Sunday, September 5, 2010

New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity: or B’hoys Will Be B’hoys

by Michael Kaplan

New York City's Five Points neighborhood painted by Geroge Catlin around 1827

Here's a blast from my past. I wrote this article fifteen years ago for the Journal of the Early Republic as part of my dissertation research. I dug through nineteenth-century court records and newspapers trying to figure out how violence shaped the political culture of Jacksonian New York. Tavern disturbances, I concluded, helped define the new, democratic, urban Jacksonian nationalist culture of the mid-nineteenth century. These forgotten brawls and riots created a distinct working-class male identity that was centered on the boisterous public assertion of honor, physical courage, independence, pride, and American patriotism, all central to Jacksonianism. Both the native-born (Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish Protestant) and immigrant (Irish Catholic) workingmen, who fought each other, contributed to forging this identity. A new populist hero, the b’hoy, was as symbolic of the urban Jacksonian persona as the yeoman farmer or Davy Crockett were of the western Jacksonian persona. These contests of honor allowed native-born and immigrant b’hoys to recognize each other as fellow citizens of the republic, while often violently excluding blacks and women. 

White supremacy, the idea that the United States was a “white man’s republic” was central to Jacksonian democracy from its beginnings until the 1960s. It was its most glaring point of conflict with the American Creed of liberty and justice for all. Stephen Douglas spoke for most Jacksonians when he declared in his first debate with Lincoln: “I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.” This was the ethos embraced by the b’hoys of New York and enforced by their riots in the taverns and the streets. Here we see both the positive and the dark sides of Jacksonian nationalism as it assimilated waves of Irish immigrants into America while creating a racially exclusive democratic republic for white men. Jacksonian America has struggled to overcome this aspect of its history ever since.

Scene of a Five Points riot from Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York

Writing this piece was the starting point for developing my ideas of the role Jacksonian populist nationalism played in the sometimes painful process of creating the American nation. All those b’hoys and fire laddies and assorted working-class brawlers, survivors, and heroes, built New York City with their strength, grit, determination, and sacrifice. They created the Jacksonian blue collar New York of legend which rose to an epic level of heroism on September 11, 2001. What Victor Davis Hanson wrote about the descendants of the b’hoys, the fire fighters, cops, and rescue workers of 9/11, was just as true of their forbearers: “Danger was nothing to them, courage and honor everything.” As the poster for Martin Scorsese’s historical film, Gangs of New York, put it, “America was born in the streets.”

© 2010 Michael Kaplan