Spring Election Riots of 1834

This country never committed a more fatal mistake than in making its naturalization laws so that the immense immigration from foreign countries could, after a brief sojourn, exercise the right of suffrage. Our form of government was an experiment, in the success of which not only we as a nation were interested, but the civilized world. To have it a fair one, we should have been allowed to build and perfect the structure with our own material, not pile into it such ill formed, incongruous stuff as the despotisms of Europe chose to send us. Growing up by a natural process, educating the people to the proper exercise of their high trust, correcting mistakes, and adjusting difficulties as we progressed, the noble building would have settled into greater compactness as it arose in height, and all its various proportions been in harmony. We should have built slowly but surely. But when there was thrown upon us a mass of material wholly unfit for any political structure, and we were compelled to pile it in hap-hazard, it was not long before the goodly edifice began to show ugly seams, and the despotisms of Europe pointed to them with scorn, and asked tauntingly how the doctrine of self government worked. They emptied their prisons and poor houses on our shores, to be rid of a dangerous element at home, and we, with a readiness that bordered on insanity, not only took them into our bosoms, but invited them to aid us in making our laws and electing our rulers. To ask men, the greater part of whom could neither read nor write, who were ignorant of the first principles of true civil liberty, who could be bought and sold like sheep in the shambles, to assist us in founding a model republic, was a folly without a parallel in the history of the world, and one of which we have not yet begun to pay the full penalty. It was a cruel wrong, not only to ourselves, but to the oppressed masses of Europe, who turned their longing eyes on us for encouragement and the moral aid which our success would give them in their struggles against despotism.

If the reason given for endowing this floating population and dangerous element under any circumstances with the full rights of citizens had been the true one, namely: to be just to them, and consistent with the great doctrine of equality on which our Government rested, there might be some little comfort in reflecting on the mistake we made. But this was false. The right of suffrage was given them by a party in order to secure their votes, and secure them, too, by appealing to those very passions that made them dangerous to the republic, and which the interest of all alike required should be removed instead of strengthened.

All the good the Democratic party has ever done this country will hardly compensate for the evil of this one act.

If our experiment shall finally prove a failure, we verily believe it will be owing to the extension of the political franchise to whites and blacks who were unfit to use it, and cared for it not because of its honor, or the good use to which it might be put, but as a piece of merchandise to be sold to the highest bidder or used as a weapon of assault against good order and righteous laws.

Of course, the first pernicious effect of this transfer of power to ignorant, reckless men would be felt at the polls in New York City, where this class was in the greatest number. The elections here soon became a farce, and the boasted glory of a free ballot box a taunt and a by word. That gross corruption and villainy practiced here should eventually result in the open violation of law, as it did in the charter election of 1834, was natural.

Political animosity was probably more bitter between the Democrats, under Jackson’s administration, and the Whigs, than between any two political parties since the time of Federalists and Democrats, in the days of the elder Adams.

In the spring of 1834 especially, party spirit ran very high in the city. As usual, for a month or more before the election, which took place on the second Tuesday in April, all kinds of accusations and rumors were afloat. There was no registry law, and comparatively few places for the polls, so that there could be little check on voting, no end to repeating, while the gathering of an immense crowd around each place of voting became inevitable. At this election, there was a split in the Democratic party, Mr. Verplanck being the candidate of the Independent Democrats, and Mr. Lawrence of the “Tammany.”

The most extensive preparations were made on both sides for the conflict, and it was generally expected there would be a personal collision in some of the wards.

Tuesday, the 8th of April, dawned dark and stormy, and the rain began to fall heavily, at times coming down in torrents. But to such a fever heat had the public feeling been carried, that no one seemed to heed the storm. The stores were closed, business of all kinds suspended; while the streets were black with men hurrying to the polls. At twelve o’clock the American flag was hoisted on the Exchange, when the building became deserted, and all gathered at the places where the voting was going on. Men stood in long lines, extending clear out into the street, patiently enduring the pelting rain, waiting till their turn came to vote.

The famous expression of Jackson, “Perish credit, perish commerce,” had been taken out of the connection in which it was used, and paraded everywhere. The sailors had been enlisted in the struggle, and rigged up a beautiful little frigate in complete order, and named it the “Constitution.” Mounting it on wheels, several hundred of them paraded it through the streets and past the polls. As they passed through Wall Street, thundering cheers greeted them, and the excited populace, heedless of the rain, fell into the procession, till it swelled to thousands, who, with songs and shouts, followed after. Fearful of the effect of this demonstration on the voters, the Jackson men hastily rigged out a boat, surmounted by a flag on which was painted in large characters, “Veto;” and “Constitution” and “Veto” sailed after each other through the city. This should have been prevented by the authorities, for it was impossible for these two processions to meet without a fight occurring, while it was equally certain that the Whig one would be attacked, if it attempted to pass the polls in those wards in which the roughs had the control. But the “Hickory poles” had inaugurated a new mode of carrying on political campaigns. Appeals were made to the senses, and votes obtained by outward symbols, rather than by the discussion of important political questions. This mode of electioneering culminated with the log cabin excitement.

In the Eleventh Ward, the Jackson party had two private doors through which to admit their voters to the polls, while bullies kept back from the main entrance the Independent Republicans. In most of the strong Jackson wards, where it was all on one side, the voting went on peaceably enough, but in the Sixth, it was soon evident that a storm was inevitable. Oaths and threats and yells of defiance made the polls here seem more like an object on which a mob was seeking to wreak its vengeance, than a place where freemen were depositing their votes under sanction of law. The babble of sound continued to grow worse in spite of the rain, and swelled louder and louder, till at last the Jackson roughs, headed by an ex alderman, made a rush for the committee room where their opponents were assembled. Some of them were armed with clubs, and others with knives, which they brandished fiercely as they burst into the room. Before the members could offer any resistance, they were assailed with such fury, that in a short time nearly twenty were stretched bleeding and maimed on the floor; one so badly wounded that he was carried out lifeless, and apparently dead. It was a savage onslaught, and those who escaped injury reached the street hatless, and with coats half torn from their backs. The mob, now being complete masters of the room, tore down all the banners, destroyed the ballots, and made a complete wreck of everything. The Whig leaders, enraged at such dastardly, insulting treatment, dispatched a messenger in all haste to the Mayor for help, but he replied that he could not furnish it, as all the available force was away in other sections of the city on duty. The excitement among the Whigs now became fearful, and they determined to take the matter in their own hands. The election was to last three days, and they concluded to let the polls, when the mob entered, take care of themselves the balance of the day, and organize a plan for self protection on the morrow.

A call was at once issued for a meeting at Masonic Hall, and that night four thousand Whigs packed the building, from limit to limit. General Bogardus was called to the chair, who, after stating the object of the meeting, and describing the conduct of the mob in the Sixth Ward, offered the following resolutions:

“Whereas”, The authority of the Police of the city has been set at defiance by a band of hirelings, mercenaries, and bullies in the Sixth Ward, and the Lives of our citizens put in jeopardy. And whereas it is evident that we are in a state of anarchy, which requires the prompt and efficient interposition of every friend of good order who is disposed to sustain the constitution and laws, therefore, be it

“Resolved”, That in order to preserve the peace of the city, and especially of the Sixth Ward, the friends of the constitution and the liberties of the citizen will meet at this place (Masonic Hall), tomorrow (Wednesday), at half past seven o’clock A.M., and repair to the Sixth Ward poll, for the purpose of keeping it open to all voters until such time as the official authorities may ‘procure a sufficient number of special constables to keep the peace.’

“Resolved”, That while at the Sixth Ward poll, those who are not residents thereof will not take part in the election, but simply act as conservators of the peace, until such times as the Majesty Of The Laws shall be acknowledged and respected.”

These resolutions were carried with acclamations and shouts and stamping of feet.

There was no bluster in these resolutions, but their meaning was apparent enough, and the city authorities understood it. From that hall, next morning, would march at least five or six thousand determined men, and if the mob rallied in force, to repeat the action of the day before, there would be one of the bloodiest fights that ever disgraced the city. It was believed that the great mass of the rioters were Irishmen, and the thought that native born Americans should be driven from their own ballot box by a herd of foreigners, aroused the intensest indignation. It was an insult that could not and should not be tolerated.

The next morning, at half past seven, Masonic Hall was filled to repletion. The excitement can be imagined, when such a crowd could be gathered at this early hour.

In the Ninth Ward a meeting was also called, and a resolution passed, tendering a committee of one hundred to the general committee; that, with a committee of the same number from each of the fourteen wards of the city, would make a battalion eighteen hundred strong, to be ready at a moment’s notice, to march to any poll “to protect the sacred right of suffrage.”

These measures had their desired effect. The presence of large bodies of men at the different polls, for the purpose of protecting them, overawed the unorganized mob, although in some of the wards attempts were made to get up a riot. Stones and clubs were thrown, and one man stabbed; it was thought at the time fatally. The Sixth Ward, “the Bloody Sixth,” as it was called, was the point of greatest danger, and thither the Mayor repaired in person, accompanied by the sheriff and a large posse, and remained the greater part of the day. Threats and opprobrious epithets were freely used, and occasionally a paving stone would be hurled from some one on the outskirts of the crowd; but the passage to the polls was kept open, and by one o’clock the citizens could deposit their votes without fear of personal violence.

The evil of having the election continue three days now became more apparent than ever. The disorderly class, “the roughs,” by their protracted drinking, became more and more maddened, and hence riper for more desperate action. This second night was spent by them in carousing, and the next morning they turned out to the polls, not only ready, but eager for a fight. Early in the forenoon, the frigate “Constitution” was again on its voyage through the streets, followed by a crowd. As it passed Masonic Hall, the head quarters of the Whig Committee, it was saluted with cheers. This was followed by a rush upon it, on the part of the mob, who attempted to destroy it. The Whigs inside of the building, seeing the attack, poured forth with a loud cheer, and fell on the assailants with such fury, that they turned and fled. The news of what was passing, had, in the meantime, reached the Sixth Ward folks, and a shout was raised for followers. Instantly a huge crowd, composed of dirty, ragged, savage looking men, broke away with discordant yells, and streamed up Duane Street towards the building, picking up paving stones and brick bats, and pulling down pickets as they ran. Coming in sight of the little frigate, they raised a shout and dashed on it. The procession had now passed the hall, but the Whigs, informed of what was going on, again sallied forth to the help of the sailors, who were fighting manfully against overwhelming odds. But they were soon overpowered, and again took refuge in the hall. This was now assailed, and stones came crashing through the windows. The Mayor was sent for, and soon appeared with the sheriff, backed by forty watchmen. Mounting the steps, he held up his staff of office, and commanded the peace. But the half drunken mob had now got beyond the fear of the mere symbol of authority, and answered him with a shower of stones, and then charged on the force that surrounded him. A fierce and bloody fight followed. Citizens rushed out to the help of the Mayor, while the watchmen fell on the mob with their clubs. They soon stretched on the pavement more than their own number, but the odds against them was too great. The Mayor received a wound ten or fifteen watchmen besides citizens were wounded Captains Stewart, Munson, and Flaggs, badly injured, the latter with his skull horribly fractured, ribs broken, and face cut up. A few of the rioters were arrested, but the great mass broke through all opposition, and streaming into the hall, forced the committee to creep through back passages and windows.

The news of this high handed outrage was carried like the wind to the lower anti Democratic wards, and the excited Whigs came streaming up, until Duane, Elm, Pearl, Cross, Augustus, and Chatham Streets, up to Broadway, were black with determined, enraged citizens. Ten or fifteen thousand were in a short time assembled, and a fearful battle seemed inevitable. In this appalling state of things, the Mayor called a consultation, and it was decided to declare the city in a state of insurrection, and call on the military for help. A messenger was immediately dispatched to the Navy Yard for a company of marines. Colonel Gamble, commanding, replied that he would be glad to comply with the request, and put himself at their head, but that he had just sent them on board the “Brandywine” and “Vincennes.” Application was then made to Commodore Hidgely, commander of the station; but he refused, on the ground that he had no authority to interfere. A messenger was then hurried across to Governor’s Island for help, but he met with no better success. As a last resort, General Sanford was now directed to call out the city military.

All this time the crowd kept increasing, while from out its bosom came an angry murmur like the moaning of the sea before a storm. The polls were deserted, and it seemed impossible that the opposing forces could be long kept apart. At length word passed through the Whigs that the mob were about to take possession of the arsenal. Instantly several hundred citizens made a dash for it, and occupied it. This was a brilliant piece of strategy, and no sooner did the rioters hear of it, than they swarmed around the building with yells and imprecations. The Whigs, however, held it, and some of them passed out arms to their friends.

Three terrible hours had now passed since the first outbreak, and from the Park to Duane Street, Broadway, and the cross streets on the east side of it, were packed with excited men, their shouts, calls, and curses rising over the dwellings in tones that sent terror to the heart. But for the narrow streets, in which but few could come in contact, there would doubtless have been a collision long before.

But at this critical moment a detachment of infantry and two squadrons of cavalry came marching down Broadway, and in close column. The crowd divided as they advanced, and they drew up before the arsenal. The gleaming of the bayonets and the rattle of sabres had a quieting effect on the rioters, and they began to disperse again to the polls, to watch the progress of the voting. In the meantime, the infantry took up their quarters at the arsenal, and the cavalry at the City Hall, for the night.

When the polls closed at evening, the ballot box of the Sixth Ward was taken under a strong guard to the City Hall, and locked up for the night. It was followed by four or five thousand excited men, but no violence was attempted.

The election was over. For three days the city had been heaving to the tide of human passion, and trembling on the verge of a great disaster, and all because a few ruffians, not a fourth part of whom could probably read or write, chose to deny the right of suffrage to American citizens, and constitute themselves the proper representatives of the city.

But the excitement did not end with the election. It was very close, and as the returns came in slowly, the people assembled in great numbers, to hear them reported. The next day, till three o’clock at night, ten or fifteen thousand people blocked Wall Street, refusing to disperse, till they knew the result. It was finally announced that Mr. Lawrence, the Democratic candidate, was elected by a small majority.

The next thing was to ascertain the character of the Common Council. The same mighty throng assembled next day, forgetting everything else in the intense interest they felt in the result. It would seem impossible to get up such a state of feeling over the election of a few local officers, but the city shook from limit to limit as the slow returns came in. At last, it was announced that the Whigs had carried the Common Council by a small majority. As the news passed through the immense concourse, a shout vent up that shook Wall Street from Broadway to the East River. It rolled back and forth like redoubled thunder, till every throat was hoarse.

When the crowd at last dispersed, it was only to assemble again in separate bodies in different parts of the city, and talk over the victory.

Even then the excitement was not allowed to die away. The event was too great to be permitted to pass without some especial honor, and a mass meeting was called in Castle Garden to celebrate it. Webster was sent for to make a speech, the most distinguished speakers of New York were called upon, and a day of general rejoicing followed, great as that which succeeded Lee’s surrender.



MLA Source Citation:

Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 29 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/new-york/spring-election-riots-of-1834.htm - Last updated on Mar 5th, 2013


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