With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Dissent Is American

As a historian I cannot help but look at the events of the past five years as history unfolding. And I cannot look at the process of history without reflecting on how everything connects with the past. Each generation, each individual, is a link in the chain that ties us irrevocably to our history.

There are many people in this country, and in this administration, who claim that those who have opposed the invasion of Iraq are unpatriotic (at best) and treasonous (at worst). Indeed, the USA PATRIOT Act, passed unanimously by Congress, stipulates penalties for criticism of the government. Patriotism, to the framers of the act, means supporting the decisions of our political leaders and that dissent is un-American. Protestors at presidential appearances have been routinely herded into “free speech zones” where their signs and slogans are only seen by the encircling cordon of police. This in spite of the fact that there is no mention in the Constitution that free speech is to be confined to a zone. Pretty soon cars will be sporting retro-sixties “America: Love it or Leave it!” bumper stickers. This attitude, however, only calls attention to one of this nation’s most conspicuous failings—pervasive historical illiteracy. We need to recognize that dissent is American, that protest is patriotic. It is, in fact, one of the fundamental traits that define us. Cold War scholar Vladislav Zubok has pointed out that it was only when the Soviet Union saw American protestors take to the streets demonstrating against the Vietnam War in the sixties that they finally overcame their distrust of the United States and began to believe in democracy.

The English colonies in North America were founded on dissent, and almost immediately after religious dissenters arrived in Massachusetts Bay voices of protest rose up against the puritan authorities. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished for their views during the first decade of settlement. Let us also remember the patriots who fought the American Revolution to establish independence from a government that was not responsive to the needs of its colonial subjects, and reflect on the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. None of this was accomplished without a great deal of debate, dissent, protest, argument, resistance. None of it was easy. But somehow we did evolve into a country “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Or did we?

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison once was rescued from being lynched by a pro-slavery mob when the mayor of Boston had him thrown into jail. While incarcerated Garrison wrote on the wall of his cell “Wm. Lloyd Garrison was put into this cell Wednesday afternoon, October 21, 1835, to save him from the violence of a ‘respectable and influential’ mob, who sought to destroy him for preaching the abominable and dangerous doctrine that ‘all men are created equal….’” Neither persecution nor time diminished Garrison’s radicalism. Nineteen years later, on July 4, 1854 he publicly burned a copy of the United States Constitution, proclaiming that because it acquiesced in the institution of slavery it was “an agreement with death and a covenant with hell.”

In 1846, when Mexican forces had fired on American troops that had been sent across the disputed Mexican border to provoke such an incident, President James Knox Polk asked Congress for a Declaration of War. “American blood,” he proclaimed, “had been shed on American soil.” A freshman congressman from Illinois sarcastically criticized the President’s policy by introducing the so-called “Spot Resolution” which would have required Polk to travel to Mexico to point out the exact spot on “American soil” where this had taken place. The resolution was defeated and it is probable that Polk seriously questioned Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s patriotism.

Henry David Thoreau, also protesting the war with Mexico, refused to pay a poll tax because he could not in good conscience support an imperialistic government that sought to expand the institution of slavery into new territory. He was arrested and later, after his release, he wrote his influential essay “On Resistance to Civil Government.” When there is an unjust law, Thoreau wrote, like laws legalizing the institution of slavery, then it is the duty of every just man to break that law. A true patriot would not allow injustice to stand. Thoreau’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, visited him the night he spent in jail. “Henry,” he asked, somewhat scandalized by Thoreau’s outrageous behavior, “what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau purportedly replied, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”

Carl Schurz, former Civil War officer and Secretary of the Interior denounced American Imperialism in 1899 after we had taken over the Philippines and Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish-American War. “Certainly,” he said addressing an audience at the University of Chicago, “every patriotic citizen will always be ready, if need be, to fight and to die under his flag wherever it may wave in justice and for the best interests of the country. But…woe to the republic if it should ever be without citizens patriotic and brave enough to defy the demagogues’ cry and to haul down the flag wherever it may be raised not in justice and not for the best interests of the country. Such a republic would not last long….”

Theodore Roosevelt, not a man ever to shun a military solution to a crisis, was so critical of Woodrow Wilson’s policies during the Great War that he attacked those who claimed it was wrong to oppose a president in time of war. “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president,” Roosevelt contended, “or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

While an establishment figure like Theodore Roosevelt voiced such sentiments, writer Randolph Bourne was a relentless critic of American policy. During times of war, Bourne wrote, a “herd-feeling” inevitably arises. There is always a demand for

100 percent Americanism, among 100 percent of the population. The State is a jealous God and will brook no rivals. Its sovereignty must pervade every one, and all feeling must be run into the stereotyped forms of romantic patriotic militarism which is the traditional expression of the State herd-feeling. Thus arises conflict within the State. War becomes almost a sport between the hunters and the hunted. The pursuit of enemies within outweighs in psychic attractiveness the assault on the enemy without. The whole terrific force of the State is brought to bear against the heretics. The nation boils with a slow insistent fever. A white terrorism is carried on by the Government against pacifists, socialists, enemy aliens, and a milder unofficial persecution against all persons or movements that can be imagined as connected with the enemy. War, which should be the health of the State, unifies all the bourgeois elements and the common people, and outlaws the rest.

Many Americans remember the protests of the 1960s against American policies on racism, feminism and war expressed by such prominent dissenters as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Tom Hayden, Mario Savio, Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Gloria Steinem, and countless others. All of these individuals believed they were acting in the American tradition for the American people. They were fully dedicated to the ideals of American democracy and believed that they must resist all those who strove to limit democracy. As a consequence they helped shape the nature of our society. Anti-War activist Carl Oglesby hit the nail squarely on the head when he said in 1968 that “we’ve come to the point where ‘Democracy’ is considered a radical idea.”

Today the American people are torn by an ill-advised war and occupation led by leaders who, in seeking to stifle the sort of healthy debate a democracy requires, do not seem to understand, indeed, who seem to shun, our own history. Many of those who opposed the war not only wanted to give peace a chance, but also take back the American government which appears to have been hijacked by ultra-rightist hawks. Neoconservatives have taken control of a United States which has historically prided itself in its values of peace, democracy, equality, freedom, and anti-imperialism, and, in the process, they are systematically eroding (if not actually demolishing) those ideals. There is nothing “conservative” about them. And the results of the 2006 mid-term elections seem, at first glance, to indicate that many American conservatives have repudiated the neoconservative ideology.

A democracy depends on an educated, well-informed citizenry. It also depends on educated well-informed leaders who are deeply connected and committed to cherishing, conserving, and nurturing the ideals which we believe set us apart. But those currently in power are not caretakers of the “American Dream.” Will they be judged by history, like the despoilers of the pharaohs’ tombs, as looters who have drained all meaning from the treasures of American democracy? Has “democracy” indeed become a radical notion?

If we get to the point where not only the international community, but even American citizens view the United States as the major threat to world peace than what hope is there for the world? What hope is there for countries that don’t even pretend to love freedom ever to evolve into the kind of society that we espouse? If we don’t take back our country the world itself (not just the United States) is doomed. We will look at the rest of the world from our “city upon a hill” and all we’ll see is our own haunted reflection staring back at us.

An earlier version of this article appeared in USA Today Magazine under the title,"Dissent Is as American as Apple Pie."