Vagrant Figures: Imagining Police Power in the Early Atlantic World

Sal (Sarah) Nicolazzo
UC San Diego

This project examines the prehistory of police power by tracing the rhetorical construction of vagrancy as its paradigmatic target. In the Atlantic world of the long eighteenth century, the catchall category of vagrancy marked a wide range of social and economic deviance, from homelessness to prostitution, public disorder, or the perceived refusal to work. “Vagrant Figures” argues that vagrancy, as it traversed Anglo-American law and literature, profoundly shaped the eighteenth-century emergence of police power as it achieved both legal codification and increasing cultural sanction. Across global circuits of empire and commerce, vagrancy figured protean capacity for future threat that cannot be fully imagined in advance, and thus called for equally flexible, discretionary police power to contain it. Through the mobile cultural category of the “suspicious person,” I uncover interpretive logics whose legacies shape law and policing today.