The Establishment of Modern Police Forces in 19th Century U.S.

The Establishment of Modern Police Forces in 19th Century U.S.
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  • 0:00 State of Police…
  • 0:52 Well-Funded Slave Patrols
  • 1:47 Corrupt and Politicized
  • 3:09 Underfunded
  • 3:57 Cleaning It All Up
  • 5:36 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 the police as a highly-professional force today, in the past, it was a different story. In this lesson, we look at the state of police in the 19th century and the ways in which groups evolved into professional forces.

State of Police Affairs in 1800

While many things that we think of as central to American political life were established within a few years of the country's independence, police forces were definitely not one of them. Today, we think of the police as a service that helps to protect people. After all, many departments have adopted some version of 'to serve and protect' as their motto.

However, in 1800, the situation was completely different. The police had evolved out of earlier colonial institutions that were more concerned with the security of the colony from external threats and transformed into institutions that focused on stability and order. In this lesson, we will look at how the North, South, and West each had different issues with police and the effort at the end of the century to clean up the departments.

Well-Funded Slave Patrols

Hard as it may be to believe, the most well-funded groups that resembled police in the 19th century weren't police at all. Instead, they were slave patrols that searched the Deep South for escaped slaves and stood ready to counter any potential slave revolt. In the late 18th century, these were actually large units; Charleston had 100 full-time employees dedicated to capturing escaped slaves.

At the time, the city's population was under 20,000. These patrols had wide-ranging authority but only with respect to their stated mission of finding escaped slaves. The reason for this department to be so well-funded had to do with the economics of the South during the time. Not only did owners pay hefty rewards for returning escaped slaves, but also much of the economy of the South depended on the goods that they produced.

Corrupt and Politicized

During the 19th century, practically every major city in the United States was located in the North. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were some of the most important cities in North America and as the country progressed, they became increasingly crowded with immigrants in search of better lives. However, with such crowds also came less savory elements of society.

Crime skyrocketed and there were serious frictions between different groups in these cities. Yet the powers that be often found it more convenient to simply try to push these troubles under the rug. After all, if it didn't affect public order, why should they care? As a result, police departments in the North largely focused on maintaining public order at the expense of really serving the public. The definition of how to best maintain public order was largely left up to the departments.

As you can imagine, this was a recipe for disaster. Police departments in some cities of the North soon became particularly corrupt, willing to overlook certain offenses if the proper payments were made. Worse yet, some politicians were able to convince police officials, again with proper bribes, that their political opponents' supporters were threats to public order. Otherwise peaceful assemblies were intimidated by the police.


In the far West, police forces maintained probably the greatest public image of doing right by the people of their jurisdictions. Think about it - Hollywood has made the Western, in many of which the lone lawman is the only source of good, a real American staple. Though it is hard to believe, this idea of the lone lawman is one that Hollywood got right. If a town had a law enforcement agent, chances are he worked alone.

More likely, a U.S. Marshall would have a wide jurisdiction, but he couldn't be everywhere at once. Instead, when faced with a serious threat to the law, a marshal or sheriff would assemble a posse of citizens to help. If no such posse was available, it was very likely that the criminal would get away with his actions.

Cleaning it All Up

As you can tell, public police in the 19th century was not the institution that it is today. In the North, it was corrupt; in the West, it was underfunded; and in the South, it existed largely to protect the despicable institution of slavery. However, there was an opportunity for truly American ideas to shine.

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