The Pathos of Politics (112-1) History


The earliest policing was by neighborhood vigilantes, specially appointed to watch over property. In Roman times, the army served a policing function for the state, in addition to privately sponsored bands of vigilantes. The vigilante tradition continued throughout Europe through the Middle Ages.

England had a long, rich history of high crime, harsh laws, and political and policing corruption. The English people and parliament were adamantly opposed to a powerful central government that might use violence to deprive citizens of their money and civil rights. Brits were more tolerant of crime than amply demonstrated police abuse.

Up until the 19th century, the “police” of cities and towns consisted of a motley crew of constables and night watchmen – a rather loose and inefficient system. Respectable people considered this totally inadequate in an age of urban violence. ~ Lawrence Friedman

Prior to 1750, London had no formal law enforcement. When riots occurred, the government called in the military to quell the disturbance. Once this was accomplished, troops withdrew. Ongoing, the wealthy bought private protection, whereas the general population was left to fend for themselves. While the 1st modern police department was created in London in 1829, it took decades for Britain to establish a police force throughout the country.

France had the 1st centrally organized police force. Louis XIV created an agency to ensure law and order in Paris in the 17th century. The success of the Parisian model influenced other nations to develop similar forces.

The evolution of policing in the United States followed a similar path to that on the European continent.

The vigilante system was employed in Boston and New York in the 17th century, and Philadelphia in the early 18th century. These were generally ineffective, and so supplemented with constables, who answered to the community leaders that hired them.

Waves of immigrants came ashore America in the early 19th century. Crime surged. The middle class clamored for better policing.

In 1833, Philadelphia established the 1st centralized police force. New York City followed a decade later, and soon after other cities.

Early police forces in the US were closely connected to local politicians, and often controlled by them. Police corruption was the norm, and law enforcement the exception.

The evolution of police in the Deep South was distinct from the North. Southern policing is a vestige of “slave patrols,” who originated as white vigilantes that protected the interest of slave owners.

After the Civil War, slave patrollers were recruited into police forces, as they had experience enforcing order. Their interest in serving whites over blacks remained.

Throughout the history of US and UK, citizens have occasionally taken to the streets to express their grievances, braving arrest and physical abuse by police. Many times, heavy-handed police practices have incited riots.

Boston Bread Riots

In the early 18th century, the city of Boston had little arable land. Most grain was imported. Local grain merchants had a penchant for hoarding to drive up prices, and to sell local grain in more lucrative markets. By 1709, Boston had a serious food shortage, and skyrocketing bread prices.

As ever, the working poor were hardest hit. Not owning land meant that they had no vote. Governmental indifference left protest as their only recourse. Uprisings ensued.

In April 1710, the rudder was broken of a ship loaded with wheat being exported. 50 men intending to loot the ship were arrested, but public support for their action resulted in their release without charges.

There were several other protests between that incident and May 1713, when Boston Common was thronged with over 200 people protesting high food prices. A mob broke into warehouses looking for grain and shot the lieutenant governor when he tried to interfere. The police were overwhelmed.

The 1713 bread riot led to laws prohibiting exports during times of shortage, fixing prices at more reasonable levels, and establishing a public granary. This helped somewhat, but periodic food shortages repeatedly provoked rioting and looting into the early 19th century.


In the 1713 Boston bread riot, police were overwhelmed. The lesson was learned and was seldom the case in succeeding riots.

In the May 1866 Haymarket protest in Chicago, the police provoked a riot, and gave as good as they got when the violence started. The Haymarket affair was a significant milestone in the organized labor movement, and in American police brutality.