separately,
as historians have thus far tended to do. They are all of a piece
when placed in a confined time frame. By the summer of 1834,
Protestant native reactions grew in intensity, placing the burden
of mob violence as much on the "peaceable" folk of established
America as on "wild Irishmen," abolitionist "fanatics," "aggressive blacks," and disenchanted artisan voters.
The year started with its facade in place: a nation welded
by political symmetry, democratic, progressive, and forward
looking, its republican principles inviolate. The year ended with
Niles' Weekly Register, Nov. 29, Dec. 6, 20, 1834, 197, 218, 272. See
also for comparative purposes: Billington, "The Burning of the Charlestown
Convent," 4-24; and Hammett, "Two Mobs of Jacksonian Boston," 845868.
the first major cracks since the revolution in the wall of American community, as a pre-industrial society accelerated toward
major change. Maybe there was no wall of American community, only facade. Tensions long building rose to the surface
and almost literally exploded as eighteenth century social and
political values were battered in this working republic. The
republic functioned at its core at the local level, where Americans lived and worked. So cities, towns, villages, countrysideall were subject to the release of tensions by means of violence,
mob action, and riot.
That violence may well have been subtly encouraged by an
ideology that espoused political democracy without paying much
attention to its social and economic substance. The impact of
the Age of Jackson on that peculiarly American sense of community that makes this republic work, in conclusion, may well
have been negative and not positive. Probably like most political
history, antebellum nineteenth century community needs extended re-examination within the context of new perceptions of
deep and rapid social change.
Riots of 1834 and 1835
Irish Labor Riot, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
Irish Canal Workers Riot
First Bank of Maryland Riot
Bank of the United States Riot
Election Riots
Mob Assault on Woman Abusing Slave
Whig-Democratic Political Riot
Irish Railroad Workers Riot
Irish Labor Riot, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
Irish Riot, Baltimore and Washington Railroad
Irish Riot, Chenango Canal
Several Anti-Abolitionist Riots
Anti-Mormon Riots and "Civil War"
New Orleans, La.
Baltimore, Md.
Portsmouth, N.H.
New York, N.Y.
New Orleans, La.
Baltimore, Md.
Mansfield, Mass.
Hagerstown, Md.
Patuxent, Md.
Chenango, N.Y.
New York, N.Y.
Jefferson and Jackson Counties, Mo.
c. 10/4-14
Anti-Abolitionist Riots
Anti-Abolitionist Riot
Anti-Catholic Convent Riot
Anti-Black Race Riot
Religious Rioting
Stonecutters Labor Riot
Mob Assault on Balloonists
Anti-Irish Riot
Race Riot
Election Riots
Irish Labor Riots, Baltimore and Washington
Newark, N.J.
Norwich, Conn.
Charlestown, Mass.
Philadelphia, Pa.
New York, N.Y.
New York, N.Y.
Philadelphia, Pa.
New York, N.Y.
Columbia, Pa.
Philadelphia, Pa.
Sites between Baltimore and
Rioting between two fire companies
Irish Riot, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
German Labor Riot, Baltimore and
Washington Railroad
Mob assault on woman for alleged prostitution
Catholic Mob Assault on Anti-Catholic
Protestant Meeting
Ohio-Michigan Border War
Irish Riots at Five Points
Mob Lynching of Gamblers
Irish Riot, Wabash and Erie Canal
Race Riot
Irish Labor Riot
Abolitionist Riot to free fugitive slave
Irish Riots
Bank of Maryland Riot
Irish-Native Rioting
Irish Riot, Chenango Canal
Anti-Abolitionist Riot
Anti-Abolitionist Lynching and Riot
Anti-Abolitionist Riot
Anti-Abolitionist and Anti-Free Love Riot
against Noyes Academy
Race Riot
Race Riot
Race Riot
Anti-Abolitionist Riot
Hagerstown, Md.
and Washington
Irville, N.Y.
New York, N.Y.
Ohio and Mich.
New York, N.Y.
Vicksburg, Miss.
Philadelphia, Pa.
Detroit, Mich.
Albany, N.Y.
Boston, Mass.
Baltimore, Md.
Buffalo, N.Y.
Hamilton, N.Y.
Lynn, Mass.
Charleston, S.C.
Boston, Mass.
Canaan, N.H.
St. Louis, Mo.
Washington, D.C.
Forsyth, Ga.
Utica, N.Y.