The Violence of the 1830s

Engraving of John Tyler.

While America had A Tradition of Extra-Legislative Action, including mobs and demonstrations, in the 1830s, America took a turn toward violence.

With Andrew Jackson in the White House, America had rioting based on party politics, ethnic, racial, and religious animosities. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 431.

Abolitionism, and their mass mailing of pamphlets, “provoked the largest number of riots.” Id. at 432. In August 1835, future president John Tyler addressed an antiabolition crowd in Virginia, focusing on the wide circulation of abolitionist literature. Id. at 432-33. He viewed the “abolition crusade as an assault not only on slavery but on the entire traditional social order.” Id. at 433. Tyler also “pointed with horror at the novel involvement of women in the abolitionist movement, particularly in the circulation of mass petitions, and to the ‘horn-books and primers’ aimed at ‘the youthful imagination.'” Id. citing Leonard Richards, “Gentlemen of Property and Standing“: Anti-Abolition Mobs in Jacksonian America (New York, 1970), 55-58.

Even President Jackson was not immune from the violence of the times. On January 30, 1835, Richard Lawrence “pointed two pistols at the president on the east portico of the Capitol from a distance of eight feet and pulled their triggers.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 436. Miraculously, both weapons misfired, and President Jackson attacked him with his cane, and Lawrence was take into custody, later to be found a madman. Id.

Ordinary Americans began to worry about the violence in society, which “helped the antislavery movement and Indian rights supporters.” Id. at 438. In the North, dueling became a thing of the past. Abraham Lincoln, then a young Illinois lawyer, spoke to the Springfield Lyceum:

“Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times . . . Whenever the vicious portion of the population shall be permitted to gather bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing-presses into the river, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure and with impunity, depend on it, this government cannot last . . . Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country.” Id.quoting “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield” (Jan. 27, 1838), Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, I, 108-15.

With the chaos and violence of the 1830s, the leaders of the next generation, like Lincoln, were coming to gain power and influence. In resorting to violence, the antiabolition and proslavery segments of society were empowering those they sought to repress.

Another point of analysis is that there can always be justification for actions. While Americans knew there was a history of mobs and demonstrations to justify violence, the violence of the 1830s was far beyond the scope of what previous generations of Americans had come to know. Modern Americans should remember this. From the time of the origination of a principle or belief, the spirit of that principle or belief can undergo a vast transformation. Before justifying actions or policies with the past, Americans should carefully consider this.

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