Dissent: A History of American Revolutions

Over the course of American history there has not been just one American Revolution, but rather many American revolutions. From women's suffrage to the civil rights movement America has been forever changed.


| September 2016



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Dissent is what happens when a group, usually minorities, realize that they are being treated unfairly and band together to fight injustice. America has been shaped by this tradition.

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Dissent: The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015) by Ralph Young explores the various revolutions over the course of American History. From religious freedom in the colonies to the 'Hands Up! Don't Shoot" campaigns that followed police brutality against unarmed African American teens, Young discovers that all of these events have a common thread — dissent. This excerpt comes from the Introduction "Dissent in America."

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Dissent is one of this nation’s defining characteristics.  Every decade since the earliest days of colonization Americans have protested for just about every cause imaginable, and every time they did, defenders of the status quo denounced  the protestors  as unpatriotic and in more recent times as un-American.  But protest is one of the consummate expressions of “Americanness.” It is patriotic in the deepest sense.

Even before the United States was conceived, there was dissent. During the seventeenth century religious dissent played a significant role in the planting and development of the English colonies. In the eighteenth century political dissent led to the open rebellion that resulted in the birth of the United States. In the nineteenth century dissenters demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, fair treatment of Native Americans, and the banning of immigrants.  And they pro- tested against the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War (on both sides), and the Spanish-American War. In the twentieth century dissenters organized to prohibit alcohol but also demanded  workers’ rights, women’s rights, African American rights, Chicano rights, reproductive rights, and gay rights. They also protested against every war (declared and undeclared) fought by the United States. In the twenty-first century  dissenters  protest  against abortion,  NAFTA, globalization, the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, the National Security Agency, bank bailouts, and out-of-control deficits. On the right the Tea Party movement has arisen, perceiving itself as the true heirs of the patriots of the American Revolution standing firm opposing despotic government; and on the left the Occupy Wall Street movement denounces the control of government  by corporate  interests and the finance industry. Clearly, dissent has many faces.

On the broadest level, dissent is going against the grain. It is speaking out and protesting against what is (whatever that is is), most often by a minority group unhappy with majority opinion and rule. However, history has shown that dissent is far more complex, that it comes from all political perspectives and in a variety of categories: mostly religious, political, economic, and cultural/social.  Religious dissent is the insistence that everyone be allowed to worship according to the dictates of conscience and not according to the rules of an established religion. Although most religious dissent occurred during the colonial period, when individuals insisted on religious liberty, and during the early national period, when the new nation endorsed the principle of separation of church and state, the demand for religious autonomy persists to this day. Religious dissent was expressed when new sects such as the Shakers, the Mormons, or the Branch Davidians were formed, and it is still being expressed on a different level in the debates over school prayer, intelligent design versus evolution, abortion rights, capital punishment, and the right to die.

Political dissent is a critique of governance.  As the United  States grew from a fledgling nation  into a world power, political dissenters expressed dissatisfaction about the way those who were in charge governed, and usually (but not always) they provided a plan or recipe for redressing  what they perceived as wrong. Most often they used the nation’s founding documents as the authority to legitimize their protest. Antebellum abolitionists demanded the end of slavery, declaring that holding persons in bondage was contrary to the principle that “all men are created equal.” In recent years hundreds of thousands of Americans protested the decision to launch a preemptive invasion of Iraq, proclaiming that doing so transforms  the United States into an aggressive imperial power and that by embracing imperialism the United States is renouncing its democratic birthright.