The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Movie review:
Gangs of New York - a look at the draft riots of 1863

Jan 20, 2003

Corrupt politicians and police officers are two of the many gangs depicted in the new movie, The Gangs of New York. The story begins in the 1840s and ends with a graphic depiction of the Draft Riots of 1863.

The movie focuses on the organized gangs controlling crime in the poor, filthy tenement neighborhoods in New York City. The movie does a good job of displaying the harshness of day-to-day life at the time.

In one part of the film we see the volunteer fire companies, foot soldiers of the Democratic Party, battling each other to be the first to the scene of a fire. The film shows that sometimes they fight each other so much they forget to put out the fire, which happened more than once at the time.

The main story involves a gang feud and a Hollywood romance. But what is most interesting about the movie is the way it captures the politics of the day. We are shown the anti-immigrant politics of the Nativist Party and the gangs who act as their enforcers. We are shown Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall and the Democratic Party rife with corruption.

As the movie hits the time of the Civil War, we see immigrants arriving in New York, immediately signed up as citizens by the Republican Party, enlisted in the union army, and loaded on ships headed for the battlefield, as soon as the coffins of dead soldiers coming back could be unloaded.

The film ends with a fictional account of the actual response to the draft being started up during the Civil War, in 1863, which was draft riots. In 1863 the draft law allowed the rich to buy their way out for $300 by buying a substitute. (This was more than a year's wages for a working person). In the movie and in reality, when the draft started, the poor neighborhoods of New York erupted in riots, destroying the government draft office, police stations and wealthy homes.

But as actually happened, rioters in the movie then are shown moving to attack and lynching free black people living in the city, misdirecting their anger at the draft and the privileges of the rich onto former slaves. What the movie doesn't show – but which was very critical – is the systematic effort made by the politicians and media to divert white working class anger at the rich for buying substitutes for the draft onto black working-class New Yorkers.

At one point, Boss Tweed spouts the statement made by Jay Gould, the famous railroad baron: "I can hire one half of the poor to kill off the other half."

When the draft rioters turned their anger against those with whom they should have made common cause, they lost the fight against the wealthy who exploited them. Even though the riots were finally quelled by military force, the divisions among the poor opened the door to their defeat.