The Dangerous Misunderstanding of America's History of Mob ActionRoundup
tags: Abraham Lincoln, democracy, political violence, Coup, mobs, Capitol Riot, January 6
Stefan Lund is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nau Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia.
The House committee hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection have made the dangers of mob rule clear. Indeed, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) last week asked Americans to recall the 19th century and remember that mob violence is a “very old problem [that] has returned with new ferocity.” Raskin even paraphrased a speech by Abraham Lincoln who in 1838 declared mob violence to be the greatest danger to the “perpetuation of our political institutions.”
Before the Civil War, Americans frequently confronted the specter of mob violence, which perpetrators justified as necessary to prevent or remove perceived threats to their communities. But then, as now, mob violence was about subverting democracy and the rule of law to violently enforce one group’s idea of justice.
During Lincoln’s young adulthood in the 1830s, mob violence in the United States was common. Historian David Grimsted identified nearly 150 recorded incidents of mob violence in the United States in 1835 alone, with most targeting individuals and groups who threatened the White, Protestant status quo. In Northern cities, these were often Catholic immigrants. In the South, White mobs targeted free and enslaved Black men who they perceived as challenging the racial caste system. Mobs also made victims of those who advocated for causes, such as abolition, that threatened swift and radical change.
Contrary to the common stereotype of mobs as a sort of peasant rabble, American mobs of the 19th century included people from all walks of life, including tradesmen, professionals and elected officials. In fact, many of the participants in mob violence enjoyed respected positions in their town or county. Lead by pillars of the local community, mobs believed they represented the popular will and that their crowd violence was justified in the name of preserving civic order.
Mobs ranged in size from a few to hundreds, and the violence they committed consisted of everything from intimidation and destruction of property to torture. Arrests were uncommon, and prosecution was rarer still. In part because mobs often included influential members of the community, outnumbered local law enforcement rarely sought punishment.
In fact, some mobs anxiously worked to portray their violence as reasonable and legally justifiable. In 1845 Lexington, Ky., a group of White men wanted to prevent an anti-slavery paper from being published in their town. They held multiple public meetings in which they denounced the editor of the newspaper as incendiary and demanded he cease publication. When the editor refused, they removed the printing press by force and solicited lawyer Thomas Marshall to publicly defend their actions. Marshall agreed and delivered a speech arguing that the offended citizens were no mob but a “general assembly of the people” who had gathered to remove a public nuisance. The group of Lexingtonians followed suit, defending their actions against those who might “misrepresent [their] motives and conduct,” worrying not about legal prosecution but judgment.
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