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Dissent: The History of an American Idea

Ralph Young
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 640
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Dissent: The History of an American Ideaexamines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis is on the way Americans, celebrated figures and anonymous ordinary citizens, responded to what they saw as the injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America.

    At its founding the United States committed itself to lofty ideals. When the promise of those ideals was not fully realized by all Americans, many protested and demanded that the United States live up to its promise. Women fought for equal rights; abolitionists sought to destroy slavery; workers organized unions; Indians resisted white encroachment on their land; radicals angrily demanded an end to the dominance of the moneyed interests; civil rights protestors marched to end segregation; antiwar activists took to the streets to protest the nation's wars; and reactionaries, conservatives, and traditionalists in each decade struggled to turn back the clock to a simpler, more secure time. Some dissenters are celebrated heroes of American history, while others are ordinary people: frequently overlooked, but whose stories show that change is often accomplished through grassroots activism.

    The United States is a nation founded on the promise and power of dissent. In this stunningly comprehensive volume, Ralph Young shows us its history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-0119-0
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Dissent and America
    (pp. 1-16)

    There are many ways to tell the story of the United States, many possible perspectives. This is the story of the U.S. told through a somewhat unlikely assortment of voices. It is the story of religious dissenters seeking refuge in a New World; Native Americans defying the onslaught of European settlement; political revolutionaries launching a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”; enslaved Africans resisting their oppressors while creating a new culture; immigrants fighting to assimilate into American society; women persevering to gain equality; and minorities demanding their share of the American Dream. It is also the...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The “Free Aire of a New World”
    (pp. 17-33)

    After more than a century of conflict with and exploitation of the First Nations of the New World, Spain had successfully established scores of missions and permanent colonies from Florida to California, while French explorers and missionaries were setting up outposts along the St. Lawrence River. Into this volatile mix of cultures thousands of English colonists began in the early seventeenth century to establish permanent settlements along the east coast of North America. Most were seeking economic opportunity, but many, especially those arriving in New England, were religious dissenters who believed the only possibility for them to worship according to...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Dissent in an Age of Reason
    (pp. 34-56)

    As the English colonies grew from fledgling outposts of empire into burgeoning provinces, a number of significant forces came together that had the combined effect of intensifying dissent. During the first decades of the eighteenth century the Enlightenment arrived in the New World; a religious revival swept through the colonies; slavery became entrenched as the preferred system for filling the need for cheap labor, especially in the South; and the colonies participated in a series of wars between England and France. All the while dissenting opinion became more and more visible. Enlightenment ideas raised the consciousness of influential educated people...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Revolution
    (pp. 57-78)

    For a century the English and French had fought for control in North America, but at the end of the French and Indian War Great Britain emerged triumphant. France ceded all of its mainland North American possessions to the English, and England was at the height of its glory. However, the long-term impact of the war had consequences that were as momentous as they were unanticipated. Every step London took to pay for the war and assert its authority over the colonies deepened the colonists’ resentment toward king and Parliament. Resentment led to organized protest, and Parliament’s attempts to curb...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Discord in the New Republic
    (pp. 79-107)

    The Articles of Confederation were the perfect expression of American republicanism—the view that government should be small and representative and close to the people in order to guard against corruption and despotism. Fearful that too much authority in the hands of an executive would lead to tyranny, the creators of the Confederation made no provision at all for a chief executive. Power was not centralized; it was dispersed locally. A representative congress was the only branch of government in this “firm league of friendship” known as the United States of America.¹ “Each State,” in this league, was to retain...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Slavery and Its Discontents
    (pp. 108-132)

    During the antebellum period cotton and slavery were central to the nation’s economic life, but the cotton kingdom was not a uniform, homogeneous society. Most southern whites did not own slaves. Most who did owned fewer than ten. The wealthy planters who owned the large plantations and the large gangs of slaves of fifty or more represented less than 1 percent of the population. They were of course on the top rung of southern society and enjoyed controlling the economic and political life of the South and, to a lesser extent, the social and cultural life. Below the planter elite...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Reformers and Dissidents
    (pp. 133-158)

    As the industrial revolution was ushering an era of great change, and while Andrew Jackson was immersed in the political dramas of nullification, Indian removal, and the war on the Second National Bank of the United States, a tidal wave of reform began to sweep over the country. Partially stimulated by the Second Great Awakening and the enthusiasm generated by the surge of American nationalism, a new spirit was abroad in the land. The optimistic belief that the American experiment in democracy elevated the common man to heights hitherto unattainable by ordinary people convinced many Americans that human suffering could...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Expansion and Conflict
    (pp. 159-172)

    In the thirty-year period after the Missouri Compromise Americans were on the move. Thousands crossed the Mississippi River and settled in farmland in a band running from Minnesota to Louisiana. Missionaries, mountain men, prospectors, and small farmers moved even farther westward, following the path of Lewis and Clark into Oregon or pressing into sparsely settled northern Mexico. Some hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity, some craved financial gain, and some merely sought the relative freedom of the frontier; at bottom, though, all of them desired to improve their lives. Advances in technology, machinery, weaponry, canals, steamships, railroads, and the...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Dissent Imperils the Union
    (pp. 173-190)

    The U.S. victory over Mexico was a two-edged sword. It boosted nationalism and Americans’ confidence in the future of the nation, while at the same time the outcome of the war stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of uncontrolled sectional conflict. The acquisition of a vast territory containing a wealth of raw materials and natural resources portended an era of unprecedented prosperity and growth, but would slavery be permitted or forbidden in that territory? The perpetual impasse on the subject of slavery continued to threaten the core democratic ideals on which the republic was founded. By the 1850s antislavery dissenters...

  13. CHAPTER 9 A Nation Divides
    (pp. 191-212)

    After decades of heated antislavery debate and abolitionist activism, southerners, even those who did not own slaves, were convinced that emancipation would destroy the southern way of life. The threat was so real, so frightening, that they believed they were left with no alternative other than to take up arms against the United States. Like the revolutionary generation of 1776 that declared independence from Britain, southerners in 1861 had come to view the government in Washington as tyrannical. It was time to separate.

    But not all southerners wished to secede from the Union or to go to war against the...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Liberation and Suppression
    (pp. 213-233)

    At the end of the Civil War the South was in ruins, its economy shattered; dislocation reigned, hundreds of northern carpetbaggers — humanitarians as well as opportunists — flocked into the region, and everywhere there was the fear of the unknown. The only certainty was that slavery was dead, but what this meant for the freedmen and for southern whites was not at all clear.

    After the war many African Americans hired themselves out to whites for a year at a time as contractors working for fixed wages. Most, however, were sharecroppers who lived and worked on a piece of land, receiving...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Protest and Conflict in the West
    (pp. 234-255)

    As the United States was busy reconstructing itself, tens of thousands of Americans pulled up their roots and headed into the trans-Missouri west. Most of them sought to improve themselves economically. Some sought new challenges and hoped-for riches, while others sought more freedom or simply desired to escape problems back home. There were recent immigrants from Europe and Asia, Civil War veterans, freedmen, families, pioneers, speculators, and opportunists.

    The region they entered, though vast, was not unpopulated. Millions of people from a variety of cultures already inhabited the West: Spanish-speaking residents in the Mexican Cession; white prospectors and mountain men;...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Workers of the World Unite!
    (pp. 256-274)

    The Gilded Age was an era of unprecedented industrial and urban growth, a time of seemingly unlimited expansion of American business. The timber, iron ore, precious metals, and agricultural products from the West were a boon to the economy. Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and other entrepreneurs created huge monopolies and trusts and seemed to wield more power than the federal government itself. Inventions such as the electric light, the telephone, and the electrification of urban mass-transit systems, as well as innovations such as mass marketing, professional spectator sports, and department stores, transformed daily life....

  17. CHAPTER 13 The New Manifest Destiny
    (pp. 275-293)

    As the nineteenth century drew to a close, industrialization and urbanization had radically transformed the nation from what it was in the first half of the century. Not surprisingly this metamorphosis produced many complex problems that clearly needed to be addressed. Dissident farmers, disgruntled workers, disappointed women, disillusioned minority groups, anxious immigrants, and ardent moral crusaders were angry that poverty, injustice, and inequality had become an impediment to the fulfillment of America’s promise. At the same time, it was clear that the United States was on the cusp of a new phase in which, for better or worse, it would...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Progressives and Radicals
    (pp. 294-326)

    Despite the glittering wealth of the nation at the turn of the century and the rise of a middle class, millions of Americans lived in abject poverty. (The wealthiest 10 percent of the population owned 72 percent of the nation’s wealth; the top 1 percent owned nearly a third.) While rich industrialists and investors lived lives of opulent splendor, the people who worked for them barely eked out a living. Whether they were newly arrived immigrants or long-established citizens, unskilled workers toiled intolerably long hours for intolerably low wages, they were crammed into squalid urban slums, and there was little...

  19. CHAPTER 15 Making the World Safe for Democracy
    (pp. 327-348)

    When Europeans enthusiastically marched off to war in the summer of 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, most Americans reacted with disbelief. It seemed preposterous that modern nations would go to war over outmoded notions of monarchy. However, even though the United States was not involved in the conflict, many Americans worried about the war’s impact. Progressives worried that the war would weaken the reform impetus at home. Suffragists and settlement-house workers organized a massive peace parade in New York City. At the outset President Wilson announced that the United States would remain neutral, and he urged Americans...

  20. CHAPTER 16 Traditionalism Collides with Modernism
    (pp. 349-370)

    Despite the booming economy of the 1920s, disillusion, insecurity, and uncertainty began to eat away at the nation’s psyche. The war had been a terrible shock. How could God have let it happen? The experience of the war—the carnage, the devastation, the surfacing of such inhumane brutality—was a profound challenge to all traditional values. The belief in God, the belief in progress, even the belief in science all came under attack. Darwin’s theory of evolution had laid bare the animal origins of humans, Nietzsche’s famous dictum that “God is dead” struck at the heart of religious faith, Freud’s...

  21. CHAPTER 17 A New Deal for America
    (pp. 371-392)

    For the American people the Great Depression was a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. Unemployment was a staggering 25 percent. And even those who were employed worked for reduced wages or reduced hours. Farmers, workers, and minority groups were especially hard hit, with virtually no prospects. Untold numbers took to the highways seeking jobs in other communities, only to find that there were no jobs. “Okies”—impoverished farmers from the dust bowl of Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas—went west to California, where they hoped to find jobs picking fruit, only to find disappointment and further hardship. Migrants set up shantytowns...

  22. CHAPTER 18 The Good War?
    (pp. 393-406)

    In less than two hours on December 7, 1941, the Japanese were able to accomplish what FDR had been trying to accomplish for over two years—unite the American people behind the war. And yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans in December 1941 believed it was necessary to declare war, and despite the fact that the attack on Pearl Harbor silenced the isolationist opposition, antiwar dissent continued unabated throughout the conflict.

    The war ended the Great Depression. Unemployment was over. Anyone who wanted a job found one. Millions went to work in defense industries. The demand...

  23. CHAPTER 19 Dissent in an Age of Conformity
    (pp. 407-423)

    “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended on the Continent.”¹ Thus Winston Churchill character­ized the geopolitical reality of postwar Europe and coined the term that dominated the West’s view of the Cold War. Soviet troops occupied an enslaved eastern Europe, while British and American forces were the occupiers in the free West. The tension between East and West, which intensified and spread around the globe at a dizzying pace, became the defining feature of international relations for the next forty-five years.

    As the United States and the Soviet Union faced off against...

  24. CHAPTER 20 Civil Rights: An American Revolution
    (pp. 424-452)

    In August 1955 fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago, visiting relatives in Mississippi, was abducted by J. W. Mylam and Roy Bryant, beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His offense? He had “talked fresh” to a white woman. When photographs of Till’s brutalized, decomposed body were published in the African American press, the nation was shocked. How could a fourteen-year-old be so savagely murdered for such a minor infraction? The publicity surrounding the case generated immense interest in the trial, and when it commenced at the end of September, hundreds of reporters descended on the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi....

  25. CHAPTER 21 Make Love, Not War
    (pp. 453-481)

    Dissent exploded in the “long” 1960s. Starting with civil rights protests in the last years of the 1950s and not culminating until the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s the United States experienced an explosion of dissent, demonstrations, disturbances, riots, and rebellion. Everything was fair game. Everything was questioned—from race to gender, from war to the environment, from consumerism to middle-class values, indeed the American way of life itself. All was subject to debate, dissection, analysis, criticism, reevaluation. Dissenters of all varieties—reformers, reactionaries, revolutionaries—expressed their grievances through civil disobedience, speeches, demonstrations, petitions, music, art, street...

  26. CHAPTER 22 Mobilization and Backlash
    (pp. 482-500)

    The 1960s produced irreversible change in the United States. The civil rights movement sent currents of inspiration so deeply throughout the land that there was no going back to the days when any American would settle for less than full constitutional rights. But still, during the 1970s and 1980s, even as American society continued to evolve, as more and more people from every conceivable ethnic and racial background demanded their rights, there was a powerful backlash against what many conservatives viewed as the excesses of the immoral, licentious sixties. Dissenting values of the 1960s set off another chapter in the...

  27. CHAPTER 23 A New Age of Dissent
    (pp. 501-519)

    When President George H. W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm with the backing of the UN Security Council to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, another (albeit small) antiwar movement was born. Even before the war began, some students and Vietnam veterans organized marches in Boston, Boulder, Missoula, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, and San Francisco protesting the stationing of American troops in the Persian Gulf. They carried signs that read, “No Blood for Oil” and “No More Vietnams.” Behind the scenes, in the military, antiwar sentiment was expressed by a surprising number of troops. When Marine Corporal Jeff Paterson’s unit...

  28. Conclusion: The Arc of Dissent
    (pp. 520-522)

    Since the election of Barack Obama it seems that political discourse has taken on a nastier (although not necessarily new) tone of bitterness and partisanship. The rise of the Tea Party movement and its irreconcilable stance against big government and taxation, angry protests against health-care reform, vilification of “illegal aliens,” and relentless questioning of the religion and even the nationality of the nation’s first black president reflect a deep-seated fear reminiscent of the 1920s clash between modernism and traditionalism that the United States is moving too rapidly into an unknown, frightening future. A variation of this fear was a motivating...

  29. NOTES
    (pp. 523-548)
    (pp. 549-582)
  31. INDEX
    (pp. 583-602)
    (pp. 603-603)