- Historic Sites
Reading, Writing, And History
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
We retain, in other words, even in a highly complex society, a large trace of the frontier mind; that is, a determination to preserve both unprecedented liberty and a curious social and intellectual innocence. On the actual frontier this was all very well, but what comes down from it is an attitude of doubtful usefulness since it implies a rejection of the responsibilities that go with civilization. The frontier legend, Mr. Moore believes, brings with it a general opposition to “programs implying discipline and discrimination.” Implicit in all of this is a severing of old cultural ties. Men whose whole concern is with the future have little use for the lessons and experience of the past, and a magnificent broadening of the physical horizon was not necessarily accompanied by a corresponding broadening of intellectual horizons.
For a summing up, Mr. Moore offers the following:
“What seriously occupied the mind of the West during the nineteenth century was not then intellectual or even spiritual values but the tariff, public lands, internal improvements, Indian affairs, and markets. Rugged and self-reliant individualists by reputation, westerners from Kentucky to the Pacific yet assumed that the national government had a special obligation to help them with the garden, and at the polls they regularly underscored their assumption. Since the garden yielded magnificently, life was abundant in material things; and the conclusion could hardly be resisted that prosperity was the truest measure of well-being. With riches came a sense of power and importance and a desire to win the world’s approval. Radically affected by the garden psychology, the West could not fully realize that wealth was only one of several criteria by which the rest of the world judged cultures.”
Obsessed by the frontier, did we indeed become so interested in what lay ahead of us that we let our old culture languish without evolving a proper substitute? Several kinds of romantic desiring were brought together on the frontier, but the more heroic and noble elements tended to fade as the frontier itself remained; what is left, Mr. Moore suggests, is all too often the lawless and unrestrained image of the horse-alligator, “confronting the metropolis with the image of its own dark unconscious mind.”
All of this is very perceptive, as far as it goes; yet it should be remarked that there has been an urban frontier in this country, as well as a frontier pitched on the thin edge of the trackless forests and the untamed rivers, and the same forces do seem to have been at work on it. Kentucky may have sent the horse-alligator down to give us unquiet nights, but a reasonable facsimile of this creature was born and nourished in the American city as well, and for proof of it you might pay a little attention to a rather shocking book called July, 1863 , by Irving Werstein.
What Mr. Werstein has to offer could be either a final chapter or an article in rebuttal to Mr. Moore’s book: a study of the five dreadful days of murder, arson, and general lawlessness which descended on New York City a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg as a result of the Federal government’s attempt to enforce a military conscription law. The word “incredible” in the book’s subtitle is well chosen, for this ugly little chapter in American history goes almost beyond belief.
On the surface, what happened in New York then was the direct result of the fantastic stupidity and timorousness with which the Lincoln Administration in the Civil War approached the matter of conscription. By 1863 the government was ready to admit that it must compel certain citizens to enter the Army, which until then had been composed entirely of volunteers. It was afraid to grapple with the problem in a forthright way, however, and—in an unconscionably inept effort to sugar-coat the pill—it devised a draft which could be avoided by any draftee who was able to pay a $300 commutation fee, which automatically meant that the wage earner had to carry the load. The government then undertook to enforce this law in the city of New York, which was full of a rootless proletariat which, because of corrupt municipal misgovernment and a vicious national display of antiforeignism, had become fully predisposed to violent action. Unhappily enough, this action came precisely when irresponsible politicians were -teaching that the Civil War itself was being fought solely for the purpose of ending Negro slavery; the freed slaves, it was argued, would infallibly flock to the city and there would undermine a labor market which was already in a very disturbed condition.
July, 1863: the Incredible Story of the Bloody New York City Draft Riots, by Irving Werstein. Julian Messner, Inc.; 252 pp. $3.95.
With a bad law bearing down on a city crowd which had never been told that anyone in America was prepared to do anything but exploit it, the result—quite naturally—was an explosion. Stimulated, apparently, to some extent by Confederate agents, but owing its real explosive force to the country’s abject failure to assimilate the floods of workers who were coming in from Europe, the mob struck back with primitive fury. It broke up the conscription centers, battled the police, engaged in a vicious race war, looted shops and homes, and loosed on the city five days of actual warfare which ended only when veterans from the Army of the Potomac moved in with shotted guns to restore order. To this day no one knows, within several hundred, the total number of people who were killed.