private security and public violence in nascent states: a lesson from america’s frontier

I saw Django Unchained last week. For those who haven’t monitored the vibrant cultural conversation on Quentin Tarantino’s posture towards slavery’s historiography, it’s worth following–Tarantino’s portrayal of U.S. race relations is intentionally provocative, and contributes to an important, if underrepresented body of cinema on slavery, resistance, and the antebellum South’s infrastructure of oppression. If slavery’s racial overtones are Tarantino’s primary theme, the commercialization of violence is a close second. Django‘s “companion Western” narrates the exploits of Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, a German-American bounty hunter, and Jamie Foxx’s Django, a freed slave and Dr. Schultz’s companion. In a revealing bit, Schultz explains bounty-hunting to an uninitiated Django: “Bounty hunting is like slavery, it’s a cash for flesh business.” In Tarantino’s antebellum landscape, violence is a private good*: in the absence of state institutions, a commercial logic determines who dies, who kills, and where slavery is concerned, who gets purchased. Where public bureaucracies exist–the U.S. Marshals, the public magistrate, the Records Office–they reinforce varied forms of commercial violence, including bounty-hunting and slavery, rather than mitigating them.

As Ryan Evans observes in his Tillyian analysis of state-building and organized crime in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, commercialized violence was an endemic characteristic of U.S. state-building throughout the nineteenth century. The securitization of the American state–that is, the transformation of violence from a private to a club good**–was a gradual process, which picked up in the aftermath of the Civil War. U.S. securitization had many causes, not the least of which was the entrenchment of law enforcement bureaucracies during the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction eras. While Johnson’s postwar administration modified Lincoln’s war-era taxes on whiskey, tobacco, and beer, successive Reconstruction governments relied on an expanded vice-tax bureaucracy to generate federal revenue. Where Democrats opposed most measures that expanded federal authority in the former Confederate states, Reconstruction-era Republicans supported the vast expansion of the revenue collection bureaucracy, often for the purposes of patronage. To ensure the forceable collection of federal vice taxes, often from armed distillery operations, civilian revenue officials rode alongside rag-tag posses. When Congress banned the use of posses in revenue collection operations, in 1879, U.S. soldiers filled the gap, blurring the distinction between military authority and law enforcement praxis.

If the Reconstruction-era South’s law-and-order activities comprised a gradual, if inconsistent creep towards public securitization, the American West was its historical foil. Take California, the historical center of commercial activity on the U.S. western seaboard. California’s popular historical debates on westward expansion are microcosms of contemporary race relations: bandidos, Mexican gangs who clashed with eastern settlers during the Gold Rush era, are a present-day symbol of both colonial resistance and of criminal violence, depending on who you ask. Bandido militias were early participants in the California Gold Rush, but arrived from Mexico, rather than the eastern United States. Their early affiliation with Mexican miners restricted their violence to American rancho raids. As retributive violence escalated, however, the bandidos’ violence proved increasingly opportunistic–Chinese labor communities were frequent targets. Bandido activity continued unfettered throughout the early 1850s. In 1853, acknowledging the bandidos’ security and commercial threat to California mining activity, the state legislature authorized the creation of the California Rangers.

Like their Texas counterparts of baseball lore, the California Rangers evade easy classification. Their central purpose was the violent elimination of Joaquin Morieta’s bandido militia, after which Ranger leader Harry Love disbanded the state-authorized militia. Despite their public authorization, the California Rangers were a privately-funded endeavor: their compensation came from the family of bandido victim Allen Ruddle, a California farmer. The reward allowed Mexican-American War veteran Harry Love to pull together a small militia of twenty Rangers, sourced from rural California’s community of experienced warfighters and frontiersmen. When Love presented decapitated Morieta’s head in Sacramento, the Ranger captain received a thousand-dollar reward. So, while California’s law enforcement community celebrates the Rangers as predecessors of the state’s policing enterprise, the Rangers do not conform to key characteristics of a public police force. Instead, the California Rangers’ origins more accurately cast the group as a prototypical private security contractor (PSC/PMC, in its military form).

PSC/PMC activity is among the most controversial characteristics of present-day international security. As Adam Elkus notes in his recent reflections on the Benghazi affair, the PSC/PMC “network of contractual relationships,” a legacy of the United States’ global reach, carries problematic consequences for U.S. foreign interests. The purpose of this post is not to probe these contractual relationships, but rather to assess the ways in which the historical United States, as a nascent state, used private security operations within its borders. As present-day states seek to expand the benefits of private security operations, while mitigating their negative consequences, the United States’ own state-building experience can be instructive. There are a number of important takeaways from the American frontier experience, but this one sticks out:

Just because institutions exist, that doesn’t mean they actually exist: The San Francisco Police Department was founded in 1849, the year before the U.S. government acknowledged California as its thirty-first state. The SFPD’s creation occurred during a first wave of growth in local law enforcement; the New York Police Department, where founding SFPD chief Malachi Fallon also served, was established in 1845. According to Roger McGrath, the early SFPD was incapable of stymying California’s early Gold Rush wave of organized crime, largely because of its proportionately limited human capital. McGrath describes an unruly scene, whereby “frustrated citizens, on several occasions, tried to take prisoners from the police and administer summary justice.” California’s law enforcement system only emerged as a (relatively) credible, effective policing body after a symbiotic, if competitive partnership with the Morse Detective Agency, a private firm.

That is to say, the privatization of security may be an undesirable outcome for a “consolidated” state, but, if the American experience is an applicable perspective, it’s likely integral to the state-building process.


* Private good (excludable, rivalrous): under a commercial logic, a consumer must purchase an act of violence (a bounty, a slave’s price), an act which prevents others from consuming the same.

** Club good (excludable, non-rivalrous): under a club logic, a consumer must purchase an act of violence by a community institution (taxation, gang dues), an act which others can also consume.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s