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Police Before “The Police”

Sal Nicolazzo—

In his Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms—the precursor to The Wealth of Nations—Adam Smith defines “the objects of police” as “the cheapness of commodities, public security and cleanliness.” This broad mandate for “police”—most of which has little or nothing to do with crime prevention—may sound idiosyncratic to contemporary ears, but Smith here reflects some of the most conventional meanings of “police” in the eighteenth century: a diffuse, wide-ranging sense of order, organization, and governance (the latter especially reflected in the common etymologies shared by “police” and “policy”), encompassing not only “security,” but also attention to social order, welfare, and subsistence. 

Police circulated in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies as an idea and a set of practices even as the word “police” remained a frequent object of both suspicion and confusion. For instance, the famed philanthropist Jonas Hanway comments in 1775 that “the word police is not universally intelligible, so little have we attended to it.” More than twenty years later, Patrick Colquhoun, author of the magisterial Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, similarly comments that “Police as recently exemplified, may be said to be a new science, not yet perfectly understood.” Meanwhile, the early establishment of the police as an institution in France contributed to the popular belief that “police”—especially when centralized—was fundamentally absolutist in nature, and incompatible with English constitutional understandings of personal liberty. 

However, continental theories of police were not as foreign to English administrative and legal practice as many eighteenth-century English observers held. Montesquieu’s characterization of police in The Spirit of the Laws, for instance, aptly describes not only the operation of the police forces that existed in eighteenth-century France, but also the more general logic animating flexible legal measures dedicated to preventing threat and securing welfare:

In the exercise of the police, it is rather the magistrate who punishes, than the law; in the sentence past on crimes, it is rather the law which punishes, than the magistrate. The business of the police consists in affairs which arise every instant, and are commonly of a trifling nature: there is then but little need of formalities. The actions of the police are quick; they are exercised over things which return every day; it would be therefore improper for it to inflict severe punishments. It is continually employed about minute particulars; great examples are therefore not designed for its purpose. It is governed rather by regulations than laws.

Even as Jonas Hanway argued that “police” was definitionally unclear, he nonetheless could also name the poor laws, without hesitation, as “the foundation of our police,” and vagrancy law served as a crucial blueprint for the kind of discretionary power and anticipatory orientation toward threat that would later be institutionalized as the purview of the Metropolitan Police. For example, in the 1785 House of Commons debate on Pitt’s London and Westminster Police Bill, the Solicitor General attempted to parry accusations that the proposed system would constitute “an arbitrary system of police” that would violate personal liberty. While a petition from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London opposed the bill on the grounds that it would create “new officers, invested with extraordinary and dangerous powers,” the Solicitor General insisted that “he had no intention of introducing any new punishment, or constituting any new crime, except by extending and enforcing in some degree the vagrant laws.”

Meanwhile, this notion of “police” had firmly taken hold in the American colonies as well, and it was central to the evolution of U.S. law in the decades following independence. As William Novak argues, this broad understanding of “police” as the state’s responsibility for the people’s welfare is the foundation for the emergence of “the police power” in nineteenth-century jurisprudence as the broad constitutional purview of the regulatory state. Local institutions and practices of order-maintenance under the aegis of “police,” Novak argues, in fact formed the backbone for a robust regulatory state. At the same time, as Bryan Wagner argues, vagrancy remained conceptually crucial for the continued elaboration of policing as the mitigation of threat—especially when that threat is racialized—noting that his nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources trace their conceptual models of police back to colonial governance. 

Police relies powerfully on a definitional undefinability—if it is unsuited to “great examples” or “formalities,” in Montesquieu’s words, that is because it is a domain that is left open to what cannot be anticipated in advance, and thus cannot be limited by too clear a vision of what its future domain of minor, everyday action might be. This undefinability offers a conundrum when it comes to textual interpretation, but vagrancy, I argue, offers a generatively loquacious archive of police. In the archive of vagrancy, we see the making of police through the “minute particulars” that Montesquieu asserts are its essence. As it was a paradigmatic target of police, vagrancy also remained crucially resistant to definitional certainty, and yet it had a material, practical life as well—many of its “minute particulars” were elaborated in administrative, theoretical, and literary texts, thus generating an archive of police before “the police” had taken institutional form. Vagrancy was a capacious category, but it was also defined and redefined through practice, legal and textual, and on the bodies of countless individuals who were whipped, confined in bridewells, expelled from a parish or town, compelled into apprenticeship, made vulnerable to re-enslavement, summarily fined for suspected theft, and more—one after another, by thousands of different individuals and institutions, each for a slightly different reason, yet all aggregated under the same broad category naming future threat to property, security, prosperity, and welfare.

From Vagrant Figures by Sal Nicolazzo. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Sal Nicolazzo is assistant professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego.

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