Rioting has played an important and recurrent role throughout New York City's history. New Yorkers have taken to the streets repeatedly since before the American Revolution to air their grievances in confrontations with authorities and public demonstrations, many of which turned violent . Our understanding of the causes and consequences of such public actions has changed over time. Nineteenth century political chroniclers and journalists, for example, interpreted violent disturbances such as the Bowery Boy- Dead Rabbit riot of 1857 and the Draft Riots of 1863 as mindless actions of faceless mobs of New Yorkers, outbreaks of savage, often random violence, with little meaning or purpose.

Much of this early understanding of mob violence resulted from the sources that analysts used to explain civil disturbances: newspaper accounts, government documents and personal reminiscences that reported on or tried to explain the causes of riots all had particular political and cultural axes to grind. Largely obscured in such reportage and reminscences were the political, economic and cultural motivations of the ordinary New Yorkers engaged in the rioting, as were the deeper structural and social causes of the riots.

In the past forty years, social and cultural historians, in their quest for better understandings of civil disturbances, have moved beyond contemporary reportage and looked more closely at the causes and consequences of rioting. In the process, they have had to ask and attempt to answer a set of interrelated questions:

  • Who were the rioters?
  • What was the riot's precipitating event or cause?
  • How did the riot develop and unfold? Why did the riot occur when it did?
  • Who and what were the targets and victims of crowd violence?
  • What is the larger social, economic, and political context in which the riot took place?

Asking and attempting to answer these types of questions has enriched our historical understanding of riots; no longer do contemporary historians dismiss riots simply as the actions of irrational mobs. Although, as you will see in many of the documents reproduced in this exhibit, earlier chroniclers used such value-laden interpretations. As you read documents and look at images in this exhibit, pay particular attention to the stereotypical phrasing used by authors and the prevalence of caricature. By exploring fully the social, economic and cultural contexts in which riots occur, we can better understand not only the rioters' immediate goals but also their deeper political and ideological motivations.

Urban riots are significant events in and of themselves because of the level of destruction and disruption that they visit upon cities. But riots also offer a window onto larger social and political power relations in play at particular moments in a city's history. By looking through these windows, we can develop a deeper understanding of the massive, rapid, and destabilizing transformations that have shaped and reshaped New York City over the past two hundred years. The most significant and destructive riot in New York's past was the Draft Riot. Click below to explore.