‘To Restore Peace and Tranquility to the Neighborhood’: Violence, Legal Culture and Community in New York City, 1799-1827
“‘To Restore Peace and Tranquility to the Neighborhood’: Violence, Legal Culture and Community in New York City, 1799-1827” examines the various ways ordinary people, legal officials, lawmakers, and editors negotiated the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion, or what historians call “belonging.” It uses legal cases and crime publications to analyze contradictory visions of the public good within the context of key political and social changes in the city, state, and nation. The dissertation moves from the operations of violence on the ground to the ideological implications of violence in the era of gradual emancipation. New Yorkers—male and female, free and unfree, native and immigrant—could and did participate in legal proceedings. Complainants and witnesses relied on the processes of law rather than actual verdicts to establish order in their personal lives and in their communities. This dissertation contends that people made and remade community through the adjudication and interpretation of violent conflict.
Violence was indicative of daily exchanges and disagreements, all of which were linked to how people envisioned themselves and the “other,” or what scholars refer to as “reputation.” Gendered and racialized identities developed from negotiations that transpired inside and outside legal forums. White women, free blacks, and enslaved and indentured persons continually redefined notions of femininity and blackness through the violence they employed.
Concepts of reputation and race and gender formation intersected in legal forums and in broader discussions about how men and women should conduct themselves in the nineteenth century. At a moment when lawmakers debated the nature of citizenship, crime publications intentionally highlighted violent offenses to offer a particular vision of who citizens should be and to marginalize the working classes, immigrants, and African Americans. The institution of slavery and the violence inherent to it became a means for editors to portray African Americans as socially inferior and to guard the city’s moral reputation against abolitionists. Ultimately, violence played a role in the efforts of editors and lawmakers to delegitimize free blacks’ social and political belonging in New York and the nation as a whole.
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