American Policing 1800-1900: History & Politics

American Policing 1800-1900: History & Politics
Coming up next: American Policing 1900-1960: History & Influences

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  • 0:00 Moving From the…
  • 1:23 Influence of Politics
  • 2:36 Private Companies
  • 3:29 Wild West and Change
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While we may think of police as having always been around, the truth is very different. As this lesson shows, our modern professional police forces often evolved out of groups that were anything but professional.

Moving from the Colonial Period

During the Colonial era, the police forces of what would become the United States were largely geared towards simply warning people of impending danger. Perched on watchtowers, they would keep an eye out for approaching raids, whether from Native Americans or the French. A group of constables kept their eyes on the night watchmen as a sort of official oversight, but these constables were subject to following through on all requests of the courts. They were just as likely to be called out to supervise a surveying team as they would be to lead the night watchmen to enforce an arrest order from the court.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, many American cities had police forces. However, these forces were themselves quite different in the North and South. In the slave states, the most notable law enforcement units were patrols to capture runaway slaves. Officially sanctioned by no one, these groups got their authority from codes like the Fugitive Slave Act. In many ways, they terrorized more than anything else.

After the Civil War, the police departments that sprung from these vigilante groups were mainly focused on enforcing Jim Crow laws, protecting the agricultural caste system that replaced slavery, and making sure African Americans did not have equal access to the political system.

Influence of Politics

In the North, however, police forces were taking on a quite different role. The South was largely rural, but the North was made up of many large cities. Starting with Boston in 1858, the watch system evolved into municipal police forces that were publicly funded and hired full-time employees, rather than volunteers or vigilantes.

In the industrialized cities of the North, the police were used to curb 'public disorder,' which largely meant keeping the poor from rioting against the unfair working conditions rampant during the Industrial Revolution. So these early police forces were not the professional forces that we have today that protect everyone, but instead a group of people to protect the rich and the powerful.

One group that benefited greatly from a force that could work to keep order was politicians. In the years prior to the Civil War and certainly for decades afterwards, politicians were aligned with Northern police officers. From a politician's point of view, it was good political strategy to have the people who kept the city's population in check on your side when it came time for everyone to cast their votes. As a result, there were serious allegations of corruption between police forces and politicians, some of which turned out to be true.

Private Companies

Needless to say, there was a lot of corruption and vigilantism in both the Northern and Southern states with regard to policing. In short, there was a gap, which could be filled only by reliable, professionally trained officers. For much of the 19th century, that role was filled by private policing companies.

By far, the most famous of these was the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The Pinkerton Agency was founded in 1850 and grew on the basis of federal and state contracts to be the largest law enforcement body in the United States. While the Secret Service and Texas Rangers were still relatively young agencies, it was the Pinkerton Agency's men who were foiling assassination attempts and capturing criminals in the Wild West.

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