My dissertation draws on criminal court records as well as public discourses on violence, such as published crime narratives, to explore the link between IMG_2231 (1)violence, rights claiming, and the changing status of laborers (slave and free) during the early national period in New York City. Laborers filled NYC courts during this period to sue and be sued for an array of violent offenses. I argue that these cases deserve a place in the history of citizenship because they highlight how laboring men and women found ways of belonging when
lawmakers and politicians were attempting to set boundaries on who could exercise certain rights. I employ “claiming” and “belonging” to refer to processes wherein laborers exercised violence for their own purposes—as a means to carve a place for themselves in their communities and in NYC life and culture. I contend that conversations within courtrooms and political and social forums regarding appropriate and inappropriate forms of violence raised questions about the role of laborers in society. My dissertation argues that it was discussions about violence, both with respect to how violence operated on the ground as well as ideological notions of violence, that fueled debates about how to limit political rights to those believed capable of exercising them. Driven by fears that the propertyless could negatively influence state politics, journalists, lawmakers, and politicians attempted to convince the public that the prevalence of violence in the lives of laborers was representative of the fact that they were unfit to exercise the same rights as white property-holding males. These ideas eventually became racialized as white men gained universal suffrage with the 1821 constitution.


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