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  • Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic by Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan
  • Gabriel Loiacono (bio)
Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic. By Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan. (New York: New York University Press, 2019. Pp. 225. Cloth, $35.00.)

“Ding! You are now free to move about the country,” Southwest Airlines used to advertise to its passengers. That freedom did not exist in the early American republic, Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan demonstrates in Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic. Instead, municipal officials tightly controlled how Americans moved about the country. Using settlement laws and vagrancy statutes, local governments denied mobility to significant numbers of poor Americans, which had a chilling effect on the mobility of others. Going by different titles in different states, local officials could stop and interrogate newcomers to town. Then, they could incarcerate or banish the newcomers from town if they thought it appropriate. While other scholars believe that warning out was not practiced much past 1800, O’Brassill-Kulfan finds the practice thriving into the 1830s, and occasionally used in the 1930s. Moreover, she argues, these official responses to mobility among the poor gave shape to citizenship, policing, and poor relief in the early republic and continue to shape ideas about race and immigration today.

Vagrants and Vagabonds focuses readers’ attention on important truths about the early United States. Foremost is how circumscribed mobility was for Americans before the Civil War. Another is how important local governments, rather than state or federal, were in shaping the lives and citizenship rights of early Americans. Readers of this journal might particularly be interested in how efforts to control the movement of freed slaves around 1865 were prefigured by northern states’ responses to emancipation in the 1780s and after. Not only that, but the fugitive slave laws of the pre–Civil War period were predicated in part on vagrancy statutes. Chapter 4, in particular, unpacks the connections between slavery, emancipation, runaways, race, and warning out.

The mid-Atlantic states provide the geographical scope of this book about geographical freedom. Much of the evidence is drawn from the Philadelphia City Archives, but Vagrants and Vagabonds makes use of an array of local, state, and private archives. Drawing on lots of individual stories, O’Brassill-Kulfan illustrates the big themes of why and where people migrated in this region. Readers meet migrating Americans who [End Page 254] were caught up in the local police systems of Pennsylvania and New York or, less frequently, Delaware and Maryland. Readers also get a sense of how civic leaders and low-level officials responded to these movers about the country. Immigrants, escaped slaves, casual laborers, children, widows, and families with frozen feet all make their appearance. So do inspectors, guardians of the poor, watchmen, and the kinds of social critics who might get published in local newspapers. The result is a collection of individuals moving and institutions responding to that movement. It is a story built from the constituent parts up to the big narrative.

This story built from the local up recovers the often forgotten constraints imposed on Americans by local governments. Rightly, Vagrants and Vagabonds hammers the theme of what O’Brassill-Kulfan calls “the state’s largely reactionary efforts to exert social, spatial, behavioral, and economic control on the lower and working classes in response to the social and economic instability that defined the period” (6). Also rightly, the book documents individual migrants’ efforts to move freely in spite of those constraints. In these emphases, Vagrants and Vagabonds follows some of the interpretive trails blazed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Social Welfare, originally published in 1971. Like that work, Vagrants and Vagabonds emphasizes the “social control” aspects of the poor laws. Also like Regulating the Poor, Vagrants and Vagabonds gives little space to the more positive flip side of the settlement laws. In theory, settlement laws meant that everyone in need should be able to find unlimited access to food, housing, medicine, even doctoring, in their own place of settlement. To argue that settlement laws are intended primarily...