Mobs for Jobs

On the 18th of November, while campaigning for Montana's Matt Rosendale, President Donald Trump summed up one of the Republican's major midterm focuses with the following slogan; "Democrats produce mobs, Republicans Produce Jobs."[1] The President is likely unaware, that there was a time in this country, when one produced the other.

America has a long and sorted history with mobbing. In the lead up to the American Revolution, patriot elites often times supported mobbing as a valid means of protest against the British government. Harvard educated and politically connected Samuel Adams notably became a leader in the Boston Tea Party. The Patriot elite say mob action against the crowd as the justified manifestation of a disenfranchised people. After the revolution, many of these figures changed their position, since now the laws were created, by and for the people.[2]

A fear of mobs took a prominent place in the framing of the Constitution, as figures like James Madison would write about the threat posed by a "tyranny of the majority". The founding fathers saw events like Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion in a different light, when suddenly they were the ones in power.

This resulted in only a very small amount of elite landed white men being able to vote. By the election of Jackson in 1828, the property restriction was dropped, and there was a massive surge in the amount of people who could vote. As a result many of the Founding Father's biggest fears were realized.

Expanding the electorate is a good thing, but the world in which Antebellum America existed is not the world of the 2010s. This was a time in which the banking elite could embezzle the common man's savings for personal speculation and face no consequence because the common law had not caught up with the rapidly changing industrial and wage earning landscape.[3] This was a world in which the time that the average wage laborer got to make their meager living, depended on when the harbor thawed from the winter, or if you survived the cholera outbreaks in the summer.[4] In short, this was not a landscape safe for democracy, it was a place where mobs would create jobs.

David Grimstead compiled a massive database of Antebellum riots, and he identified the time between July up until the end of August as "mob season."[5] In Baltimore, almost every election of the 1850s was accompanied by an election riot. Sometimes Baltimore's gangs took their show on the road, like in 1849, when the Plug Uglies went to Washington, shot several opposing voters, and then shot a canon at marines sent by the president to stop them.

What had developed was a sort of hierarchy, in which the political leaders in urban areas like Baltimore rewarded local strong men and gang leaders with political appointments in exchange for Election Day muscle. Election polling places often ended up at establishments these strong men owned, usually pubs or taverns. Additionally ballot boxes were certainly stuffed. It was not unusually for more people to vote in a prescient than there were people living there.[8]

This is not to say the muscle on the low end of this hierarchy did not care about the political issues for which they were fighting. While it is very hard to know what the common person "believed" its is very possible to see what they did. Baltimore was a strong-hold of the nativist Know-Nothing Party. So named because they would pretend to not know anything about such an organization, the members of the party comprised many of the cities merchant elite. They were staunchly anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Catholic. The Know-Nothing Party controlled the mayoral office in Baltimore from 1854-60, a period of time longer than almost every other major American city.

The Know-Nothing appeal was based in a deep seeded distrust of Catholicism. Accounts of nuns escaping abuse in the church became common features in publications across the country. It was also based on a sense of nationalism. Know-Nothings helped to define their own Americanism in regard to the Catholic Irish and German out groups. Additionally they were appealing because of the common belief that American jobs were being taken by immigrants, willing to work for lower wages. In this way mobs would also form, with the goal of driving off foreign workers.

The history of mobbing in America is both democratic and anti-democratic, it tapped into a supposed "will of the people" but it was a will enforced by who could bring the most guns to bear on Election Day. This reality says nothing about the inherent value of democracy itself, its simply reflects the infant steps of the American democratic system. When we reflect on the political rhetoric used by politicians today, we should be mindful of our history, and celebrate that despite what the president says, we have come a remarkable progress away from the mobs of the Antebellum era. Reflecting on this history should give modern readers a sense of satisfaction in realizing how far we've come as a nation. It is too simplistic to think that America had it figured out in 1776, or that there is not room for improvement in 2018.

[1] Hains, Tim. "President Donald Trump: "Democrats Produce Mobs, Republicans Produce Jobs"." Video | RealClearPolitics. Accessed October 26, 2018.

[2] Gilje, Paul A. The Road to Mobocracy Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

[3] Shalhope, Robert E. The Baltimore bank riot: political upheaval in antebellum Maryland. University of Illinois Press, 2009.

[4] Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

[5] Grimsted, David. American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[6] Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood. New York: Free Press, 2010.


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