Rioting has played an important and recurrent
role throughout New York City's history. New Yorkers have taken
to the streets repeatedly since before the American Revolution
to air their grievances in confrontations with authorities and
public demonstrations, many of which turned violent . Our understanding
of the causes and consequences of such public actions has changed
over time. Nineteenth century political chroniclers and journalists,
for example, interpreted violent disturbances such as the Bowery
Dead Rabbit riot of 1857 and the Draft Riots of 1863 as
mindless actions of faceless mobs of New Yorkers, outbreaks of
savage, often random violence, with little meaning or purpose.
this early understanding of mob violence resulted from the sources
that analysts used to explain civil disturbances: newspaper accounts,
government documents and personal reminiscences that reported
on or tried to explain the causes of riots all had particular
political and cultural axes to grind. Largely obscured in such
reportage and reminscences were the political, economic and cultural
motivations of the ordinary New Yorkers engaged in the rioting,
as were the deeper structural and social causes of the riots.
the past forty years, social and cultural historians, in their
quest for better understandings of civil disturbances, have moved
beyond contemporary reportage and looked more closely at the causes
and consequences of rioting. In the process, they have had to
ask and attempt to answer a set of interrelated questions:
were the rioters?
was the riot's precipitating event or cause?
did the riot develop and unfold? Why did the riot occur when
and what were the targets and victims of crowd violence?
is the larger social, economic, and political context in which
the riot took place?
and attempting to answer these types of questions has enriched
our historical understanding of riots; no longer do contemporary
historians dismiss riots simply as the actions of irrational mobs.
Although, as you will see in many of the documents reproduced
in this exhibit, earlier chroniclers used such value-laden interpretations.
As you read documents and look at images in this exhibit, pay
particular attention to the stereotypical phrasing used by authors
and the prevalence of caricature. By exploring fully the social,
economic and cultural contexts in which riots occur, we can better
understand not only the rioters' immediate goals but also their
deeper political and ideological motivations.
riots are significant events in and of themselves because of the
level of destruction and disruption that they visit upon cities.
But riots also offer a window onto larger social and political
power relations in play at particular moments in a city's history.
By looking through these windows, we can develop a deeper understanding
of the massive, rapid, and destabilizing transformations that
have shaped and reshaped New York City over the past two hundred
years. The most significant and destructive riot in New York's
past was the Draft Riot. Click below to explore.