- Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America by Kelly A. Ryan
Law, Civil rights, Legal culture, Violence
Kelly A. Ryan’s Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America opens with two beatings. In 1741, the Boston Post Boy dispassionately reported a Massachusetts slave master’s violent assaults on an enslaved woman whom he accused of theft, and an enslaved man, her alleged accomplice. Ryan uses this incident, and others like it, to explore corporal punishment in early America, focusing on Massachusetts and New York. She argues that “legally and socially dependent peoples,” including “slaves, wives, and youthful servants,” were considered fitting objects of violent chastisement, and were therefore often denied legal redress when their safety was threatened or violated (1). However, legitimate violence had limits. While husbands could punish their wives and children, masters their slaves, and employers their servants, excessive or spectacular violence could attract both social censure and legal liability. Everyday Crimes describes the uneven topography of violence across groups over time. Throughout, Ryan emphasizes the complexities of [End Page 755] “dependence.” Gender, marital and slave status, age, race, and class collectively shaped an individual’s imagined susceptibility to violence.
The book is divided into three chronological parts, from the colonial era through the Revolutionary period and into the early republic. Some chapters within parts take up particular groups, such as apprentices, “white wives,” and enslaved people. Others pursue themes, including “relationship building,” loyalty and suspicion, and “legal strategies for civil rights” (vii). Ryan characterizes the seventeenth century as a period of “great possibility,” as British North American settlers contemplated where to “draw the line between correction and abuse” in rapidly evolving colonial contexts (62). The eighteenth century, conversely, brought conservative retrenchment. Stable institutions, growing populations, and northerners’ deepening ties to the transatlantic slave trade prompted a renewed emphasis on social hierarchy and the authority of husbands and masters. The looming American Revolution prompted officials and other elites to regard dependent peoples’ protests as threats to social order. The crisis also brought some opportunities for change, and married women and African Americans made significant gains in New England and New York courts in the first decades of the new republic.
Everyday Crimes is densely peopled. Ryan draws on archival records of criminal complaints and cases in which dependent victims of violence sought a variety of legal remedies, from peace bonds to convictions, against their aggressors. She structures her chapters around sketches of violent confrontations gleaned from newspapers and government records. These stories illustrate the ways in which dependent groups resisted their legal guardians’ violence, whether through resort to the courts or by less formal means, such as escaping, avoiding abusive masters, or seeking support from “bystanders,” including neighbors, patrons, and activists.
Ryan is centrally interested in how even unsuccessful claims of abuse by dependent victims against violent guardians “influenced the creation of standards for safety in the community even if community members disagreed” (27). Although courts generally sided with guardians over dependents, she sees both power and politics in individual complainants’ choices to reveal their injuries and to “put their narratives about abuse on the map to be discovered” (5). She argues that these cases reveal human-and civil-rights consciousness among dependents, as they asserted their “belief in the human rights to safety and freedom from coercive labour” (5). In this, she challenges historians, such as Samuel Moyn, who see “human rights” as a twentieth-century innovation. Even those who locate [End Page 756] the birth of human rights and humanitarian discourses in the antislavery movements of the nineteenth century are, in Ryan’s view, overlooking the quiet campaign of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century dependents against abuse. Ryan is similarly eager to connect early American dependents’ efforts to the broader historiography of civil-rights legal activism, which she sees as unnecessarily confined to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Some may be reluctant to follow Ryan in describing dependents’ petitions, freedom suits, peace suits, and requests for divorce as...