Draft Riots of 1863

The ostensible cause of the riots of 1863 was hostility to the draft, because it was a tyrannical, despotic, unjust measure an act which has distinguished tyrants the world over, and should never be tolerated by a free people. Open hostility to oppression was more than once hinted in a portion of the press as not only a right, but a duty.

Even the London Times said, “It would have been strange, indeed, if the American people had submitted to a measure which is a distinctive mark of the most despotic governments of the Continent.” As if the fact that a measure, because resorted to by a despotic government, was therefore necessarily wrong. It might as well be said, that because settling national difficulties by an appeal to arms has always been a distinctive feature of despotic governments, therefore the American people should refuse to sustain the government by declaring or prosecuting any war; or that because it has always been a distinctive feature of despotic governments to have naval and military schools, to train men to the art of war, therefore the American people should not submit to either. It is not of the slightest consequence to us what despotic governments do or not do; the simple question is, whether the measure is necessary for the protection of our own government, and the welfare of the people. To leave this untouched, and talk only about despotism, the right of the people, and all that, is mere demagogism, and shows him who utters it to be unfit to control public opinion. Besides, there is a great difference between measures that are despotic, which are put forth to save the nation’s life, or honor, and those put forth to destroy freedom, and for selfish ends. Not that, intrinsically, despotic measures are always not to be deprecated and avoided, if possible; for if tolerated in one case, they may be exacted in another.

Liberty can never be guarded too carefully, or the barriers erected around the rights of every individual respected too scrupulously. But everything in this world is a choice between two evils. The greatest wisdom cannot avoid all evils; it can only choose the least. Sound statesmanship regards any stretch of power better than the overthrow of the nation. Probably there never was a more able and wise body of men assembled, or more jealous of any exercise of arbitrary power, than the First Congress of the United States; and yet, almost in the commencement of our struggle for independence, when events wore such a gloomy aspect that failure seemed inevitable, rising above its fears of despotic measures, in its greater fear of total defeat, it conferred on Washington powers that made him to a large extent military dictator. He was authorized to raise sixteen battalions of infantry, three thousand light horse, three regiments of artillery, together with a corps of engineers, and appoint the officers himself. He had, also, full power, when he deemed it necessary, to call on the several States for the militia; to appoint throughout the entire army all the officers under brigadiers; fill up all vacancies; to take whatever he wanted for the use of his troops, wherever he could find it, with no other restriction than that he must pay for it, which last was nullified, because he was empowered to seize and lock up every man who refused to receive in pay Continental money. It would seem impossible that a body of men who were so extremely sensitive in bestowing power on a military commander, and so watchful of the rights of individuals, could have committed such an act; and yet, who does not see that, under the circumstances, it was wise. Now, granting that conscription is a despotic measure, no truthful, candid man will deny that, in case of a war, where men must be had, and can be got in no other way, that it would be the duty of government to enforce it. It is idle to reply that the supposition is absurd that in this country such a thing can never happen; for what has been in the world can be again. Besides, this does meet the question of the right of the Government, that must be settled before the emergency comes. Now, we do not believe there is sounder principle, or one that every unbiased mind does not concede with the readiness that it does an axiom, that, if necessary to protect and save itself, a government may not only order a draft, but call out every able bodied man in the nation. If this right does not inhere in our government, it is built on a foundation of sand, and the sooner it is abandoned the better.

But we go farther, and deny that a draft is a despotic measure at all, but is a just and equitable mode of raising an army. True, if troops enough can be raised on a reasonable bounty, it is more expedient to do so; but the moment that bounty becomes so exorbitant as to tempt the cupidity of those in whom neither patriotism nor sense of duty have any power, volunteering becomes an evil. We found it so in our recent war. The bounty was a little fortune to a certain class, the benefit of which they had no idea of losing by being shot, and hence they deserted, or shammed sickness, so that scarce half the men ever got to the front, while those who did being influenced by no motive higher than cupidity, became worthless soldiers. A draft takes in enough men of a higher stamp to leaven the mass. The first Napoleon, when asked what made his first “army of Italy” so resistless, replied that almost every man in it was intelligent enough to act as a clerk. The objection that a rich man, if drafted, can buy a substitute, while the poor man, with a large family depending upon him, must go, if of any weight at all, lies against the whole structure of society, which gives the rich man at every step immunities over the poor man. When pestilence sweeps through a city, the rich man can flee to a healthy locality, while the poor man must stay and die; and when the pestilence of war sweeps over the land, must one attempt to reverse all this relation between wealth and poverty?

When society gets in that happy state, that the rich man has no advantages over the poor, there will be no need either of drafting or volunteering. Yet, after all, it is not so unequal as it at first sight appears. War must have money as well as men, and the former the rich have to furnish; and if they do this, it is but fair that they should be allowed to furnish with it also the men to do their fighting. Besides, there must be some rule that would exempt the men that carry on the business of the country.

We have said this much, because the riots in New York, which might have ended in national destruction, were brought about by preaching views directly the opposite of these.

The military spirit is so prevalent in the nation, that in any ordinary war the Government can get all the troops it wants by giving a moderate bounty, and wages but a little greater than can be secured at any ordinary business or occupation. Still, the right to raise them differently should never be denied it.

When the old militia system was given up in the State, and a certain number of regiments were raised and equipped and drilled for active duty, and for which the people paid taxes, it was thought they would furnish all the quota that would ever be called for from the State and in any ordinary war will. The crisis, however, in which we found ourselves had never been anticipated, and hence not provided against, and when Congress attempted to do it in what seemed to it the best way, an outcry was raised of injustice and oppression. It was hard, doubtless, but there are a great many hard things in the world that have been and have to be borne. The feeling of hostility unquestionably would have been less intense, had not so many of those to be drafted been bitterly opposed to the war. Believing it to have been brought about by the reckless demagogism and fanaticism of their political opponents, and levied as it was against those who had been their warm political friends, indeed, chief dependence for political success, it was asking a good deal, to require them to step to the front, and fight in such a war. Whether this feeling was right or wrong, had nothing to do with the influence it actually exerted.

On this feeling was based, in fact, the real hostility to the draft, in which a portion of the press shared. But, as we said before, we having nothing to do with the justice or injustice of this belief or feeling; we only state the fact, with our denial that it furnished any excuse for the denunciations uttered against the draft as a wrong use of power, or the refusal to submit to it on that account. The Government, whether wrong or right, must be supported, or abandoned and given over to revolution. In ordinary times, denunciation of its measures, and the most strenuous opposition to them, is the right and often the duty of every conscientious man. This right, exercised by the press, is one of the most effectual checks against abuses, and the most powerful lever to work reform and changes. But in a great crisis, to set one’s self against a measure on which the fate of the nation hangs, is a flagrant abuse of that right; for the effort, if successful, will not work change and an improved condition of things, but immediate, irretrievable ruin, and put the nation beyond the reach of reform.

Civil War, History,

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.

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