Rioting: An American Tradition

tags: Rioting

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

Some observers look aghast at the people rioting in Baltimore in protest of the police brutality that led to Freddie Gray’s horrific death in police custody. Pundits have bemoaned the actions of “thugs” who looted stores and burned cars, and politicians have pled for non-violence. Plenty of bewildered observers have wondered what good it does anyone to burn their own neighborhoods. But looking at the rioters in Baltimore, or any other place, in isolation misses the point. If Americans have one grand political tradition, it is rioting. 

There was a little matter of some tea in Boston in 1773, when men dressed up as American Indians boarded three ships moored at Griffin’s Wharf, broke open their valuable cargoes of tea, and dumped the chests overboard. They destroyed about 90,000 pounds of tea, worth about $1.7 million today.

New York City exploded dramatically at least twice in the mid-nineteenth century. In May 1849 more than 25 people were killed and more than 120 injured in a struggle over which Shakespearean actor was better: American Edwin Forrest or Englishman William Charles Macready. The Astor Place Riot, as it was known, was so violent the authorities started to worry they had lost control of the city. They called out troops, who fired indiscriminately into the crowd. 

Only fourteen years later, New York City blew up again when men furious at a new federal draft for Union soldiers turned against the men they blamed for the war itself. They killed Republican officials and soldiers, then turned on the city’s African American community. At least 120 people died and another 2000 were injured. Rioters destroyed between 1 and 5 million dollars in property, about fifty buildings, including two churches and an orphan asylum for African American children. In today’s dollars, that would be between $20 million and about $96 million in damage. This remains the most destructive riot in American history.

Cincinnati exploded in March 1884 when a mob set out to lynch a convicted murderer who had been sentenced to twenty years of prison rather than execution. Three days of rioting left more than 50 people dead (but not the prisoner, who had temporarily escaped) and more than 300 wounded. ...

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