views updated


Between 1754 and 1829, Americans violently hammered out their new national identity. From the Regulator Movement in North Carolina in the late colonial period to labor strife in New York City in the 1820s, the inhabitants of what became the United States continually invoked violence to voice social and political discontent. As often as people rioted to reshape their communities, they rioted to preserve what rioters considered acceptable behavior. Whatever their goals, most people turned to rioting only when nothing else worked.

Authorities in North America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries usually considered riotous any unauthorized crowd of several people that tried to establish its will through the use of force. Force included outright violence, including physical assault on a person or persons, and intimidation. Who authorities labeled a "rioter" depended on local circumstances; they preferred to prosecute leaders of riots. Although wealthy men led some crowds, leaders usually emerged from among the crowd. The rioters' methods and aspirations did not fundamentally change from 1754 to 1829, but the Revolution qualitatively transformed rioting as participants used revolutionary language to legitimate new riots.

colonial and revolutionary eras

In the late colonial period, (1754–1775), rioters drew on various traditions of violence. Many built on the European tradition of "rough music" to correct the sometimes deviant behavior of their neighbors. In a typical example of the rite in 1754, a crowd of women in New York City chased a Mrs. Wilson and pelted her with rocks for allegedly committing adultery. Other rioters looked elsewhere for models of ritual violence. In 1763 the Paxton Boys murdered several peaceful Conestoga Indians to protest the Pennsylvania government's refusal to fund a militia to protect farmers from attacks by hostile Indians. They used the same kind of stylized violence that Indians had utilized to kill white settlers.

During the Revolutionary era (1763–1789), crowds built on these traditions of violence when they protested political and social injustice. The Stamp Act protests illustrate that although elites sometimes led crowds, they withdrew their support when riots threatened their interests. In Boston during August 1765, Samuel Adams built on celebrations of Pope's Day (5 November)—which commemorated an attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605—to protest the Stamp Act. Approximately two weeks after the crowd action he had organized, however, Adams called for the arrest of men responsible for another crowd action to protest growing disparities in wealth and power in Boston, a crowd that sacked the house of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Rural rebels of the same period, including land rioters in New York's Hudson Valley and Regulators in North Carolina, invoked the language of the Sons of Liberty when they rioted, hoping to legitimate their struggles for political and economic equality by aligning with struggles against Parliament. Authorities, some of whom were Sons of Liberty, reacted harshly to these rural riots in large part because these rioters often rejected their leadership. Rioting against British imperial rule culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 when some Bostonians refused to pay a tax that provided funds to cover the costs of colonial government. The rioters disguised themselves as Indians, boarded three ships in Boston Harbor, and dumped three hundred chests of tea into the water.

During the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), crowds made demands for subsistence part of the movement for independence. In nearly thirty instances during the first four years of the war, men and women rioted to control prices of vital commodities such as bread. In uprisings reminiscent of European bread riots, crowds of mostly women delivered ultimatums to their victims, couching their demands in the language of liberty and independence. They then assaulted these allegedly disloyal and unpatriotic shopkeepers for refusing to lower their exorbitant prices or for stockpiling goods to create false scarcities so they could then raise prices. These rioters disguised themselves, blackened their faces, and like participants in the Boston Tea Party, dressed like Indians to avoid identification.

after the revolution

The drive for independence forever changed rioting in the United States by giving rioters a new language drawn from that politically, socially, and culturally transformative event. After the war, rioters combined Revolutionary rhetoric with a European tradition of violence to legitimate their often-violent attempts to determine either who would rule the nation or how the nation should be ruled. Rioters who took part in Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787), the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), and Fries's Rebellion (1798) all invoked Revolutionary language to address local, state, or federal abuses of power. Similarly, Gabriel Prosser legitimated his slave rebellion in 1800 with words drawn directly from the pens of revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson. Animosity toward Britain lingered and exploded when rioters in Baltimore in June 1812 destroyed the presses of a printer who opposed war with Britain.

In the 1820s native-born whites, worried that immigrants jeopardized their welfare, attacked their economic opponents throughout the country, especially in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1824 and 1825, ethnically motivated violence marked New York and Philadelphia as riots broke out among canal workers, weavers, and dock-workers, with the latter destroying ships to force employers to meet their demands. Independence and liberty meant different things to these groups, but the words bore meanings forever attached to them in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787.

From 1754 to 1829, riotous crowds utilized European traditions of violence to voice their discontent with their rulers, their material condition, or their sexually deviant neighbors. Rioters often tried to establish their brand of authority, or their notion of what society ought to be, by temporarily turning their world upside down and by using highly ritualized institutions to attack their opponents. Some of these rioters attacked victims and took over official institutions because they knew that officials would not address the rioters' grievances and that insurgents would not receive equitable treatment in any official proceeding such as a court. These crowds used the terror and violence of rioting to achieve their aspirations. The Revolution provided those who approved of rioting with a new language to express themselves and a new tradition to justify their violence. At the same time the Revolution inspired an egalitarianism that challenged hierarchy, it prompted many Americans to try to better their status or, at the very least, preserve their position. Some did so by rioting.

See alsoBoston Massacre; Boston Tea Party; Fries's Rebellion; Labor Movement: Labor Organizations and Strikes; Shays's Rebellion; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Sons of Liberty; Stamp Act and Stamp Act Congress; Violence; Whiskey Rebellion .


Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Hoerder, Dirk. Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765–1780. New York: Academic Press, 1977.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Smith, Barbara Clark. "Food Rioters and the American Revolution." William and Mary Quarterly 51 (1994): 3–38.

Young, Alfred F., ed. The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976.

Thomas J. Humphrey