What America can Learn from the 1863 New York Draft Riots

American actor Leonardo Di Caprio in the 2002 film <em>Gangs of New York</em>.
American actor Leonardo Di Caprio in the 2002 film Gangs of New York.

This past US presidential election has left the country bitterly divided. Both ends, and many in between, felt change at the federal level was needed, but the sides drawn have become the far reaches of each, down to either progressivism or advocates of “burn down the whole political system” as President-elect Trump’s alt-right so enthusiastically tweet.

No country in history has seen massive political and social change occur so suddenly and frequent as in the United States, with conservatives and liberals fighting an eternal tug-of-war for the nation’s dogma ever since the Revolutionary War’s conclusion. However, 2016 is undoubtedly the most divided the country has been since the Civil War.

The New York Draft Riots

It was a war that outraged an emerging multicultural society in northern cities, while the South was thriving with the brutal enslavement of black men, women and children. As much as New Yorkers and establishment Democrats at Tammany Hall touted their city as a bastion of freedom and justice, it was still the country’s economic capital and it’s many textile factories relied on Southern cotton production, meaning a sizable amount of Confederate sympathizers.

That’s why when the Civil War broke out, the city was bitterly divided. Aggressions in New York reached its boiling point on July 11, 1863, just one week after the Union Army’s victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, the U.S. government instituted the nation’s first draft. New Yorkers were outraged, either because they were immigrants who were hastily granted citizenship only because the city’s Democratic politicians wanted their votes, and now had to risk dying for their new country. While working class whites in general were fearful that free blacks would migrate in droves to New York City and put an even bigger strain on the competition between the two sides for work at the docks.

The white “nativists” targeted German and Irish Catholic immigrants who wanted to “purify” the US of Catholics, who were stereotypically viewed as rowdy troublemakers who should be hauled off to jail, hence the “paddy wagon.” However, both nativists and Irish immigrants attacked free black man unabatedly when the riots began two days later on July 13th.

The riots were a protest against the elites. New York’s upper class could pay a commutation fee of $300 (more than $5,500 today) and be exempt from the draft lottery, a war which many of the rich supported. Free black men were also exempt because they were not considered American citizens. This lead the mob to target homes of wealthy socialites, lynching black men from lamp posts and cutting telegraph wires so police reinforcements could not be reached. The raging mob then tried to sack the New York Times building, but were unsuccessful thanks to staff and the paper’s founder Henry Jarvis Raymond manning Gatling guns in the windows. However, nobody could save The Colored Orphan Asylum at 143rd Street and Fifth Avenue, a "symbol of white charity to blacks and of black upward mobility," was burned to the ground by rioters. Luckily the 233 children were able to escape through the back before the mob arrived.

The draft riots spanned five days from July 13 to night of July 17, as military reinforcements could not be called in from the front, therefore leaving the NYC police, and eventually the aid of state militias from as far as Michigan to quell the mayhem.

In the end, 119 were killed, many were innocent black men, while 2,000 people were injured. The draft riots are remembered as the most destructive display of civil disobedience in American history. However, of the 750,000 selected nationwide for conscription, only about 45,000 went into service.

2016 US Presidential Election

We like to believe America has come a long way since the Civil War; a nation of values, human rights and free speech but we often fall short of that ideal. The bitter divide between a disgruntled white working class pitted against immigrants and black Americans continues as if we have learned nothing from our history.

The same trickery is still being used by the 1 percent today, by scapegoating Muslims, Mexicans and black Americans as the cause of the “white man’s” economic strife, while the true perpetrators are those responsible for the Great Recession. It’s this divide between these groups, which are in essence the entire makeup of the working class, but cannot reach the prosperity they seek because they refuse to come together and fight for progressive labor and citizenship rights.

President-elect Donald’s Trump’s campaign gallivanted as an anti-establishment figure who will “drain the swamp” in DC as the savior of the working class, yet he’s a self-proclaimed billionaire who refuses to release his tax return, most likely out of fear it will unveil his treasonous and immoral business dealings.

Trump is as cunning as former New York mayor William “Boss” Tweed, a mid-19th century Democrat, when it comes to playing politics for their own monetary gain. Trump, the head of a multinational corporation of his namesake looking to enhance the brand’s prestige, while Tweed preyed on the paranoia of Irish newcomers during the unsettling period before and during the Civil War, then swindled $25-45 million from New York City taxpayers.

However, Tweed was a blue collar New Yorker at his core, having worked odd jobs as a bookkeeper and apprentice to a saddler before rising the political ranks of Tammany Hall, the NYC Democratic political machine. While Trump, fancies himself as a “man of the people” by eating McDonald’s and watching football, yet does so while on his private jet, the culmination from a “small loan of a million dollars” given by his father. Whether by Air Force One or his “T-Bird,” luxurious private airliner is his preferred mode of transportation when commuting between Washington D.C. and New York. While his red-hatted supporters will continue to take the bus to NYC like real blue collar Americans. Of course the irony is lost on Trump’s “basket of deplorables.”

What America has Learned

Since the Civil War, not much. Other than that Americans will cling to their beliefs no matter how illogical and self-destructive they are, simply because we insulate ourselves in echo chambers as Saturday Night Live encapsulated. In 1863, nativist Americans only associated with other nativists, and the Irish Catholics only with other “Five Points” emerald islanders. Much the same with social media pushing society deeper into its political corners, with ideology reinforced by a flood of fake stories on their Facebook newsfeeds, and fueled by a bitter disdain for the other side.

What America needs to do is come together and talk about a little thing called “facts,” somehow lost in this past election cycle, with the winning nominee and the mainstream media falling short reporting the full truth. The lack of honest news circulating in 1863, where propaganda was widespread, lead to frustration and unleashed an unprecedented level of hate towards other races and classes.

We are seeing this same mixture of ignorance, vitriol and divide today. Although what is different this time around is the protests occurring nationwide are in opposition to antagonism and against a changing America going down a radical path that will benefit no one, but those wealthy few that are safe from the repercussions of deepening economic disparity.

This time around the Left has brought the most vulnerable in society into the fold and march alongside their fellow Americans against an impending oppression by a Republican president that right wingers dubiously voted for as a solution without an answer. Perhaps if Donald Drumpf continues to go back on his draconian campaign promises, that the Right will join the Left against the top 1 percent and maybe, just maybe put “UNITED” back in these United States of America.

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