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.

By Ralph Young


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.

When the economy crashes, economic dissent comes to the fore. People take to the streets protesting economic injustice and inequality. And as distress and suffering expands from the lower classes to the middle class, so too does protest.  One thinks of the Richmond bread riots and the food riots in Georgia and North Carolina during the Civil War, the violent labor disputes of the nineteenth century, Coxey’s Army marching on Washington in 1894, the Bonus Army’s encampment at the Capitol in 1932, the militant labor activism during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s liberal presidency, the tax revolts of the 1970s, the occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011.

Cultural and social dissent is a rejection of the predominant attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of mainstream society. Utopian groups in the nineteenth century, such as the Oneida Community, defied the conventional values of their time and established a community where all men and women would be treated equally. “Beatniks” and “hippies” in the mid-twentieth century rejected the conventional  middle-class morality of their time, urged their fellow Americans to “do their own thing,” and influenced millions to reevaluate their views of race, gender, and sexuality.

But this is only part of the story. There is significant and frequent overlapping of religious, political, and cultural/social dissent. For example, many dissenters, such as temperance  activists in the early twentieth century and the Christian  right today, can be labeled as political, religious, and social dissenters. The 1960s counterculture’s challenge to American values was also intricately tied up in the political protests against the Vietnam War and the struggle for racial equality. Furthermore, there are economic and psychological factors that often play a role in all dissent movements.

There are some decades that are relatively quiet dissentwise and others when significant problems intensify so rapidly that tens of millions of people get involved in the discussion to find solutions. During these periods we see a sharp rise in dissent, and that dissent can take many forms as different groups propose different solutions. Some dissenters are reformers who wish to fix the problems through a process of reform. Some are reactionaries who seek to address the problems by returning to the policies that existed before the problems arose. Some are radicals or even revolutionaries who propose to solve the problems by smashing the system and starting over. The debate over slavery and the events leading to the Civil War, the Progressive era, and the 1960s were periods when dissent, in all its diverse forms, exploded.

There are several levels or stages of dissent. At the beginning individuals might simply disagree with a policy or a law or an issue. Perhaps they are willing to tolerate a wrong or an injustice for a while, but when it becomes less tolerable, the next step is to become active. Individuals might write a letter or an article, give a speech, lead a protest march, or conduct a demonstration. Dissent and protest carried to a higher level entails resistance, civil disobedience, breaking laws, or even participating in a riot or insurrection.  At the last extreme, as in the American Revolution or in John Brown’s raid, outright conflict breaks out. At this point dissent has metamorphosed into something much larger and is either crushed or brings about a radical transformation.

The methods and forms of dissent are wide-ranging. Many protestors express dissent through petitions and protest marches. Some use music or art or theater or comedy to articulate their message. Some engage in acts of civil disobedience, willfully breaking laws to put pressure on the system to force those who have political and economic power to acknowledge and address the issues. They are often marginalized individuals and groups that lack power but have a legitimate grievance against the way things are. Most times these types of dissenters have criticized the United States from the left. They have sought more equality, more moral rectitude, more freedom. They have demanded that America live up to what it had committed itself to on paper at the Constitutional Convention.  Many of these dissenters have viewed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as binding contracts between the people and the government and protested when they believed the government was not fulfilling its part of the contract.

Dissenters often have a keen sense of history and build on the experiences and methods of earlier dissenters. It is not unusual to see dissenters quote those who have gone before as well as draw on the successful tactics and strategies of earlier dissent movements.  The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s employed many of the tactics of the labor movement of the 1930s, while antiwar activists adopted the tactics of the civil rights movement in their protests against the war in Vietnam and later the Iraq War. Dissenters with a vision for the future look to the past for inspiration.

Individuals and groups that protest against the protestors are also expressing dissent. Reactionaries have frequently resisted change and fought to maintain the special privileges and supremacy of their class or race or gender. Some have wanted to maintain the status quo and prevent change, while others have sought to turn back the clock to a simpler, more “trouble-free” time. When abolitionists denounced slavery, antiabolitionists argued just as passionately to preserve the institution. When women demanded equality, millions of Americans reacted with hostility and formed antisuffrage associations.

Although most dissent springs from those who lack political power, there are instances when a dissent movement is part of the power structure — the  temperance  movement  and  the  Know-Nothings  of the nineteenth century; the antitax  ideologues of the twentieth  and twenty-first  centuries.  There are also notable individuals who fought entrenched interests from a position of political power — Representative Clement L. Vallandigham and Senators Theodore  Frelinghuysen, Robert M. La Follette, and Margaret Chase Smith, for example, all spoke out against what they believed was a usurpation  or misuse of power on the part of the federal government. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison dissented forcefully against the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Over the years dissenters achieved varying levels of success. Some got in trouble.  Some were arrested.  Many were beaten.  Some were killed. But they kept hammering away at the powers that be until those powers began to listen. As a result, public opinion was swayed, laws were enacted or repealed; slavery was abolished, unions were organized, women got the right to vote, the Jim Crow laws were invalidated. In fact many dissenters who were maligned, vilified, and even demonized as unpatriotic and anti-American by their contemporaries are now considered heroes. Some dissenters never achieved the change they were seeking, but though their goals were dismissed, they raised new questions and had an influence on the political discussion.

For the most part dissenters have embraced lofty ideals and have a moral purpose. And most of them believe they are acting to ensure that the United States lives up to its promise to secure Americans’ natural rights. But there are dissenters  whose goals are not well intended  or virtuous and who use questionable  means to attain their goals — they are not in it to grant equal rights to a downtrodden minority  but to restrict rights or to promote  their own narrow interests at the expense of others.

During times of heightened  passions — the 1850s, the Progressive period,  the  Great  Depression,  the  Vietnam  War — dissenters  have protested  from liberal, conservative, and radical standpoints.  In the debates about the war in Vietnam, for example, there were those who believed that America was acting as an imperial power and that  the capitalist system should be toppled. There were those who opposed the war primarily on ethical grounds because the United States was acting immorally. And there were those who opposed the war simply because the United States was losing it and thus argued that if the government was not going to go all out in its effort to destroy communism in Vietnam, then there was no point in being there. For completely different reasons radicals, doves, and hawks, in the end, all came to protest the war in Vietnam.

Obviously not all dissenters are created equal. Nor are the consequences of their efforts necessarily positive or socially useful. There is a difference between dissenters whose goal is to create a more just society by expanding the rights of the disempowered,  and those who are self-aggrandizing troublemakers interested only in disrupting society or denying rights to others. Historian Eric Foner, in The Story of American Freedom, points out that “freedom” is a “contested concept.” So too is “dissent.”


Reprinted with permission from Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young and published by NYU Press, 2015.