America’s Long Tradition of Rioting

A history professor explains that American riots and insurrections are nothing new; democracy often walks a narrow path between military oppression and mob rule.

Illustration of the 1844 Philadelphia riots
Illustration of the Philadelphia riots of 1844 (Library of Congress)

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Despite what you might have learned in school, America hasn’t been a peaceable nation.

Our history has been punctuated by numerous waves of rioting, beginning in 1786 when Daniel Shays and his followers attempted an armed insurrection. Since then, Americans have rioted over slavery, Native Americans, the military draft, wages, immigration, and racism.

What we saw in the storming of the U.S Capitol on January 6 was the latest in a long series of American uprisings.

Zachary Schrag, history professor at George Mason University, sees some similarities between the events of the January 2021 insurrection and the Philadelphia riots 177 years ago. In the spring of 1844, native-born Americans attacked Irish immigrants, burned down several of their churches, and exchanged gunfire with militia forces, which led to over 20 deaths. Schrag has written an account of those events in his book The Fires of Philadelphia (Pegasus Books).

Cover for the book "The Fires of Philadelphia"
­­­The Fires of Philadelphia (Pegasus Books)

The 1844 and 2021 riots have some commonalities. In the Philadelphia riot, the mob attacked Irish Catholics in their neighborhoods. But when the rioting broke out again, two months later, Schrag says, “it turned into a fight between nativist mobs and the Pennsylvania militia. To the extent that the mob was not fighting fellow citizens but the armed authority of the state, the Philadelphia riots resemble the Washington riot.”

News of an armed mob shocked many people in 1844, as it did in 2021. “Americans were worried that the country was coming apart,” Schrag says. Contemporaries compared the situation to a living on a volcano.

Americans had reasons to be worried. The debate over slavery had become increasingly violent. In 1837, an anti-abolition mob destroyed the press of an anti-slavery newspaper in Illinois several times before finally killing the publisher. Six months later, pro-slavery advocates burned down the abolitionists’ headquarters in Philadelphia.

One reason for the violence was that extremism had become common with the emergence of political parties. Polling stations became dangerous places. Mobs of one party would block voters for the opposing party from casting their ballots. Fist fights were not infrequent, and there were reports of voters brandishing knives to make a passage through the crowd.

The 1844 riot was an attempt of native-born Americans to protect their political power from newcomers. It was sparked by nativist propaganda in the newspapers, which stirred religious and nativist prejudices.

Cover for the nativist paper "The Native Flag"
The Native Flag (The Library Company of Philadelphia)


The front page for the anti-immigrant newspaper "American Patriot"
An anti-immigrant paper published in Boston (Library of Congress)

But the underlying cause wasn’t simply bigotry, according to Schrag. It was an economic downturn, similar to today when the U.S. economy was struggling to regain momentum after a year of business closures and isolation. In 1844, says Shrag, “Philadelphia was still recovering from depression stemming from the Panic of 1837.”

The book highlights another interesting parallel to the events of January: the unpreparedness of civil authorities. “In 1844, the city of Philadelphia had a small police force. A handful of constables that were really there to serve warrants,” says Schrag. “There was no kind of a professional police of the sort we would recognize now. And they were legally not able to cross the city limits,” where some of the rioting took place.

Eventually the Pennsylvania militia was brought in, though there was confusion over who was in charge and what should be done. Ultimately, the rioting was suppressed, but only after the militia opened fire on the mob. The lesson wasn’t lost on city officials. “One of the big changes coming out of the riot was a strengthening of government,” says Schrag. “New York and Philadelphia were the first two cities to create something we’d recognize as a police force. That helped put down the violence, not only against Irish immigrants, but in other groups as well. And in 1850 the city of Philadelphia absorbed Philadelphia County. One argument for consolidation was to get a handle on mob violence.”

The Saturday Evening Post reported on the 1844 riots at length. Concluding their final report on the events, the editors wrote:

And now it should be the study of all good men, to avoid and to check whatever may have a tendency to keep up the excitement. Let us study to conciliate, rather than keep alive angry feelings, exert it all to restore peace and soothe the anger and bitterness that have led to this difficulty. [July 13, 1844]

Schrag originally intended to write on the history of riot control, but was drawn to accounts of the Nativist Riots because they seemed to parallel our current political situation.

Looking to the future, Schrag thinks authorities must consider how to prepare for a recurrence of January’s events. “There’s been talk about new fences for the U.S. Capitol and possible a quick-reaction force,” says Schrag.

He adds that there have been threats against Congress as long ago as the 1780s. The federal district was written into the Constitution to help Congress better defend itself.

“An arguably good reason for D.C. statehood,” Shrag says, “is that the original idea has become obsolete with its growth. It would make more sense to shrink [the federal district] to a defensible perimeter around the Capitol and the White House.”

Outside of Washington, official responses to riots and insurrections rely on a fragmented system of police and sheriff departments, the National Guard, and other federal armed forces. While protections for life and property are needed, Americans are wary of building up riot control forces and domestic surveillance that, in Shrag’s words, “would impede people’s abilities to organize themselves peaceably and appropriately.”

There are no easy solutions. As he expressed it in his conclusion of The Fires of Philadelphia, which he added after the January riot, “Democracy walks a narrow path between military oppression and mob rule.”

Featured image: Illustration of the Philadelphia riots of 1844 (Library of Congress)

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  1. Thank you for this feature Jeff. It is painful to read about this nation’s long history of rioting and violence. With all that’s happened in the past, I find it pretty hard to believe that at any other time we’ve had one political party that was/is actively trying to overthrow our democracy from within, and seem to be on the verge of the autocracy power they want more than anything.

    We’re one election away now; just one, from losing everything. What Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd barely a year ago is a physical representation of what our government has done, and continues to do to our own people. I stand by the comments I made (1/9/21) per your first link here.

    In the 5 months since then it’s now become clear it was a resounding success, paving the way for more in the future. If members of the government have to be killed by other members (indirectly or not) to achieve complete total and permanent dominance by the one Party, then oh well.

    We are descending into a very dark, terrifying place that’s different from anything else experienced in the past, despite whatever outward similarities there may be otherwise.


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