On this day in 1849 a riot broke out at the Astor Opera House in New York City. The incident was initially sparked by a long-running dispute between two leading actors of the day – William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest – over who was a better Shakespearean performer. However, tensions heightened as the two actors became proxies for the opposing classes in New York – the British Macready represented the upper class and the American Forrest the lower classes.
The brewing animosity came to a head on the night of May 10th when Macready’s performance of Macbeth, which had been cancelled due to protests at the first attempt, was rescheduled for. A militia company, expecting there to be violence at the rescheduled play, was stationed nearby. As predicted, violence broke out which prompted the troops to fire into the crowd, with around 25 being killed and hundreds injured.
The riot is mainly remembered today for the way it pitted immigrants against nativists, a divide which was arguably a key factor in the lead up to Civil War. Whilst slavery was indeed a key division in American society that enflared the sectional tensions that led to war, the importance of nativism should not be overlooked. Prior to the rise of the Republican party in 1856, the other main party that opposed the conservative Southern Democrats were the Know-Nothings, a primarily anti-Catholic party. The virulence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the antebellum years almost rivaled that of slavery. This is not to say that the Civil War was fought over immigration, far from it, but nativism and events like the Astor riot play an important part in the narrative of the road to disunion.