J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Politics of the Doctors’ Riot

The New York doctors’ riot of 1788 arose from a popular emotional response to medical students’ grave-robbing and disrespectful treatment of corpses. But it also had a clear political component.

Those students tended to take bodies from the cemeteries for the poor and powerless, particularly the Negro burying-ground and the potters’ field, both outside the city limits. When African-Americans started guarding their large cemetery at night, some historians say, the grave-robbing switched to smaller private burying-grounds, again concentrating on those for the poor. But it wasn’t until white bodies began to disappear that the city’s laboring class rose up.

Most accounts say the attack on the Columbia medical school was led by a mason who had just lost his wife—both figuratively and literally. But none preserves that man’s name, nor the names of the five members of the mob who died. All our detailed accounts come from upper-class citizens who showed more sympathy for the cause of anatomical study than for the rioters’ passions. Their narratives may not be fully accurate, but they certainly show how the elite viewed “popular rage,” and they established the storyline for future chroniclers.

One political result of the riot was a New York law passed in 1789 providing for the corpses of executed convicts to be dissected. The practice remained distasteful to many people, however, especially those whose families were too poor to benefit from medical education or the treatments that proponents of dissection promised. In 1790 some medical students responded to that social pressure by forming what became the New York Dispensary to provide free medicines to the poor; it received a legal charter from the state in 1795.

It’s tempting to ask what effect the New York riots of mid-April 1788 had on the debate over ratifying the new U.S. Constitution. The Continental Congress had left Philadelphia in 1783 because of an uprising there. The Regulation movement in Massachusetts, which authorities dubbed Shays’ Rebellion, had prompted the Constitutional Convention. And just as states were debating the resulting plan for a new government, New York City was roiled with more unrest. Did the doctors’ riot make America’s political leaders fear that they had to act quickly or the U.S. of A. would crumble into anarchy?

I haven’t found evidence of that episode having a direct effect on the ratification debate. At one point authors speculated that John Jay’s injury during the riots had kept him from writing more of the “Publius” essays with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, but it appears that those essays (now known as The Federalist Papers) were finished weeks before the riot. By June, when New York’s ratifying convention began, Jay had recovered.

The New York legislature had already decided to hold that convention in Poughkeepsie, well away from the capital. The delegates chose Gov. George Clinton to chair that convention; he’d led the efforts to suppress the riot, but he remained an Anti-Federalist, opposed to a stronger national government.

In the end, the New York convention wasn’t that decisive anyhow. After their first week of meetings in June, the delegates got word that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify the new document, meaning that under its own rules (Article VII), it would take effect. Then Virginia ratified as well. New York’s opponents therefore focused on demanding a Bill of Rights and other amendments, getting the most they could out of the situation. Clinton and others abstained from voting, and the proposal passed. So instead of being a significant event in U.S. constitutional history, the doctors’ riot is recalled as a curious social incident.

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