New York's Homegrown Hobbes

Popular histories of New York, sad to say, are mostly glib iconoclasms. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to peddle works rhapsodizing over past generations or celebrating the merits triumphs of a particular ethnic group, the fawning "Irish in America" and its attendant PBS miniseries being examples of the latter. Many combine the two conceits in a standard plotline: the poor huddled masses come to this great port city and square off, in proper Ragged Dick fashion, against the era's bogeymen.

One such boogeyman was Joel Tyler Headley, author of the recently reprinted "The Great Riots of New York" and an avid member of the "Know-Nothings", a 19th century, quasi-clandestine movement that later developed into the xenophobic American Party. This offshoot of the Whig party, fearful of Catholism's spread and the use of the Bible in public schools, advocated for, among other equally draconian measures, a twenty-one year residency requirement for naturalization. Generally such policies were aimed at stemming the tide of ignorant German and Irish immigrants and killing their nascent political machines, which the Know-Nothings saw as disinterested in and ignorant of the Republic's values, and a likely culprits in its demise. This view was held by Headley, but not so inarticulately as current commentators have suggested.

Headley's fears were directed less against a particular ethnic or religious groups as they were against the mob, "that vast, ignorant, turbulent class ...the chief cause of [a city's] solicitude and anxiety, and often of dread." Having spent much of his career writing military histories, Headley's solutions were more martial than social-scientific. He proposed a permanent force of "five hundred men [who] would scatter five thousand rioters like chaff before them. It would be more efficient than two entire regiments." He goes on to note that "clubs are better than guns. ... Their volleys are incessant and perpetual, given as long and fast as strong arms can strike."

As much as we might recoil at the thought of a goon squad being so gleefully sicced on the populace we must remind ourselves that Headley's America had just endured the Civil War, and his New York four days of non-stop rioting the likes of which the nation had not before seen, nor since. New York was, then as now, home to the nation's commerce and financial houses, and the Union's capacity to wage war would have been seriously impeded had the violence continued or even spread.
But for Headley stability doesn't trump principle; it is principle. He decries a mob's violation of the forth amendment when it demanded to search the residences of various medical student's accused of grave robbery in 1788. But no such concerns are evident in his discussion of the Abolitionist riots of 1834, during which the populace swooped down upon the city's Abolitionists, in which he assigns much blame to William Lloyd Garrison, for the crime of joining with his English counterparts and criticizing his native land.

Headley's work is a history of mass violence told from the position of those who held power while largely ignoring the concerns of those who were undertaking the disruptive violence. We are skeptical of "people's histories," which too often impose 20th Century morals and mores on 19th Century men, and hopeful that there's still a place in our canons for the works of a man like Headley, our home-grown Hobbes, to remind us of New York's centuries-old heart of darkness.

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