Is American society really getting more violent? Or is it that we aging middle-class Americans simply feel more threatened?
Vicarious violence is increasing. Violent imagery is increasing. And it seems as if real violence also is increasing. But is it?
I’m reading What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1812 to 1848. The dominant political figure of that era was Andrew Jackson, who was proud of killing people in duels. When he stepped down after a second term as President, he said his main regret was not having hanged John C. Calhoun or shot Henry Clay. Foreign visitors remarked on the violent quality of American life. Barroom brawlers had special thumb rings designed for gouging out eyes.
Violent persecution of Catholics exceeded anything done to Muslims today. Tarring and feathering of Catholic clergy was common. A mob burned down an Ursuline convent in Boston because, among other things, it was too close to “sacred ground” – Bunker Hill. Mormons, Universalists and other minority sects also were targets of mob violence.
In 1856, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner when he was seated at his Senate desk, and beat him so severely with his cane that it took Sumner three years to recover. The only consequence Brooks suffered was to have a city in Florida and a county in Georgia named for him, and to receive free canes as gifts.
The Ku Klux Klan, which arose after the Civil War, was a terrorist organization in the strict sense of that term. The Klan whipped, burned and killed at will; its victims were mostly but not exclusively African-Americans who wanted or were suspected of wanting equal rights. The Klan is marginal today, but it was an important political force down into the 1920s, not just in the South but in the Midwest as well. Lynchings were common for more than a century. As recently as the 1960s, there were parts of the country in which white people could kill black people with impunity.
Jack Mendelsohn’s The Martyrs is a history of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the form of mini-biographies of 16 people who “gave their lives for racial justice.” One was William Moore, a naive idealist, who decided to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., wearing a sandwich board saying “End Segregation in America, Eat at Joe’s, Both Black and White” and “Equal Rights for All, Mississippi or Bust.” Given the climate of those times, it was predictable that he would be killed, and he was. Nothing like this would happen today.
During the period 1963-1968, John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, George Lincoln Rockwell, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated. The period 1978-81 saw the killings of John Lennon, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and Rep. Leo Ryan (who had gone to Guyana to investigate the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple), while President Ronald Reagan was shot and nearly killed. Nothing like this has happened in the past four or six years.
I have a memory of a kind of composite TV news show of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It began with footage of Vietnam, usually of U.S. troops jumping out of a helicopter or running down a road; then to student protest demonstrations; and then a night shot of the latest city in flames while black people rioted in the streets. There is nothing like any of this today.
We do not today have the kind of violent strikes that took place in coal mines, steel mills and railroads from 1870s through the 1930s – union workers destroying property and trying to bar strikebreakers, company police shooting into crowds of strikers.
The movie Gangs of New York may be an exaggeration, but throughout the 19th century, there were sections of big cities where the organized gangs were more powerful than the police. In the 1920s, Al Capone and other gangsters were celebrities who operated with impunity. There is nothing like this today. Nor is there any modern-day equivalent of Billy the Kid or John Dillinger.
Compared to our 19th century and early 20th century forebears, middle-class Americans of today are tame and mild-mannered.
Why, then, does it feel as if violence is on the increase? Is it because there is so much more violence in our news and entertainment media? Or is it that we middle-class Americans feel more vulnerable because we are more passive and less capable of defending ourselves than Americans of earlier generations?
Click on When Congressmen Attack! for a Mother Jones slide show of congressional violence. The 14 slides run from 1798 to 2007; the 20th and 21st century slides are tame compared to the earlier ones. Mother Jones magazine treats the subject lightly, but the sequence shows a gradual decline in the amount and acceptability of public violence.
Click on Lynching in the United States for a Wikipedia article on lynching, which mostly ended in the 1960s.
Here is a chart from the article showing the rise and decline in the number of lynchings.
Click on Violent Death Project and Violent Death Project United States for statistics on violent crime, executions and war. The site’s statistics indicate that 1999-2008 was one of the six most peaceful decades in American history.
Here is a Violent Death Project chart showing the annual death rate from homicide and war through the course of American history.
Here is a Violent Death Project chart showing the annual death rate from homicide, manslaughter and executions through the course of American history.
Click on Why are violent crime rates falling? for a summary and analysis of crime statistics and links to original data.
Violent crime, unlike political violence, is a serious problem in the present-day United States. The fact that it is declining doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. There are sections of large American cities, such as the so-called Crescent here in Rochester, were conditions are the same or worse as the Wild West. And while the United States is not particularly violent compared to, say, Mexico or Colombia, we are an outlier among advanced nations in our income group.
Click on Ta-Nehesi Coates for the web log that on Fridays hosts the Effete Liberal Book Club, an on-line reading group currently reading David Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought. The book is not primarily about violence, but rather about the transformation of the United States through the influence of scientific and technological progress, social reform and evangelical religion.