Vagrants and Vagabonds

Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic

280 pages

12 illustrations

January, 2019

ISBN: 9781479845255

$35

Cloth

Add to Cart Available: 12/14/2018

Also available in

Subjects:

History

Part of the Early American Places series

Author

Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan is Instructor in the Department of History at Rutgers University.

All books by Kristin O'Brassill-Kulfan

The riveting story of control over the mobility of poor migrants, and how their movements shaped current perceptions of class and status in the United States  
 
Vagrants. Vagabonds. Hoboes. Identified by myriad names, the homeless and geographically mobile have been with us since the earliest periods of recorded history. In the early days of the United States, these poor migrants – consisting of everyone from work-seekers to runaway slaves – populated the roads and streets of major cities and towns. These individuals were a part of a social class whose geographical movements broke settlement laws, penal codes, and welfare policies. This book documents their travels and experiences across the Atlantic world, excavating their life stories from the records of criminal justice systems and relief organizations.  
 
Vagrants and Vagabonds examines the subsistence activities of the mobile poor, from migration to wage labor to petty theft, and how local and state municipal authorities criminalized these activities, prompting extensive punishment. Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan examines the intertwined legal constructions, experiences, and responses to these so-called “vagrants,” arguing that we can glean important insights about poverty and class in this period by paying careful attention to mobility. This book charts why and how the itinerant poor were subject to imprisonment and forced migration, and considers the relationship between race and the right to movement and residence in the antebellum US.  Ultimately, Vagrants and Vagabonds argues that poor migrants, the laws designed to curtail their movements, and the people charged with managing them, were central to shaping everything from the role of the state to contemporary conceptions of community to class and labor status, the spread of disease, and punishment in the early American republic. 

Reviews

  • "Americans in the early republic believed that their ability to move—geographically, socially, economically—was the essence of their freedom. They trusted that capitalism offered upward mobility and that an expansive republic would prove an empire for liberty in which law would protect property rights. Vagrants and Vagabonds offers an important corrective to these ideas. Capitalist transformation forced poor Americans to move often and in ways they did not necessarily choose. Vagrancy law limited their movements and curtailed their freedom. O’Brassill-Kulfan's important book reminds us that mobility helped to entrench inequality in the United States as much as it enabled American dreams."

    —Brian Luskey, author of On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in Nineteenth-Century America

  • "Kristin OBrassill-Kulfan’s study of the mobility of poor and otherwise unwanted members of society, and the efforts of authorities to dictate and control their movement, tells us much about the life of multiple subaltern groups in the antebellum U.S. in a way that is especially relevant today.  She addresses forced migration, incarceration, and exclusion, bringing all of these issues of mobility together in a multifaceted study that should be required reading for anyone interested in early U.S. history, the carceral state, and poverty in the U.S.  Her important book adds much to the historiography of a number of fields, including early U.S. history, labor history, racial and ethnic history, and poverty studies.  It is essential reading for policy makers and political scientists today who want to understand the history of race- and class-based exclusion in the U.S."

    —Beverly Tomek, author of Colonization and its Discontents