Discussion: Riots

In E. P. Thompson's analysis, he refutes the notions that eighteenth-century English food riots were simply "rebellions of the belly" (77); rather, he believes they had an ideological undercurrent and were brought on because of peasant's belief in a system of 'paternalistic' distribution. They did not rebel simply because they were hungry, but rather because the morally 'right' system had been undermined by greedy middlemen. The idea that riots are a response to an infraction on what is 'right' for a certain society can be applied to the New York riots described by Joel Headley. In both the Astor-place riots and the Draft riots, working class notions as to what is 'American' play a large role. Rioters are reacting to an event that they see as somehow 'aristocratic' and 'un-American', rather than simply plundering. Thus it is important to view these riots in the context of working class American ideals.

The situation that caused the Astor-place riots, though seemingly ridiculous, was symbolic of the subversion of what the working class rioters would consider as true 'American' values with 'English' and 'aristocratic' ones. Though at first glance it appears that "there never was a great and bloody riot, moving a mighty city to its profoundest depths, that originated in so absurd, insignificant a cause as the Astor-place riot" (111), the personal feuds that provided the impetus for the riots touched upon the rioters' sense of 'Americanness' and their fears of British encroachment, symbolic or otherwise.

"Ever since our revolt from England, especially since the second war with her, in which the contest for the supremacy of the seas was decided, the spirit of rivalry between the two countries was often bitter. No matter what the contest was, whether between two boats, or two bullies in the ring, it at once assumed the magnitude of a national one... Forrest and Macready were the two popular tragic actors on either side of the Atlantic... [and] each invaded the domain of the other, and laid claim to his laurels." (112)

Macready's symbolic 'invasion' was bound to cause feelings of animosity. In addition, Macready was vilified not simply as an Englishman, but as a symbol of the 'aristocratic' ideals that were considered the antithesis of what 'America' was. Posters denounced Macready's theatre as an "English aristocratic Opera House" (120), thus vilifying Macready as the 'un-American' interloper. "This artful appeal was like a two-edged sword, cutting both ways. It aimed at the same time to stir up the hatred of the lower classes against the upper, by the word aristocratic; and the national hatred of the English, by calling it the English aristocratic Opera House to be guarded by English sailors" (121). Encroachment on the rioters idealized values provided the impetus for the rioting itself.

Likewise, the Draft riots can be seen as a protest against the draft as undermining 'American' egalitarian and democratic principles. "The ostensible cause of the riots of 1863 was hostility to the draft, because it was a tyrannical, despotic, unjust measure - an act which has distinguished tyrants the world over, and should never be tolerated by a free people" (136). Headley devotes the early part of his discussion on the riots to the problematic nature of a draft in democratic society, suggesting that this was a seriously contested issue. The draft's association with England also existed for many Irish-American workers: "It was in their eyes the game of hated England again - oppression of Irishmen" (149). The inequality of the rich and poor under the draft was also a major issue, as it undermined the egalitarian nature of the idealized American system. "If a well-known name, that of a man of wealth, was among the number, it only increased the exasperation, for the law exempted every one drawn who would pay three hundred dollars towards a substitute. This was taking practically the whole number of soldiers called for out of the laboring classes" (149). The Draft riots were not caused simply because the individuals feared the material consequences of being drafted, but because they felt the draft undermined the 'American' way of life.

Just as the English bread rioters protested against threats to their idealized way of life, the rioters in the Astor-place riots and Draft riots were acting on the basis of idealized beliefs. They rioted against threats to the 'American' way of life; the 'invasion' of Macready on the American stage and the institution of the draft were lightning rods for rioters as they came to symbolize infractions on the ideal order of things. As these infractions seemed to contradict what rioters viewed as right, they naturally caused riots among the working classes.

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