Nineteenth-Century Collective Violence: Toward a North American Context

Scott W. See
1997 Labour (Halifax)  
UNTIL ALMOSTAQUARTER CENTURY AGO, the theme of violence in North American history focused primarily on the extraordinary events that definitively shaped the course of republicanism, democracy, and freedom. To most historians, violence invoked panoramic images of revolution, civil war, and rebellion. Violence in post-Conquest Canadian history, outside the parameters of the Upper and Lower Canadian Rebellions of the late 1830s and the Red River and North West Rebellions of the late 19th century,
more » ... eemed to be an obvious and mildly amusing oxymoron. In the United States, on the other hand, generations of historians had concentrated their energies on those most profound and almost mesmerizing events in the American saga: the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The story of collective or group violence in North America, meaning spontaneous or planned demonstrations and confrontations outside the political arena, seemed anecdotal at best. Historians lightly touched upon those events or passed them over altogether because they appeared ill-suited to give citizens of either nation-state an enriched sense of their collective experience. The decade of the 1960s, however, kindled a modest yet vibrant anthology of historical literature on less well-known episodes of violence in each country's past Significantly, during the last three decades historians in both countries helped either to establish or to reinforce national self-images that still retain a tremendous popular appeal: Canada as the "peaceable kingdom" and the United States as the Scott W. See, "Nineteenth-Century Collective Violence: Toward a North American Context," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 13-38. 14 LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL "violent society." 1 For example, William Kilbourn, who considered the nature of violence in a troubled world with a sharp eye cocked on his bumptious southern neighbours, succinctly expressed the Canadian ideal in the Cold War era: "I cannot help feeling ... that Canada, merely by existing, does offer a way and a hope, an alternative to insanity, in so far as there is a way and a hope for any of us in an insane world." 2 Importantly, in the wake of the energetic historiographical activity of some of his colleagues as they pursued violence in Canada's past, Kilbourn later revisited the peaceable kingdom paradigm. Finding it under scholarly assault, be mounted a spirited defense by maintaining that it appropriately described late 20th-century Canada: For all its faults, this country has remained blessedly free of those deadly clashes of rival ideologies, dreams, and purities with which almost every other comer of the earth is still plagued today. To say otherwise, to state in portentous tones that our recent history too has been terrible, is about as useful as proclaiming that Canada is the worst country in the world except for the others. The American ethos, as an almost perfect counterpoint, was clearly enunciated by Richard Maxwell Brown. "American life has been characterized by continuous and often intense violence," he argued, and essentially it has formed a "seamless web with some of the most positive events of U.S. history.' These Canadian and American ideals-espoused so eloquently in the 1960s and early 1970s-rapidly became entrenched; they continue to shape our memory of episodic collective violence in both countries. Many scholars have crafted their ideas in light of theories of popular violence in the Western world, and the more thorough practitioners have mined the international literature on violence in order to provide a framework for their own research. 3 Still, with rare exception, most continue to view 19th-century violence in the socio-political spheres of their respective countries; their work bears the indelible watermark of national ideals. Whether they consider themselves proponents or critics of their country's domestic or foreign agendas, historians cannot escape the insistent reverberations of nationalism. Typically, Americans focus on the articu-See Judy Torrance's useful discussion of the peaceable kingdom ideal in COLLECTIVE VIOLENCE 15 lation of democracy and the breathtaking growth of the republic; conversely, Canadians often consider the orderly and evolutionary -the Rebellions notwithstanding -emergence of political and social events that culminated in Confederation. In the mainstream of c»n»Man historical writings, the phenomenon of coUective violence seems somehow out of place in the landscape of the past, or perhaps worse, it represents yet another revisionist variation on a theme of American cultural imperialism. This article assesses the historiography of North American collective violence, with particular emphasis on pre-Confederation Canada and the United States in the antebellum period. It includes a discussion of theoretical contexts and concludes with specific suggestions for further exploration into Canada's riotous episodes. Collective disturbances, including those triggered by a widespread and virulent indigenous reaction to immigrants, reveal important benchmarks for historians as they seek to understand social and political changes. Moreover, while the 19th century provides a convenient handle, this study's narrower chronological focus grows out of a rich and focused corpus of historical material. The decades clustered around mid-century, when American nationalism turned on the axis of Jacksonian democracy and the Canadian colonies experienced analogous political and social upheavals, were particularly tumultuous. The scholarly literature on collective violence since the 1960s matured in an environment of powerful national ideals -perhaps more appropriately labelled myths -that involved self-identification. In a broad sense, historians have oftentimes constructed jaundiced interpretations and occasionally presented specious arguments that buttress these stylized images. The abundant political, social, and ethnic violence of the 1960s helped to spawn revisionist historical trends in both the United States and Canada.' Canadian historians embraced, indeed they helped to refashion, the "peaceable kingdom" ideal; yet paradoxically, and in virtually the same chronological breath, a handful of historians cast a glaring light on Canada's 'For a deliberately idiosyncratic assessment of Canada's essentially non-violent nature, see Pierre Berton, Why We Act Like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of Our National Character (Toronto 1982), 17-24, 36-8. A relatively recent glimpse of Canadian fears of American cultural encroachment are found in Laurier LaPierre, éd., If You Love This Country: Facts and Feelings on Free Trade (Toronto 1987). 7 Given its focus on collective violence, this paper will not explicitly consider the Upper and Lower Canadian Rebellions. While these conflicts await a comprehensive and scholarly synthesis, historians have recently provided thoughtful assessments, and in some cases, significant revisions to popular interpretations of the disturbances. See, for example, Allan Greer, 77»« Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada (Toronto 1993). The subject of violence typically underscored this historiographical shift During the 1960s American historians enthusiastically mined material on collective violence, clearly in reaction to disturbing urban riots, a stalled civil rights movement that was growing restive, a cluster of political assassinations, and the increasingly volatile student movement that sought reforms in campus politics and a termination of the draft and the hostilities in Vietnam. Significantly, the first comprehensive academic study of violence in American history was attributed exclusively to the work completed by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. As a tribute to the alarms being triggered in urban settings, one volume of Violence in America, a collective enterprise of historians and social scientists, was devoted entirely to group violence. 13 Scores of historians turned their sights on the antecedents of Iate-20th-century violence. They understood 18thand 19th-century collective violence as protean elements of the Revolutionary War, as primitive forms of popular political expression, and as a traditional outlet for ethnic conflict 14 Many of their efforts focused on the antebellum decades in general, and the Jacksonian Era of the 1830s, a period noted for the high frequency and intensity of its collective disturbances, in particular. 15 subtitle of the work by Graham and Gurr, eds., is Protest, Rebellion, Reform; the companion volume is subtitled The History of Crime. a good analysis of political crowds during the American Revolution, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, "Political Mobs and the American Revolution, 1765-1776," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 99 ( 1955), 244-50. Bernard Bailyn argued that crowds held a "powerful political potential" for protesting against laws that they perceived to be unjust, in
doi:10.2307/25144105 fatcat:rirqlc54fbebjczd6aqdtxi35a