Vigilance committee

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A vigilance committee is a group of private citizens who take it upon themselves to administer law and order or exercise power in places where they consider the governmental structures or actions inadequate.[1] Some vigilance committees engaged in forms of vigilantism such as aiding fugitive slaves in violation of the laws on the books at the time. Beginning in the 1830s committees of abolitionists worked to free enslaved people and transport them to freedom.[2]

Abolition and fugitive slaves[edit]

Vigilance committee in Boston in 1851, after Thomas Sims's arrest

Abolitionists met at Faneuil Hall in the 1830s and formed the Committee of Vigilance and Safety to "take all measures that they shall deem expedient to protect the colored people of this city in the enjoyment of their lives and liberties."[3] The abolitionist New York Committee of Vigilance and Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia were also established in the 1830s and assisted fugitive slaves and the Underground Railroad.

Between 1850 and 1860, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when professional bounty hunters swarmed through Northern states searching for missing enslaved people, vigilance committees were set up in several places in the North to assist the escaped enslaved people. For example, Gerrit Smith called the Fugitive Slave Convention of 1850 "on behalf of the New York State Vigilance Committee."[4] These vigilance committees helped to run the underground railroad.[5] One group was the Vigilance Committee of Albany in Albany, New York.

In the American West[edit]

In the Western United States, before and after the Civil War, the stated purpose of various vigilance committees was to maintain law and order and administer summary justice where governmental law enforcement was inadequate. In reality, those high in the social hierarchy often used them to attack maligned groups, including recent immigrants and racial or ethnic groups. In newly settled areas, vigilance committees promised security and mediated land disputes. In ranching areas, they ruled on ranch boundaries, registered brands, and protected cattle and horses. In the mining districts, they defended claims, settled claim disputes, and attempted to protect miners and other residents. In California, some residents formed vigilance committees to take control of officials whom they considered to be corrupt. This occurred during the trial of Charles Cora (Husband of Belle Cora) and James Casey in San Francisco in 1856.[6]

United States vigilance committees[edit]

English vigilance committees[edit]

  • Whitechapel Vigilance Committee; 1888, London, United Kingdom – founded to capture Jack the Ripper.
  • An Oxford Vigilance Committee was formed during World War I in Oxford, UK, a town whose own men of military age had gone to war and where soldiers were stationed. The Committee ran volunteer patrols of women to discourage, observe, and report on what was perceived as "immoral" behaviour of the town's women. In November 1916, the Committee issued a report "on the Moral Condition of Oxford," warning that the town's streets were "crowded with young girls, whose dress [and] behaviour show that they are deliberately laying themselves out to attract men." Their reports included detailed accounts of casual or adulterous sexual liaisons in the town. Births out of wedlock in Oxford decreased from 1914 to 1925, but the Committee attributed the reduction to "forced marriages" and abortions.[9]

Other vigilance committees[edit]

  • Biddulph Peace Society; 1876, Biddulph, Ontario, Canada
  • Vigilance Committee of the Gaelic Athletic Association – A committee tasked with identifying association members who either played or attended "Foreign Games" (predominantly soccer and rugby union) in contravention of the association's rules. The rule was in place until 1971, up to which point many GAA players who also wished to play other sports had to resort to elaborate tactics, including the wearing of disguises, the use of false names, and travelling covertly (e.g. in the boot of a car) to attend matches.

In film and media[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "VIGILANCE COMMITTEE definition and meaning". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved March 8, 2024.
  2. ^ "Arthursville abolitionists ran Underground Railroad through Pittsburgh". Archived from the original on 8 March 2012. Retrieved 9 January 2014.
  3. ^ "Faneuil Hall, the Underground Railroad, and the Boston Vigilance Committees (U.S. National Park Service)".
  4. ^ "Gerrit Smith's Convention". Lehigh Register. Allentown, Pennsylvania. August 29, 1850. p. 2. Archived from the original on 2022-06-20. Retrieved 2022-06-20 – via Library of Congress Chronicling America.
  5. ^ Foner, Eric (2015). Gateway to freedom : the hidden history of the underground railroad (First ed.). New York. ISBN 978-0-393-24407-6. OCLC 900158156.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. ^ Woolley, Lell Hawley (1913), "Vigilance Committee of 1856", CALIFORNIA : 1849-1913 or The Rambling Sketches and Experiences of Sixty-four Years' Residence in that State, Oakland, California, archived from the original on March 6, 2017, retrieved February 26, 2017{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  7. ^ Dresser, Amos (1836). The narrative of Amos Dresser : with Stone's letters from Natchez, an obituary notice of the writer, and two letters from Tallahassee, relating to the treatment of slaves. Link is to a reprinting in the collection Slave Rebels, Abolitionists, and Southern Courts. New-York: American Anti-Slavery Society. Archived from the original on 2022-06-20. Retrieved 2021-07-30.
  8. ^ Krieger, Dan (July 13, 2013). "Lynch mobs part of area's history". The Tribune. Archived from the original on September 2, 2021. Retrieved May 29, 2020.
  9. ^ Malcolm Graham (30 November 2014). Oxford in the Great War. Pen and Sword. pp. 122–124. ISBN 978-1-78346-297-1.

General references[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Click here for a WorldCat search for American Vigilance committee pamphlets published before 1900 available online, many but not all free. Click here for a search that includes pamphlets not available online.