My dissertation, “The Intersections of Legal Culture, Violence and Citizenship in New York City, 1785-1827,” contends that laboring New Yorkers who could not possess civil rights used their limited legal voice in local criminal courts to meditate various forms of “everyday” violence and, in so doing, created a means to participate in community governance. I argue that physical conflict was unique, in comparison to non-violent civil offenses, because of the public component attached to assault and battery cases. The ability to resort to violence was closely connected to how others perceived that individual within a community. Local criminal cases demonstrate that even in a burgeoning city violence was typically relational. Violent acts and the ways in which they were adjudicated uncover the close connections people had with one another in the face of tremendous growth and change. While urban historians have viewed the city’s neighborhoods as too transient in the early nineteenth century to allow people to create community, local court records point to the existence of common and intimate bonds among male and female workers from various ethnic backgrounds as well as their conceptions of order and how they defined them.
I study these cases, and the community dynamics of legal proceedings, within the context of gradual emancipation in New York. I use the debates surrounding gradual emancipation and suffrage to show how, in time, violence on the ground became linked to broader ideas about who did and did not belong. Crime narratives became a popular means of disseminating a specific agenda by narrating legal proceedings in a way that portrayed African Americans as criminal and dangerous and, therefore, as a threat to white New Yorkers. While scholars recognize New York’s time of gradual emancipation as pivotal moment, they have given very little attention to how violence was tied to political decisions at the local and state levels in the 1820s.