Tabor on Ryan, 'Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America'

Kelly A. Ryan
Alex Tabor

Kelly A. Ryan. Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 2019. 400 pp. $39.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-6961-9.

Reviewed by Alex Tabor (Carnegie Mellon University) Published on H-Early-America (November, 2019) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers (California State University-Dominguez Hills)

Printable Version:

Humanitarianism associated with the recognition of human and civil rights in the United States is often attributed to the antislavery movement in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Kelly A. Ryan, professor of history and dean of the School of Social Sciences at Indiana University Southeast, illustrates that resistance by legally dependent peoples—youthful servants, white wives, enslaved Africans, and free blacks—who lacked formal legal protection against a “social economy of violence” maintained by unscrupulous masters and an acquiescent legal system, forced public consideration of the needs and perspectives of legally dependent people (p. 6). Focusing specifically on the colony of New Netherland, renamed New York in 1644 when taken by the British from the Dutch, and Massachusetts, Ryan asserts that the means of resistance varied greatly between groups, but four primary modes were consistent: pursuing relationships with allies, reporting violence to the community or justices of the peace, running away as “self-emancipation,” and engaging in violence. Ryan traces an evolving array of forms of resistance available to persons of different legally dependent status; the ways opportunities and barriers arose in tandem during periods of crisis, instability, and war; and the ways, despite failure to achieve monumental or lasting gains in legal dependence, legally dependent peoples’ exercises of agency shaped contemporary understandings of human and civil rights and their provenance.

Ryan organizes her research into three parts. In part 1, she addresses the colonial period, spanning the lives, opportunities, and experiences of servants, white wives, and slaves across the seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. Part 2 extends this discussion into the decades preceding the American Revolutionary War, illustrating how the imperial crisis with Britain exacerbated existing tensions in the colonies by expanding some opportunities for resistance while limiting others, and part 3 follows those contests into the early years of the United States and maps their precariousness throughout a period of developing legal precedent and continued war. Highlighting the intersection between the work’s overarching theme and the contemporary persistence of violence against dependent and second-class citizens, Ryan explains that “uncovering the truths about how violence operates in society shows us how we arrived at this moment,” reflecting on the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements that galvanized while she conducted research and wrote the book, “and, perhaps, what we can do to choose a better path forward” (p. 16).

In researching the lives of legally dependent peoples across the earliest periods of the United States, Ryan contributes valuable insight for understanding the contemporary persistence of patriarchal systems in the US; transformations in human and civil rights activism and advocacy; and the ways violence and resistance were (and remain) gendered, raced, and classed. She demonstrates how ideologies that privileged the use of violence to maintain a social order headed by white men resulted in the expansion of masters’ legal authority over their servants by the government, because of their attribution to lower classes and proclivity for violently supporting and resisting the British, yet simultaneously demarcated new possibilities for independence for white wives. Resistance to divorce and separation in cases of spousal abuse came under increasing scrutiny with the rising popularity of divorce metaphors describing the United States’ souring relationship with England in print culture. Due to the scarcity of individuals and institutions willing to advocate on behalf of enslaved people, Ryan illustrates how, despite employing a diverse array of methods to resist the impositions and violence of white masters, the enslaved saw few significant improvements in their overall condition compared to white wives and servants. While Ryan notes some exceptions, like the Quakers, she does well to attend to the diverse ways that enslaved and free blacks worked to create networks of aid and support in the absence of meaningful protection by the laxest masters and most accepting communities. Ryan’s contribution to understanding the lives of black Americans speaks to a broader volume of literature on black civil rights activism in noting that, contrasting nineteenth- and twentieth-century mass mobilization and organization, advocacy in the colonial era and the early republic was predominantly individual in form and function.

Lastly, Ryan’s work enters upon discussions of intersectionality by highlighting individual experiences with violence by legally endowed masters over legal dependents, differing based on age, sex/gender, class/position, status, and race. However, while the examples Ryan employs to emphasize these differences contrast sharply, further investigation into the processes shaping these constructs, especially across their transformations in crisis and war, is necessary for understanding the exchanges and forms of power that defined those conditions and statuses—especially as Ryan’s work is intended to reorient readers’ thinking about the traditional periodization of emergent beliefs in human and civil rights in the United States. In what ways did evolving concepts of gender and the shifting of class and racial barriers during the Civil War similarly expand opportunities for black women seeking freedom through black men’s service and white women seeking social and economic access through expanded opportunities in the absence of husbands? How did gender shape the shifting ideas of domestic and familial responsibility associated with the labors of youthful male and female servants, and how did their relationship influence the decisions of emancipated blacks in articulating their freedom and independence in a period characterized by emergent systems of forced dependency like sharecropping, crop-lien systems, and debt-peonage? Though mentioned in passing, American Indians receive almost no attention despite incredible cultural, social, and economic exchange between Native American tribes and European colonists throughout the period.

Legal records of disputes over violence and resistance, print literature through which dependent wives organized and articulated their perspectives and the enslaved advertised their freedom suits, and diaries and letters foreground “the voices of women, youth, and African Americans” in Ryan’s investigation (p. 13). The New York Manumission Society emerges as one feature group acting on behalf of the enslaved despite its limited successes, indicating the limitations of extant primary sources—their creators, the context and timing of their production, their purposes and intended meanings and implications. Generally, however, the arguments in Everyday Crimes are well established, based on an expansive body of primary source material and secondary literature.

Ryan’s work is valuable in extending discussions on human and civil rights in the United States back into the colonial era, demonstrating an ideological awareness among the legally dependent that manifested in diverse actions of daily resistance. In her research and lucid writing, Ryan exemplifies many ways that violence is fundamental to the ordering mechanisms prevailing in the United States today, and shows how individual experiences with violence are shaped by one’s race, class, and gender, thus requiring critical analysis of how those constructs are perpetuated today. Everyday Crimes is a must-read for any undergraduate or graduate course on US history, especially with a focus on race or gender. 

Citation: Alex Tabor. Review of Ryan, Kelly A., Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.