- Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic by Kristin O'Brassill-Kulfan
In 1820, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in New York remarked, "public attention has been awakened: the sources of poverty and crime are becoming subjects of daily inquiry" (184). The very same contentions over community and welfare services flash across our headlines every day. Travel bans, issues of immigration, the future of Social Security, and rights to accessible health care are amongst the most debated topics in the current political scene. Studying the very emergence of these crises in early American public life, as well as their legal, political, and economic underpinnings, O'Brassill-Kulfan offers a seminal example that pushes the boundaries of the history of welfare and poverty in Vagrants and Vagabonds.
Focusing on the Mid-Atlantic as a space of meeting and migration, O'Brassill-Kulfan centers her narrative on the city of Philadelphia, which houses her most complete record set, while tying in sources from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland to counterbalance her predominantly Pennsylvania-based narrative. She grounds her study in the decades of the early republic, reaching back to English and colonial precedents in order to contextualize changes occurring throughout the early nineteenth century.
Vagrants and Vagabonds covers a range of individuals who partook in illicit mobility in the early republic. Coining the term "indigent transiency" as an "epistemologically inclusive term" for those deemed vagabonds, idlers, vagrants, tramps, and hoboes, O'Brassill-Kulfan groups individuals together across racial, ethnic, gendered, and labor-status lines. She argues that this mode of existence, along with individual identity politics, "determined how the poor lived, interacted with, and were [End Page 577] viewed by the local and state governments and their representatives, both under the law and by law enforcement" (2). O'Brassill-Kulfan argues that a study of indigent transiency, as regulated by the state, experienced by individuals, and rhetorically discussed in mainstream society, offers a clearer understanding of poverty and class in the early republic. Vagrants and Vagabonds asserts that transiency was at the heart of everyday public issues and that "indigent transiency defined community membership, and, by extension, American citizenship at the street level" (6).
Reclaiming voices of vagrants, O'Brassill-Kulfan reanimates official documents by detailing positions from those on both sides of the welfare process. In a style reminiscent of Seth Rockman's Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2008) or Simon Newman's Embodied History: The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 2003), O'Brassill-Kulfan breathes fresh air into an archive of government records that are too often read as mere instruments of surveillance and control. While paupers were coerced into interviewing with government agents about their residency status and previous movements, O'Brassill-Kulfan argues they manifested a degree of agency by which paupers "resist[ed] the definitions assigned to them … in order to assert their own, self-defined identity" (133). Vagrants and Vagabonds offers a lens into both the theoretical underpinnings and the everyday processes of America's early welfare system.
Most charged with vagrancy lived highly mobile lives, moving frequently to follow harvest cycles, public-works projects, and trade networks. Despite the natural mobility of wage labor, vagrancy laws demanded restricted movement in an effort to limit social welfare provisions to those who had supported their local system for years. Indigent transients were viewed with distrust, as their very mobility subverted the norms of "capitalistic morality." Individuals were expected to pay into their community, a capitalist expectation that prevented the withdrawal of labor from the local economy. In a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing landscape, however, this residency expectation was not possible for those looking for "amenable circumstances both in employment and in the availability of assistance" (38). The characters of Vagrants and Vagabonds traded residency for the possibility of climbing out of poverty.
Relocating to a new place was fraught with peril. If an individual was perceived as...