Researching New York : A Sneak Peek at This Year’s Conference

  {Director of the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College, Rona Holub, shares the abstract for her upcoming presentation at this year’s esteemed “Researching New York” conference series.} 

In Defense of a “Noble Metropolis”: The Irish and German Immigrant Response to New York State’s Attack on Home Rule in New York City, 1857

In April of 1857, the New York State Legislature passed new laws, regulations, and charter revisions that threatened the very fiber of the social and political lives of the poor and working class immigrants of New York City.  Part of this effort involved the dissolution of the city administered Municipal Police and the creation of the state run Metropolitan Police Force. Members of these two separately appointed and administered forces beat each other up at city hall in New York City on June 16, 1857.  The question of who was in charge of the city hung in the air.  On July 4, 1857, mass violence broke out in New York City followed by major civil disorder on July 5, July 12 and 13.  The July violence involved “gangs” and mostly Irish and German residents of the city.  These violent incidents were connected.  Politicians, nativists, and moral reformers in New York State had formed a coalition and set out to stem the tide of immigrant political power.

The violence that broke out, beginning with the Police Riot itself, was a reaction to the imposition of one set of values over another, over the belief that one way of life was better than another,  that one religion was better than another, that political power belonged in the hands of some people but not others.  Contemporary newspapers generally emphasized the “gang war” nature of these outbreaks.  Clearly these disturbances represented much more than gang rivalry and turf wars.  Such spontaneous civil disturbances, often represented as “merely” gang driven episodes sparked by  “criminal elements,” had political overtones.  People who felt that their freedom and ability to govern themselves was being undercut by the state rebelled.  They reacted as “true” Americans, as “freemen,” whose rights were being usurped.  They conveyed a narrative in which they asserted that they should have the same rights as other white male citizens to govern themselves.  It is not a coincidence that at least two of the riots were apparently started by members of the Dead Rabbits, a pro-Democrat, Irish gang attacking members of the Metropolitan Police Force.  The new force represented the powers that hated, derided and attempted to enforce their mores and values on the immigrant population and control the political processes of the city.  The residents of the wards where violence broke out reacted in protest against what they deemed as the usurpation of their rights.

Thus, the violence between the police forces in June and that which erupted in July are connected and represent anxieties, fears, and a wide array of interpretations of self interest among the growing multitude of people entering and living in the city.  This paper describes the events of this month-long period of violence and disruption and interrogates its meanings.  It proposes as well that how these events came about and were handled might have impacted the worst civil violence ever to occur in the city which took place six years later, that is, the Draft Riots of 1863.  Could these have been prevented or at least diminished had the meanings of the 1857 riots been understood and the events addressed differently?

{Researching New York 2011–Upheaval & Disaster, Triumph & Tragedy: Aftermath will be taking place at the University at Albany, State University of New York, November 17 and 18. For more information go to nystatehistory.org.}

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