Vigilantism(s) Frontier Origins

Vigilantism(s) Frontier Origins

Vigilantism(s) Frontier Origins
Vigilantism(s) Frontier Origins

Vigilantism has a long and ugly history, especially in the Old West and the Deep South. It began in colonial times as a reaction to marauding bands of desperadoes operating along the frontier. In Virginia in the late 1700s, a vigilance committee led by Colonel William Lynch developed a repu- tation for the public whippings it staged. Its esca- lating violence against lawbreakers gave rise to the terms lynch law and lynchings. From 1882 until as recently as 1951, lynch mobs killed 4,730 people. Many targets of these murderous crowds seeking vengeance on behalf of victims, particularly in Southern rural areas, were black men accused of harming white women (Hofstadter and Wallace, 1970; see also EJI, 2015).

Over the course of American history, vigilan- tism, just like lynching, often has arisen as a response to victimization. Vigilantes called for action whenever “honest, upright citizens” became terrified and enraged about what they considered to be an upsurge of criminality and a breakdown of law and order. Pointing to the plights of victims, vigilantes feared that they would be next if they didn’t take drastic measures. Hence, “red-blooded, able-bodied, law-abiding” men banded together and pursued outlaws who threatened their families, property, and way of life. Vigilance committees led by individuals from the local power elite (with a solid middle-class membership) tended to go after people at the bot- tom of the hierarchy and the margins of society. They lashed out at alleged cutthroats, bushwhack- ers, road agents (robbers), cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and desperadoes of all kinds. They also crusaded against people they branded as parasites, drifters, idlers, sinners, loose women, uppity mem- bers of subjugated groups, outside agitators, and subversives with anarchist and communist

leanings. The targets of their wrath were black- listed, banished (run out of town), flogged, tarred and feathered, mutilated, and in some instances slaughtered (Burrows, 1976). From 1767 to 1909, 326 short-lived vigilante movements pep- pered American history (mostly as Western fron- tier phenomena), claiming 729 lives (Brown, 1975).

Vigilantes portrayed themselves as true patriots and dedicated upholders of moral codes and sacred traditions. The manifestos of vigilance committees were crowned with references to “the right to rev- olution,” “popular sovereignty,” and personal sur- vival as “the first law of nature.” Just as they held criminals fully accountable for their transgressions, these rugged individualists held themselves person- ally responsible for their own security. If duly con- stituted authority could not be relied on for protection, they would shoulder the burden of law enforcement and the obligation to punish offenders.

The vigilante credo boiled down to a variation of “the end justifies the means”: To preserve the rule of law, it is necessary to break the law. Most vigilantes defended their violence in terms of avenging victims and punishing common criminals. Very few of these self-appointed guardians of virtue ever got into legal trouble for their lawless deeds. Teaching lawbreakers a lesson and making an example out of them to deter other would-be offenders was the goal the men in the mob attacks cited to rationalize their own criminality. Surely, vigilantes had ulterior motives as well, and, in ret- rospect, other reasons may have been paramount: to quash rebellions; to reassert control over rival racial, ethnic, religious, or political groups; to intimidate subordinates back into submission; and to impose the dominant group’s moral standards on outsiders, newcomers, and defiant members of the community (Brown, 1975).

Currently, vigilantism is argued about much more often than it is carried out. The label “vigilante”—a term formerly accepted with pride but now hurled as an epithet—crops up occasion- ally in news accounts and political debates. Usually, the word is used for shock value by journalists and

472 CH APT ER 13

Copyright 2016 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. WCN 02-200-203

public officials. When “survivalists” fortify their homes and stockpile weapons, that is not vigilantism—although some of these heavily armed persons warn that they will resort to force if a crisis develops and the government becomes paralyzed or collapses. When neighbors organize citizen patrols and serve as additional eyes and ears for the police, that’s not vigilantism, either. (The first such crime-watch patrol in 1964 in a Brooklyn community was dubbed a vigilante group by the authorities, but this overreaction quickly subsided. Ever since, federal money has sponsored local efforts to supplement law enforcement, and police departments have provided training and equipment to civilian anticrime patrols.) Tenant and subway patrols such as the “Guardian Angels” also have been mischaracterized as vigilante groups. They do not fall into this category as long as they confine their activities to reporting incidents, attending to injured victims, and making citizen’s arrests of sus- pects, and do not cross the line to dish out back- alley justice (Marx and Archer, 1976).

Place Your Order Here!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *