American Mobbing 1828-1861: Toward Civil War.
David Grimsted's groundbreaking tome, the product of over twenty-five years of work, is a deeply considered meditation on the relationship between mob violence and the coming of the Civil War. Using impressive social historical research and drawing from his vast knowledge of nineteenth-century American political history, he argues that sectional differences in mob violence contributed to escalating tensions between the North and the South. He shows how various types of northern and southern mobs expressed different sectional values about slavery and how they frustrated the efforts of moderates who wished to avoid the brewing conflict. In the process Grimsted provides a fresh perspective on the nation's sectional strife.
The book's arguments unfold in three distinct parts. The first section focuses on rioting in the North. Grimsted argues that two main types of riots were most evident in this region: mobs against abolitionists, and those in favor of fugitive slaves. In this section he illustrates the complex ways in which these very different kinds of riots combined to catalyze the growth of anti-slavery sentiment in the North. Part two, which contains perhaps the most fascinating chapters in the book, analyzes southern mobbing. Here Grimsted focuses on the three types of mobs that were most associated with the South: mob punishment of alleged criminals, insurrectionary scare mobs, and mobs against those people thought to be abolitionists. These mobs differed from northern mobs in a number of respects. In the South mobs received less opposition from authorities, were more likely to sadistically torture their victims, and were more likely to kill. Their terror was, in these respects, more powerful and complete than that of no rthern mobs. As a result of this mob ferocity, Grimsted suggests, southerners, blacks and white alike, were reluctant to criticize the slave regime publicly. This stifling of dissent, he argues, allowed thoughts that slaves were content, and that slavery was a "positive good", to define southern public discourse. In this way southern mobs contributed to escalating sectional tensions. Part three analyzes political mobbing--which Grimsted defines as voting riots and rioting of political speakers--in the North, South, and West. This section illustrates how different sectional systems of mob violence seeped into national politics and further heightened the looming crisis. Most interesting here is Grimsted's interpretation of the politics of the 1850s, particularly the rise of the Know-Nothing party. Know-Nothings, for Grimsted, were a "beachhead" of antislavery in the South. The Know-Nothings' anti-immigrant agenda threatened to divide the southern polity around an issue other than race and thus they posed a cons iderable threat to slave interests. Southern mobbing of Know-Nothings, Grimsted argues, must be interpreted as an attempt to stifle this potentially divisive political insurgence. Part three climaxes in the book's final chapter which analyzes mobbing in "bleeding" Kansas. For Grimsted the famous sectional battles for control of the territory are best interpreted as a clash between the nation's distinct sectional systems of violence. In Kansas, he argues, southerners' willingness to kill enflamed northern public opinion and edged the nation closer to civil war.
Prodigious research supports these arguments. Grimsted draws his conclusions from a vast database of 1218 mobs compiled from all types of available sources. (Grimsted defines mobbing as "Incidents where six or more people band together to enforce their will publicly by threatening or perpetrating physical injury to persons or property extralegally, ostensibly to correct problems or injustices within their society without challenging their basic structures."(xii)) This database, which Grimsted promises to make available to the public, will be a major contribution in its own right. Historians of the period will be very well served to have available this thorough compilation of such an important social phenomenon.
While Grimsted's research is magnificent, his awkward presentation diminishes the overall power of his book. He alludes in his introduction to a certain "pleasure" that his work has not found a wide readership--an ominous and revealing comment indeed (xiv). Grimsted is remarkably erudite on every page but the sum of his insights is not as meaningful as the parts. Major themes sometimes get lost in the details of his many riots. This is understandable given the often fascinating events he uncovers but it would have been helpful if he had adopted a more forceful, more argumentative, narrative style. A related problem with the presentation is that he makes no effort to engage the historiography surrounding the causes of the Civil War. Grimsted comments that mobs "contributed substantially" to sectional tensions (viii) and that they "would mark and deepen" (13) sectional confrontation. But how exactly mobbing interacted with other factors is left underarticulated. He seems to believe that slavery was the root ca use of the conflict, and that mobbing worked in the service of this more fundamental sectional division, but this is never firmly worked out. One wishes Grimsted had pushed his analysis further and argued, perhaps in his conclusion, just how crucial mobbing was to the coming of the War.
These are minor quibbles with what is an outstanding book. Grimsted's linkage of the violence of ordinary Americans with the larger rupture of the nation's political system is remarkably creative. He addresses one of the central questions in American history and his important answers deserve widespread acclaim and continued commentary.
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|Author:||Buchanan, Thomas C.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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