Using the 1835 Baltimore Bank Riot as a case study, this article asserts that white workingmen deployed legitimate power as property holders. It shows that the Bank Riot, which erupted over frauds related to the closing of the Bank of Maryland, actually had two legacies: an Indemnity law that promised remuneration to future victims of mob violence, and the legal exoneration of almost everyone who participated in its violence. These two legacies, it argues, both derived from the same belief in property rights – for property in the early republic had two meanings. First and most obviously, it referred to a physical asset, like a building; this is what that the Indemnity Act was designed to protect. Less obviously, property also connoted wages and households, and these were what the pardons honored. The riot’s dual legacy ultimately demonstrated that a municipality built to protect property rights allowed more than the affluent to make claims upon it. True, the bank rioters were not as wealthy as the men whose homes they destroyed, but as wage earners and patriarchs they were rich in other ways.
Almost no one associated with the Bank Riot ever received a meaningful punishment, and that, this article concludes, foretold a future in which certain forms of popular violence would be tolerated so long as they were justified in the name of property. In a city where many of the residents did not own wages and dependents, the possession of both was a privilege fraught with real power.