by Michael Kaplan
|New York City's Five Points neighborhood in 1827, painted by George Catlin.|
Here’s a blast from my past. I wrote this article fifteen years ago for the Journal of the Early Republic as part of my dissertation research. I dug through nineteenth-century court records and newspapers trying to figure out how violence shaped the political culture of Jacksonian New York. Tavern disturbances, I concluded, helped define the new, democratic, urban Jacksonian nationalist culture of the mid-nineteenth century. These forgotten brawls and riots created a distinct working-class male identity that was centered on the boisterous public assertion of honor, physical courage, independence, pride, and American patriotism, all central to Jacksonianism. Both the native-born (Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish Protestant) and immigrant (Irish Catholic) workingmen, who fought each other, contributed to forging this identity. A new populist hero, the b’hoy, was as symbolic of the urban Jacksonian persona as the yeoman farmer or Davy Crockett were of the western Jacksonian persona. These contests of honor allowed native-born and immigrant b’hoys to recognize each other as fellow citizens of the republic, while often violently excluding blacks and women.
White supremacy, the idea that the
was a “white man’s republic” was central to Jacksonian democracy from its beginnings until the 1960s. It was its most glaring point of conflict with the American Creed of liberty and justice for all. Stephen Douglas spoke for most Jacksonians when he declared in his first debate with United States : “I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.” This was the ethos embraced by the b’hoys of Lincoln and enforced by their riots in the taverns and the streets. Here we see both the positive and the dark sides of Jacksonian nationalism as it assimilated waves of Irish immigrants into New York while creating a racially exclusive democratic republic for white men. Jacksonian America has struggled to overcome this aspect of its history ever since. America
|Scene of a Five Points riot from Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York.|
Writing this piece was the starting point for developing my ideas of the role Jacksonian populist nationalism played in the sometimes painful process of creating the American nation. All those b’hoys and fire laddies and assorted working-class brawlers, survivors, and heroes, built
© 2010 Michael Kaplan