Blog post

Vigilantism, or the Birth of the Racial State

In this excerpt from Self Defense: A Philosophy of Violence, Elsa Dorlin traces the lineage of the model citizen vigilante in the American tradition. In defense of a nation, she tells us, the vigilante enacts a form of racial justice that seeks to execute the natural enemies of private property, the family, and white society. What is bred? The Racial State.

29 September 2022

In the United States, the term “vigilante” is borrowed from Spanish, having descended from the Latin vigilans. Its recorded use goes back to 1824 in Missouri, where it referred to a “vigilant man,” but it was mostly used in the second half of the nineteenth century in the context of “vigilance committees,” while before that they were simply called “vigilants.” Starting in the 1760s, groups of vigilants formed across the country, from the East to the Western frontier. 

The first text about these vigilantes by one of their number was written in colonial Louisiana. It was intended to glorify vigilance committees, and it contains a theoretical argument for the legitimate use of armed defensive violence by self proclaimed citizen vigilantes. In 1861, Alexandre Barde wrote Histoire des comités de vigilance aux Attakapas (the history of vigilance committees in the Attakapas). Barde was a settler who had arrived in Louisiana in 1842, where he worked as a journalist and sometimes as a teacher for white children on large plantations. His text is an interesting materialization of the racialization of vigilantism and stands as a record of colonial violence. It shows how this violence was romanticized, and he lays the groundwork for portraying the vigilantes, who are by definition white, as heroes. 

Barde was affiliated with the Democratic Party and arrived in the Attakapas in 1859, at the beginning of the unrest in the lead-up to the Civil War. He got involved in the vigilance committees that were spreading across the region and became their historian. Vigilance committees were not born in Louisiana, but along the East Coast, and they moved gradually into the American West throughout the nineteenth century. The membership of these groups, most of which were exclusively male, consisted of wealthy men, landowners, farmers, craftsmen, jurists, and men of letters, all of them committed to the defense of private property. They could involve as few as a dozen individuals or as many as 6,000, like the San Francisco Vigilance Committee at its peak in 1856. Throughout the colonization of the Americas, groups of men formed themselves into militias and granted themselves exceptional rights of jurisdiction (judicial and policing authority). Vigilantism is one of history’s largest manifestations of extralegal direct action, anti-abolitionism, and racist American terrorism and criminality. In contrast to the usual argument that vigilantism arose as a symptom of undeveloped political institutions that were weak and dysfunctional, our perspective is that the vigilantes are better understood as part of a process of rationalizing governmentality. 

In his history of vigilance committees, Barde paints a picture of a golden age of French colonization, where good Christians, admirable fathers and hard workers all made the earth fertile and lived in peace. This idyllic scene serves only to emphasize the fall: this first generation of white settlers were a family, and their justice occurred “within the family,” in a spirit of clemency and indulgence. No one could be convicted since, according to Barde, they were brothers, cousins, friends, and neighbors who had all grown up together. However, he considers this kind of justice to be worse than any crime, since it does away with all the principles of justice, allowing a veritable “army of crime” to develop, complete with generals, officers, and soldiers, all striving toward a single goal: theft. 

Cows, horses, pigs, everything melted away in a few months, like snow; an Arab raiding party would not have been more able thieves or more ardent pillagers. These pasture pirates truly were enemies, and the weakness or complicity of jury members had permitted them to install themselves in a society that should have destroyed them itself. 

Beyond the familial nature of American colonial proto justice, the author identifies two reasons for this disastrous clemency. The first was a “nearly unlimited right of challenge,” which meant that any lawyer could dismiss potential jury members until only the ignorant, complicit, or corrupt were left. The second was the need for a “unanimous verdict,” which basically meant automatic acquittal due to the difficulty of getting all the jurors to agree. This is the context in which begins the history of vigilance committees in Louisiana: 

The day had come—a day that had been predicted a hundred times. Not a day of vengeance, because a court that used such a weapon would not be worthy of the name, but of expiation. It was a score to be settled with the dangerous classes: we have been keeping records of their past actions, and we would now go through them page by page. Their unpunished deeds would be weighed on a scale both terrible and impartial, like that of true justice, but this time we would be certain the scale was held by a sure and steady hand, and that the men behind it would be ready for any challenge they might meet. 

The vigilantes were going to “fight to purify our country.” Barde projected his own phantasms onto the popular imagination and described the vigilantes of the committees as beautiful, armed, and merciless, with a leader able “to make young girls fall wildly in love.” 

Barde asks, how could “simple country folk” turn into heroic judges? Is it really legal for vigilance committees, even if made up of “honest citizens,” to take on the work of the justice system? In Barde’s telling, civil justice no longer existed, and the committees came into being on its ashes. The vigilantes were not judges; rather, vigilantism was simply an expedited modality of the judicialization of conflict. It involved rejecting any notion of equity, including the adversary principle and the presumption of innocence. In defense of a minority, the trials’ outcomes were decided in advance, and the accused were simply guilty parties waiting for their punishment. There were no judges in vigilantism then, properly speaking. There were no procedural codes or even clearly  articulated lists of criminal offenses, whether felonies or misdemeanors. In the case of misdemeanors, the accused were found guilty and sentenced in advance. There were three levels of punishment: reparations to be made within a given time (generally between one and eight days), banishment and flogging if the deadline was not respected, and hanging for repeat offenders. For felonies, the committees saw only one remedy: the gallows. Most of the vigilance committees existing during the late nineteenth century used flogging, banishment, and hanging in their push to drive out of the state every man considered undesirable, as threats to white colonial society. As the schisms that would lead to the Civil War deepened, vigilance organizations spread across the Southern states to enforce the racial order, part of the armed wing of white supremacist ideology: society must be cleansed. 

Above all else, vigilantism despised lawyers: “No lawyer will set foot here.” Vigilantism recognizes only one kind of defense, that of the members of a community, a people, or a society against their enemies—who are left utterly defenseless. The vigilance committees were thus a manifestation of a broader transformation of self-defense into legitimate defense—defending yourself against crime is legitimate a priori, and therefore so is any act of violence. The history of vigilantism is usually understood as a response to periods of chaos, where the old order is suspended, defeated, or overthrown, and the new order has not yet emerged. On the contrary, vigilantism comes into being when a specific idea of justice (involving accused, judges, and lawyers) comes under fierce attack and is ultimately rendered inoperable. Looked at this way, the vigilantes are clearly not judges: they considered themselves the enemies of judges. They were not acting in place of judges—even once that place was vacant—or in their name. The vigilantes fought to make judges disappear by situating themselves as police, soldiers, court clerks, bailiffs, prison guards, and executioners simultaneously. Alexandre Barde himself wrote positively of the fact that vigilantism is not a form of justice, but of war and hunting: a hunt for bandits, for the poor, for any troublesome people who “need to be wiped out.” 

From this perspective, it becomes clear that the history of vigilantism represents a radical rupture with the classical idea of justice. Specifically, it breaks from theories of state formation involving the imposition of a centralized judicial structure whose legitimacy is based on the rule of law as enforced by a separate authority. The reason for this is that the vigilantes’ version of history clashes with how the hero is usually understood in political philosophy. Classically, “heroic law” is only valid in pre-juridical periods, before a state succeeds in imposing itself, “where there are no human laws,” as Vico described it in The New Science.  Hegel took up “the right of heroes'' as well, arguing that pre-state violence is also the “foundational violence” of the constitutional state, taking the place of “the arbitrariness of force.” The hero puts an end to what social contract philosophy terms “the state of nature.” Then, once the state appears on the scene, vigilantes must leave or risk becoming anachronisms. However, the present relevance of vigilantism requires us to conceive of a diff erent process: in this case, heroic law seems to have emerged in opposition to the state judicial system during its formation and was ultimately institutionalized in its place. It changes the traditional framing of the issue if heroic law arrives only after the fact, after the formation of the state (even if the state is still in an early stage of development), and goes on to contest it and even overthrow it in favor of a diff erent judicial and juridical framework. Vigilantism is usually associated with the state of nature, and since it is the prime example of taking justice into your own hands, it represents the natural order reasserting itself against the state. Possibly, though, in this return to nature we are witnessing the establishment of an unprecedented and genuinely racial state, one whose laws are based on the rationalization of race. This is why vigilantes have never left the political scene in US history. They are neither an incarnation of an endless cycle of vendettas and personal vengeance repeating in the absence of public justice, nor symptoms of a revolutionary situation set to overturn the old order—vigilantes are the racial state’s archetypal figures of the Great Man. The vigilantes actualize the morbid spirit of race—a spirit of “naive and ingenuous” men. By making an institution of the historic character of a society of colonizers, the early vigilantes made white supremacy a concrete reality. In The Philosophy of History, Hegel reminds us that great men often meet bad ends, being killed, judged, or deported. However, in the modern and contemporary history of the United States, those first vigilantes were replaced by a new generation, and vigilantism came to be celebrated and accepted. Vigilantism is a model of good citizenship—a good American citizen is a vigilant citizen. Vigilantes are the proud defenders of the American nation, they are heroes always ready for defense, and their culture contributes to the narrative of the white race while also making it a reality. 

Barde’s text is an early distillation of the basic elements that would make up the philosophy of vigilantes over the following decades and that continue to influence portrayals of vigilantes in popular culture today. In contrast with the allegorical representation of Justice, shown as a woman with her eyes blindfolded to represent the principle of impartiality, vigilantes hide their faces. They are portrayed as exceptional and personified, real and desirable, biased and pitiless. The allegorical figure of Justice stands over and between the parties in order to try the facts and judge blindly, without taking into account the parties’ character. The vigilante, a masked enforcer, is immersed in the very society he means to defend by exposing criminals—he is the incarnation of a desire to punish, enacting a form of racial justice that seeks to execute those perceived as the natural enemies of private property, the family, and white society. While traditional justice is conducted publicly and openly, vigilantes act at night, whether in the name of God, in defense of honest people, or for the honor of women of their race. The vigilante’s mask conceals his origins and his true identity, that of simply an average citizen who portrays himself as a worker, a peaceful farmer, a good Christian and father. It also emphasizes his gaze, as his eyes are the only features that reveal the rationality that guides his actions. The night makes his vision seem omnipotent, since despite the darkness, he is able to see through to the true nature of those who must be banished or punished. Unlike blind Justice, he is a character equipped with super-vision, and his actions are romanticized while the deadly violence is erased. He is a hero who can unmask and track down bandits, thieves, murderers, rapists, and criminals, a perfect allegory for a state that persecutes those who are not innocent, meaning not white.