Book Review: Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition

Civil Disobedience by Lewis Perry

Waitress: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whatcha got?
-The Wild One, 1953

Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition by Lewis Perry is a scholarly look at the subject of civil disobedience though American history. Perry is John Francis Bannon SJ Professor Emeritus, Department of History, St.Louis University. He has written several books most dealing with the abolitionist movement.

Civil disobedience in America existed even before America existed as a nation. The Boston Tea Party is probably an event that nearly everyone can cite as an example, even though technically it wasn’t civil disobedience. It was destruction of property and, more so, technically speaking, a criminal act. Civil disobedience is generally peaceful, non-violent, and demonstrates respect to most laws. The idea is to make your point, get arrested and hopefully many more will get arrested and overburden the system. The results is to get attention and put pressure on elected officials who would rather not have the publicity of unrest in their districts. It can be an effective way to bring change.

Early on in America’s independence, the idea of breaking laws was a difficult subject. The Anti-Federalists preferred the idea of voluntary obedience to laws, but still feared what would happen under an unpopular central government. The idea of breaking the law seemed difficult for many through history. There needed to be a reason to break the law, a reason bigger than the government that made it. Complicating that matter is that the government that made the law is the general will of the people in a democracy. The south saw unfairness and a threat to their way of life and forced the issue of nullification of federal laws. Another example is in the North. Although many opposed slavery many did not see a reason to get involved. The Fugitive Slave Law changed that opinion for many; it was seen as an unjust intrusion into the affairs of others. Later some saw their disobedience as obeying a higher law, such as anti-abortion protesters. In the recent history, many have lost faith in the government and its moral authority to make law.

Lewis examines several cases of civil disobedience and its evolution throughout American history. Studies are made into laws concerning the Native Americans, slavery, conscientious objectors, women’s rights, labor, temperance, and civil rights. One particularly interesting story concerns what was known as knitting machines. This was a temperance organization that would enter drinking establishments occupy all available seats and start knitting, effectively preventing the serving of alcohol. Lewis also examines what civil disobedience is and what is not. Violence and property damage do not qualify nor do boycotts. There is a difference between criminal acts such as Earth Liberation Front using arson and another group chaining themselves to a red wood to prevent it from being cut down. The same with bombing abortion clinics and blocking the door to one. Boycotts are not civil disobedience because because they are economic choices, fully within the law and part of a free enterprise system.

Civil Disobedience is a scholarly look at civil disobedience. It is well written and researched and backed by over seventy pages of documentation. It is an excellent work of research and reporting. It is not a book that will make you want to take a stand nor is it a book that encourages civil disobedience. It will not entice you to be Johnny, but it will leave you much better informed. An excellent read.


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