Skip to main content

Violence In America

June 2024
22min read

What Human nature and the California gold rush tell us about crime in the inner city

VIOLENCE is the primal problem of American history, the dark reverse of its coin of freedom and abundance. American society, or a conspicuous part of it, has been tumultuous since the beginnings of European colonization. But while seventeenth-century Virginia was a disorderly place, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not, and though the South and the frontier and the black ghetto have known especially high levels of violence and disorder, rural New England and Mormon Utah have almost always been tranquil.

DO THESE DIFFERENCES SIMPLY reflect American pluralism? Perhaps New England was less violent because the godly Pilgrims and Puritans settled there. Perhaps Southern and Western communities were more violent because the presence of slaves and Indians aroused fear and encouraged people to carry guns. Such explanations go a long way toward accounting for the regional peculiarities of American violence, but they are not the whole story.

Men, especially young men, are at the heart of American violence. Their behavior is most dangerous in their teens and twenties, the years when they are likeliest to kill, riot, vandalize, steal, and abuse alcohol or other drugs. The surest way to reduce crime, the psychologist David T. Lykken of the University of Minnesota has remarked, would be to put all able-bodied males between the ages of twelve and twenty-eight into cryogenic sleep.

He has a point. Though the median age of arrest is subject to historical variation (it has gone down in the United States in the last century), the arrest bulge has always occurred among citizens in their teens and twenties and declined rapidly thereafter. So far as anthropologists and historians have been able to discern, this has been true of all societies, from Sweden to Samoa. Nations as far apart in time and character as Victorian England and Hefnerian America have shown similar distributions of arrests by age and gender.

Whenever one spots a universal human pattern, the chances are good that it is rooted in biology, in this case hormonal differences. After conception we are sexually undifferentiated until minute genetic differences trigger the development of testes or ovaries. The testes produce testosterone, which organizes the development of male genitals and shapes the central nervous system. Testosterone is why boys are born boys and why they later become men. In the absence of testosterone the fetus will develop into a female.

At the onset of puberty the testes flood the body with testosterone, raising levels in the blood to as much as twenty times those in women and prepubertal boys. This surge of testosterone has effects that include increased muscle mass and bone density, hairier bodies, deeper voices, and increased libido, impulsiveness, and aggressiveness. We know that testosterone is causally related to these changes because its presence or absence is easily manipulated. Castrated human males, even castrated criminals, lose interest in sex and fighting. All mammals react in the same way, which is one reason we neuter tomcats and clip the testicles of bulls. When testosterone is artificially replaced in castrated man or beast, its effects soon reappear, proving that the hormone, not the missing gonad, is responsible for the physical and behavioral changes.

The surest way to reduce crime would be to put all able-bodied males between twelve and twenty-eight into cryogenic sleep.

Young men awash with testosterone may be a potential source of mischief, but it does not follow that they will get into trouble. Human societies have evolved various institutions to shape, control, and sublimate their energies. The most important of these is the family. Parents are our first governors. They set and enforce limits and guide social behavior. They teach us how to control aggression, defer gratification, work diligently, and care for dependents.

IN COLONIAL AMERICA SUCH DISCI- pline and socialization were shared by surrogate parents—those who supervised apprentices, servants, and young farm workers. In exchange for labor, the master and mistress provided food, shelter, correction, instruction, and sometimes wages to prepare their youthful charges to establish themselves and begin their own families. But the decay of the apprenticeship system in the years from the Revolution to the Civil War and the gradual disappearance of live-in workers eliminated this traditional method of controlling and educating the young. The responsibility reverted to the nuclear family, augmented by schools, churches, and other institutions geared to shaping the characters of young men, such as the YMCA.

Parents do not always behave responsibly, of course. Even so, it is better on average to grow up in an intact two-parent family than in a single-parent family or with no parents at all. Across times and cultures, children who are abandoned or illegitimate or who lack a parent—from death, separation, or divorce—are statistically more prone to delinquency, truancy, dropout, unemployment, illness, injury, drug abuse, theft, and violent crime. The worst effects are most apparent in adolescent boys, who, lacking fatherly control and guidance, are socialized by default in hypermasculine, antisocial families such as gangs.

Children from disrupted families are less likely as adults to become or stay married. This fact has tremendous implications for the social order, because families of procreation, like families of origin, constrain behavior. Married men, as the sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out, benefit from salutary discipline. Monogamy controls and focuses their sexual energy; children make them mindful of their example; the material needs of their families encourage regular work habits and self-sacrifice.

Married men lack the sense of expendability that plagues bachelor communities, in which the prospective loss of life is often regarded relatively lightly. They are also likelier to be better nourished and healthier than single men. In societies where marriage is the accepted way for adult men to gain the fruits of women’s work, the bachelor is at a serious disadvantage. He is, as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, “really only half a human being.” “He that hath not got a Wife,” declared Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard, “is not yet a Compleat Man.”

Here is the prejudice against single men distilled into a single sentence. We usually think of discrimination in American history as centering on race, ethnicity, and gender, but in fact many of the deepest and most unthinking prejudices have involved marital status. Single men have at times been forced to live in segregated neighborhoods and dormitories. Like blacks, they have had their own restaurants and railroad cars. They have consistently earned less and have paid for their singleness through double poll taxes, higher land prices, steeper insurance rates, less generous credit, longer prison terms, and smaller compensation for job-related disabilities. In hard times they have been laid off before married men, and in dangerous ones they have been placed in the front lines. Over time these roles and expectations have become internalized. Social marginality has reinforced single men’s senses of superfluity and contributed to the psychology of expandability found in bachelor groups.


What we know about the effects of family on men is consistent with what we know about arrest rates for men in their teens and early twenties. Though physical and hormonal changes are partly responsible, this is also the age range in which men are typically between households. Leaving or having already left their families of origin, they have not yet entered the self-disciplinary regimes of their own families of procreation.

Men who have become stuck in bachelorhood or who have reverted to it are much more susceptible to violent and disorderly behavior. They have more often killed themselves and others, become insane or drug-dependent, or succumbed to illnesses, like tuberculosis, associated with malnutrition and squalor. Consequently their lives have been shorter. In New York State in the early twentieth century unmarried men could expect to live less than forty-four years; those who were married, sixty years. Although life expectancies for both groups have since increased, there is still a significant mortality gap between married and unmarried men.

This gap is caused partly by the selective nature of courtship. Men who start out undisciplined, unattractive, obnoxious, impoverished, inebriated, or otherwise socially or physically impaired find it harder to acquire spouses, and these same traits may result in shorter lives or trouble with the law. But various studies have shown that marriage has a protective effect of its own. Marriage gives men a sense of identity, self-worth, and mastery that translates into greater resistance to mental and physical illnesses. The behavior of married men tends to be more circumspect and healthful, especially if children are present.

THOUGH THE FIRST PURPOSE OF marriage is the formation of family, one of its chief effects is male social control. The controlling effect works on two generations—both fathers and sons, present and future. Societywide declines in family bonds have always had long-term consequences. When unmarried men conceive male children out of wedlock, the chances are good that their biological sons will be poor and undersocialized and will have trouble establishing families of their own.

For most of its history America has had a higher proportion of itinerant young single men in its population than the nations from which its immigrants, voluntary or otherwise, came. The proportion of men to women among transported convicts was four to one; among slaves, upward of two to one. The proportion among indentured servants, numerically the most important group of colonial immigrants, was three to one during the seventeenth century and increased to nine to one during the eighteenth. Their nineteenth-century successors, Chinese laborers indebted for their passage, were almost all male. In 1890 America contained twenty-seven Chinese men for every Chinese woman—"more monks than rice porridge,” as some of them described the situation.

European immigrants who came without legal or financial fetters were far more likely to arrive in family groups, but even among them there was a surplus of prime-age male workers. Only postfamine Ireland, where economic and marital prospects for young rural women were particularly bleak, furnished more female than male immigrants, and then by just a small margin. Male majorities were the norm, at least prior to the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s.

Our criminal history has thus been played out with a bad hand of cards dealt from a stacked demographic deck. As an immigrant society America had a more or less continuous influx of youthful male workers, helping create a surplus of men for every year prior to 1946. Because these young men outnumbered young women, many of them could not marry. And insofar as young single men are any society’s most troublesome and unruly citizens, America had a built-in tendency toward violence and disorder.

To be sure, this demographic leaning could be worsened by cultural predispositions. Southerners and frontiersmen were often contemptuous of other races and touchy about personal honor, which they might sometimes defend by violent means. Some ethnic groups, notably the Irish, drank a great deal of hard liquor. Irish brawling was no myth: New York City coroners’ records for 1865 and 1871-73 show that 42 percent of homicide victims were Irish-born, as were only 21 percent of the city’s population in 1870. Much of the carnage, Irish or otherwise, occurred in places of commercialized vice, such as gambling halls and saloons. Arguments over table stakes and prostitutes multiplied the opportunities for violent conflict, and the guns and knives men carried increased the likelihood of fatal results. When killings did occur, the police and courts were often unable or indisposed to deal effectively with them. Churches and revivals helped some, but their influence was felt least by lower-class men, who resisted religious conversion and the feminized style of life they often associated with it.

Within six months of arriving in California in 1849, one in every five of the 89,000 gold seekers was dead, an astonishing statistic.

THESE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL characteristics, together with the abnormal structure of the population, guaranteed that American society would suffer from violence and disorder. But not that it would do so uniformly. The ingredients for trouble—young bachelors, sensitivity about honor, racial hostility, heavy drinking, religious indifference, group indulgence in vice, gun carrying, and inadequate law enforcement—were concentrated on the frontier. An expanding sub-nation of immigrants within a larger nation of immigrants, the frontier was the most youthful and masculine region of the country and consequently the one most susceptible to violence.

The more remote and unsuited for family farming a frontier region was, the more likely it was to attract a surfeit of boisterous young males. The classic example is California during the gold rush. Eighty-nine thousand eager gold seekers from all over the world arrived in California in 1849. Practically all—95 percent—were men.

Within six months one in every five of them was dead—an astonishing statistic given that almost all had started the journey in good health and in their prime years. So many died that life insurance companies refused to write new policies for Californians, or charged substantial additional premiums for those already covered.

Cholera and scurvy caused much of the mortality. But those who survived illness faced another problem: the ubiquity of bachelor vices. It became apparent early on in California that the only sure way to make money was by mining the miners. That could mean providing unexceptionable goods and services like groceries and laundering or more questionable ones, such as tobacco, liquor, gambling, and prostitution. In 1853 San Francisco liquor importers received more bulk or wholesale containers of alcoholic beverages than there were people in the state.

Eyewitnesses were astounded by the amounts of liquor consumed. They saw bottles strewn every few yards along roads and trails, crippled and delirious men dying in shanty bunks while drunkards caroused below. They warned that alcoholic excess weakened men and made them vulnerable to diseases. “The number of deaths is beyond all calculation,” wrote a San Franciscan named Jerusha Merrill in October 1849. “Many have no friends to put them under the turf, yet those who take care of themselves and are regular in their habits enjoy good health. I warn all against the gaming house and grog shop.”

And against brothels. Like all women, prostitutes were scarce in early California. Miners paid an ounce of gold (sixteen dollars) just to have one sit beside them at a bar or gaming table. San Francisco bar and café owners went further, paying women to serve as topless (and bottomless) waitresses or to pose nude in suggestive positions on elevated platforms. Those who wished to go beyond gawking paid anywhere from two hundred to four hundred dollars for a night of sex. Such prices naturally attracted more prostitutes to San Francisco, which had an estimated two thousand by 1853. Most were infected with venereal diseases.


Professional gamblers outnumbered prostitutes and were just as skilled at siphoning off miners’ earnings. “I have seen men come tottering from the mines with broken constitutions,” wrote the forty-niner Alfred Doten, “but with plenty of the ‘dust,’ and sitting down at the gaming table, in ten minutes not be worth a cent.” In California men bet on anything, even the prognosis of a shooting victim as he underwent surgery on a pool table.

MUCH OF THE GAMING AND drinking took place in the winter, when men were unable to work, or on Sunday, when they flocked to towns like Coloma to gather news and gossip, lay in supplies, and patronize the saloons and gambling booths. Barkeeps dispensed whiskey for fifty cents or a pinch of gold dust, padding their profits by carefully sweeping up the dust that fell onto their counters.

Sunday was the day for masculine display. Miners tossed gold on the bar and bade their companions to name their drinks; reckless horsemen pulled knives from the ground at full gallop. Itinerant preachers bold enough to mount a stump and declaim against the desecration of the Sabbath were rewarded at collection time—a manifestation, perhaps, of latent guilt—but were ignored on the practical point of reformed behavior.

Devout men who happened to find themselves in this milieu were appalled. One prophesied to an Eastern minister that California “instead of being a blessing will prove a curse to the Union, morally and politically. . . . You can form no adequate idea of the depths of sin and moral degradation to which most of the people are sunk or rather sink themselves and those too of whom we should not dream such things when they leave the States.”

These sentiments were shared by Hinton Helper, who spent three weary and unprofitable years (1851-54) in California and wrote a scathing account of the state’s social and economic prospects. Later to achieve fame as a critic of Southern slave society, Helper was an unusual man, simultaneously a racist, an abolitionist, a Puritan, and an amateur sociologist. He argued that California’s social disorder stemmed from the Mammonism of its polyglot population and from the want of women, in whose absence “vice only is esteemed and lauded.”

Like many other observers, Helper noticed that the moral tone of the mining communities immediately began to change when women arrived. Though worried about the possibility that wives might be seduced away from their husbands by determined bachelors, he nevertheless looked forward to the day when California would experience “an influx of the chaste wives and tender mothers that bless our other seaboard.”

If this sounds like Victorianism, it was. But it was also something deeper and more modern. Helper had grasped the fundamental principle of what is now called the interactionist school of sociology: that the self emerges and evolves as people internalize the attitudes that others hold toward them. When the mix of those others changes, so does the sense of self.

The typical California immigrant was neither poor nor vicious. He had been raised in a respectable family in the States, but his home was far away and the hurly-burly of camp life close at hand. His immediate social environment, which consisted of uprooted young men thrown together with opportunists and vice peddlers, shaped his sense of what was permissible and appropriate. His male companions ridiculed conventional virtue as weakness and self-restraint as effeminate. If he avoided the saloons and faro tables, he must stay alone in his tent on Saturday night, bored and lonely. If he refused to smoke or drink, he risked insult and retaliation. A person who would not partake of whiskey or tobacco was “little short of an outlaw,” complained a California miner named George McCowen, who took up smoking simply to avoid trouble. People who had never gambled became high-stakes players. In Stockton the proprietor of the leading gambling saloon was a Methodist minister. “Everybody gambled,” recalled one San Franciscan. “That was the excuse for everybody else.”

The one sure way to change this situation was by family reunification, when disappointed gold seekers returned home or, more rarely, when their spouses journeyed to the camps. “The wives of some of the wildest boys on the creek have come down to join their husbands,” observed the forty-niner Alfred Jackson, “and it has sobered them down considerably.” It was just this “sobering down” that Helper anticipated would come about when the balance of men and women was restored.

Helper saw something else clearly: that the violence in California was aggravated by the influx of criminals and the habit of carrying deadly weapons, the former encouraging the latter. Miners went about armed with revolvers or bowie knives, which they could buy at local groggeries along with cigars, tobacco, and more than a hundred varieties of alcoholic beverages. The combination of young men, liquor, and deadly weapons produced a steady steam of unpremeditated homicides, most of which arose from personal disputes and occurred in or near drinking establishments. Helper estimated that California had experienced forty-two hundred murders in six years, along with fourteen hundred suicides and seventeen hundred other deaths traceable to disappointment and misfortune.

Helper’s murder number seems high (unless he was including killings of Indians, in which case it was almost certainly low), but an abundance of other evidence confirms that goldrush California was a brutal and unforgiving place. The city of Marysville reportedly had seventeen murders in a single week, prompting the formation of a vigilance committee. Suicide and violent death afflicted every mining region. Witnesses wrote of men suddenly pulling out pistols and shooting themselves, of bodies floating down rivers, of miners stoned to death in gambling disputes. They described men who had become beasts, biting and pulling hair, flogging one another without mercy, cropping boys’ ears, laughing at executions.

Bodie, California, averaged 116 homicides per 100,000; by contrast, Henderson County in Illinois had only 4.3 per 100,000.

Miners had their virtues. They were typically open, generous men who valued deeds above words, deplored hypocrisy, and were friendly to strangers, at least when sober and unprovoked. Their language was direct and colorful, their swearing wildly inventive—though abruptly curtailed in the presence of respectable women, whom they treated with courtesy and deference. “I do not recall ever hearing of a respectable woman or girl in any manner insulted or even accosted by the hundreds of dissolute characters that were everywhere,” a resident of Bodie, California, recalled. “In part, this was due to the respect that depravity pays to decency; in part, to the knowledge that sudden death would follow any other course.”

HISTORIANS WHO HAVE CATA- logued the murders in frontier mining areas have found extremely high rates of homicide. Nevada County, California, the site of Gun Town, Gomorrah, and other boisterous mining camps, had an average annual homicide rate (using the modern FBI yardstick) of 83 per 100,000 between 1851 and 1856. The mining town of Aurora, Nevada, had a rate of at least 64 during its boom years of 1861 to 1865; however, because its records are incomplete and a grand jury report enumerated other killings, its actual rate may have been as high as 117. That would have been almost identical to the rate in Bodie, California, a nearby mining town that averaged 116 homicides per 100,000 during its boom period of 1878 to 1882.

Non- or postfrontier regions with proportionately fewer men suffered far less homicidal violence. Henderson County, a rural backwater in western Illinois, had an average murder rate of 4.3 per 100,000 during the period from 1856 to 1900—just 19 killings in more than forty years. Two Eastern cities whose records have been analyzed, Boston and Philadelphia, had criminal homicide rates of 5.8 and 3.2 in the two decades after 1860. By comparison the average rates for Boston and Philadelphia in the early 1990s were 19.1 and 28.6, respectively.

The mining frontier was thus several times as violent as today’s big American cities, and that’s saying a lot. Worse, the historical estimates almost certainly do not include all homicidal killings of Indians. These were particularly common in California, where the distinction between killing Indians in battle and simply shooting them down meant little in practice and where Indian deaths of any sort were of scant concern to law enforcement officials.

THE HISTORIAN ROGER McGrath has pointed out that the dark cloud of mining-town violence had a silver lining. He has found that rates of robbery were comparable to, and rates of burglary lower than, those of Eastern cities at the same time. Gun-toting citizens deterred property crime. Would-be robbers and burglars knew they stood a good chance of getting shot, and nothing would happen to anyone who killed them save some highly favorable newspaper publicity. But the same guns that prevented theft made homicide all the more likely. What happened in Aurora and Bodie was a trade-off: more fatal gunplay for less larcenous crime.

In view of all this it may seem strange that there has been a longrunning debate on whether the frontier was violent, pitting those who believe that the reality has been grossly exaggerated against those who hold that it has been at most merely embroidered. This debate has been complicated by the usual skirmishing about the completeness and trustworthiness of records, but the real problem is that the question—how violent was the frontier?—is miscast. There was no such thing as the frontier.

Different frontier communities had different social and population characteristics. The Mormon religious colony of Orderville, Utah, and the mining town of Bodie, California, were contemporaneous American frontier settlements, but in terms of gender balance, family life, religious restraint, and vice they might as well have been on different planets. In explaining the historical pattern of Western violence, the key lies in identifying the composition of the local population, not in some intangible variable called frontierness. Mining towns like Bodie, with nine men for every woman, were places where normal marriage and family patterns were disrupted and vice flourished, with all the increased violence that this entailed.


For a nice illustration of this principle, consider the contrast between two American gold rushes of the 1840s and early 1850s—the famous one in California and a largely forgotten one in the Gold Hill region of North Carolina. The latter attracted Cornish miners, many of whom brought their families or married local women, who were much more plentiful than on the distant Pacific coast. Aside from the inevitable deep-shaft mining accidents and sporadic fights, the Cornish immigrant miners experienced little in the way of premature death and violence—nothing to compare with what happened to the young men who flocked to California. One environment was overwhelmingly single and masculine; the other was not. The difference in gender balance translated into a difference in the social order.

The best thing that can be said about California-style frontier violence was that it didn’t last long. Most of the surplus men who sought their fortunes along the frontier died, returned home, drifted elsewhere, or eventually were married, usually to young brides who went on to have numerous male and female children, thereby evening out the population and eliminating its tendency to violence and disorder. No frontier region, however notorious, escaped this process. Cowboy watering holes like Dodge City and Fort Griffin, murder-a-day railroad boomtowns like Julesburg and Laramie—all eventually succumbed. When families replaced bachelor laborers and vice parasites, things quickly settled down.

Immigrant groups that initially had more men than women eventually adjusted as the passage of time balanced the sexes.

Two decades sufficed to normalize most frontier populations, especially those in farming areas where the initial imbalance was less extreme. Washington County, Kansas, a stretch of arable prairie between the Flint Hills and the Nebraska border, had three men for every two women in 1860, but only eleven for every ten in 1880. This was typical. In Midwestern farming areas the demand for farm hands ensured that the number of women almost never exceeded that of men, but the additional male workers were usually attached to families.


IMMIGRANT GROUPS THAT INI- tially had more men than women also adjusted. The passage of time balanced the sexes both regionally and ethnically, except when, as in the special case of the Chinese, the government enacted prejudicial laws that made family formation or reunification difficult. Chinatowns were home to vice dens and hatchet men in the later half of the nineteenth century for the simple reason that by dint of the exclusion policy, they were home to male workers without families.

By the mid-twentieth century America’s overall male surplus was disappearing, as a result of shifts in immigration patterns and the fact that women’s life expectancy was improving faster than men’s. With a balanced population and a prosperous industrial economy, postwar America enjoyed a sustained marriage boom. The two popular images of the 1950s—as the decade when Americans settled down to raise their children in safety and plenty and as the decade of conformity—both arose from this marital efflorescence. Men worked hard, paid off their mortgages, and sacrificed for their children. Church attendance rose, violent crime fell. It looked as if America’s built-in propensity for violence and disorder—the excesses of excess men—had finally run its troubled course.

Then came the 1960s and 1970s, the coming of age of the baby boomers, the sexual revolution, and a sustained rise in violent crime and drug abuse. It was not simply that there were more young and therefore troubleprone men in the population, though that was true enough. It was that more of these men were avoiding, delaying, or terminating marriages. Overall, the number of American men living alone roughly doubled between 1960 and 1983, an unprecedented change for prosperous times. In 1960 Americans spent an average of 62 percent of their adult lives with spouses and children, an all-time high; in 1980 they spent 43 percent, an all-time low. “This trend alone,” remarks the sociologist David Popenoe, “may help to account for the high and rising crime rates.” Violent crimes were largely committed by unattached males. When their numbers rose, so did crime.

Though marriage and conventional family life grew less common among young men after 1960, sexual intercourse did not. The result, despite widespread contraception and abortion and a decline in fertility, was a huge increase in the percentage of children who were illegitimate and raised in fatherless families. The much higher frequency of divorce also increased the number of poorly supervised, poorly socialized, and just plain poor children.

The key to controlling youthful male violence lies not in legislation or police or prisons but in the family.

THESE PROBLEMS WERE NATION- al in scope, but they were most severe in black America, particularly in urban ghettos. By the early 1990s there were some black neighborhoods in which two-thirds or more of all families were headed by single mothers and three-quarters of all births were illegitimate. Conservatives attributed this trend to welfare: Programs like Aid for Families with Dependent Children had backfired by permitting black women to “marry the state,” secure in the knowledge that others would pay for their children. Liberals countered that welfare benefits were in no sense overly generous and that family formation and stability required good jobs that deindustrialization, government cutbacks, union decline, automation, retrenchment, and global competition had made increasingly hard to find. In 1990 the City of New York announced an examination for prospective sanitation workers, starting salary twenty-three thousand dollars, no high school diploma required. More than a hundred thousand people signed up to compete for two thousand positions.

Regardless of who or what is to blame for family decline, it is clear enough that the endemic violence of inner cities is closely related to their numbers of illegitimate children and single-parent households. Young black men growing up without fathers and into adult lives without families are in a sense twice single and a good deal more than twice as likely to become involved in shootouts or run afoul of the law.

All of this has been compounded by the everyday realities of ghetto life: social isolation, abnormal demography, and the omnipresence of guns, alcohol, drugs, and vice. These problems helped make the white frontier boomtowns of the nineteenth century into violent hot spots, and they have done the same for black ghettos. In fact, except for the apparent paradox that the ratio of men to women is low in the inner city whereas it was high on the frontier, in an important sense ghettos are the raw frontiers of modern American life, the primary arenas in which the recurrent problem of youthful male violence continues to be played out.


Calling ghettos in the decaying hearts of big cities frontiers may seem odd, but it is not anachronistic. When the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, toured Chicago’s Ida B. Wells public housing project in 1993 (accompanied by a security patrol), he found what he saw to be “almost like a western frontier.” Local residents began calling North Kenwood, also in Chicago, “the Wild West.” The founders of Jamaican drug gangs took their generic name, posses, from Western films. And one youthful New York City drug dealer evoked the analogy when he went upstate in search of sweeter profits and softer markets. “There’s more opportunity in Buffalo,” he explained. “You know back in the days when you went West to claim gold? Buffalo’s like that.”

A good analogy, like a good argument, should not be pushed too hard. There are also important differences between the frontier and the ghetto. Far more ghetto youth are illegitimate, hence undersocialized, and unemployed, hence unproductive in the legitimate economy, than were settlers along the nonagricultural frontier. If the dominant pattern of frontier vice was work and spree, that of ghetto vice is often hustle and spree, which adds another dimension of crime and degradation to the violence surrounding the vice industry. The dollars miners and cowboys spent on liquor and prostitutes were at least come by honestly.


Historical sources (as opposed to, say, the novels of Larry McMurtry) make it clear that there was less sociopathic violence on the frontier. The reasons people did have for killing—nobody calls me that, goddamn skulking savages, coolies take our wages—may seem lamentable to modern eyes, but at least they were reasons. Settlers were not much worried that a kid with a gun and no regard for human life would mow them down while rampaging after someone else. People were not, in fact, much worried about kids at all.

They are now. One of the most disturbing and politically explosive aspects of innercity violence, terrifying to blacks and whites alike, has been the rapid increase of felonious crime and gunplay among unsupervised inner-city youths, not excluding children. Miami’s Chief of Police, Donald Warshaw, has encountered ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds “running around with guns and drugs, and when we track down their parents, we find they are on drugs too. It’s out of control.”

CRIME AND HOMI- cide rates will fluctuate in coming years. No trend increases forever, and baby boomers will continue to commit less crime as they age. But the problem of youthful ghetto violence will persist. Despite a decline in the overall murder rate in recent years, many experts predict that it will soon rise again, both because there will be more teenagers and because more of those teenagers will be illegitimate.

What has happened in the inner city may be a harbinger of worsening social-order problems everywhere. Changing labor-market realities and the eroticization of the media-based consumer culture have undermined family stability throughout the United States. Indeed, measures of white family disruption and illegitimacy three decades into the sexual revolution almost exactly match those for black Americans when Daniel Patrick Moynihan pulled his famous fire alarm back in 1965.

Seen in perspective, these events are a continuation, possibly the culmination, of a momentous historical trend, the decline of the family as the basic social unit and the appropriation of its functions by the state, professions, and corporations. Two centuries ago America’s families were its society, or at any rate its centers of desire, conception, labor, production, consumption, authority, discipline, training, credit, and care for the sick, aged, and dying. But during the nineteenth century, families began losing power and authority. The usual suspects are the commercial and industrial revolutions; urbanization; the rise of public schools, factories, asylums, prisons, and hospitals; and the creeping intrusions of bureaucracies and professions into the domain of the home. Over the course of the twentieth century (with a pause for the temporary and, some say, anomalous marriage boom of the 1940s and 1950s), the nuclear family itself began to break up. More and more of the family’s socializing and punishing functions devolved upon the professions, private enterprise, and the state, the parent of last resort.

State parenting is neither cheap nor satisfactory for maintaining social order. The voice of family-instilled conscience is always more cost-effective than that of a police officer, especially if the officer is part of a criminal justice system that has become irrelevant to all but serious offenses and then not guaranteed to produce results. Voters obviously have become frustrated over this failure, which has contributed heavily to the conservative gains in state and national politics.

Some of this anger might be better directed into a mirror. While politicians have made inroads against violence, they have usually done so at the margins. Lives gained or lost at the margins are still lives gained or lost, and laws and law enforcement do matter. But the key to controlling youthful male violence lies not in legislation or police or prisons but in society’s basic familial arrangements. And that means it lies in all of us.

Americans on Violence: A 150-Year Anthology

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.