Book Review: Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition

By McKanan, Dan | Church History, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition


McKanan, Dan, Church History


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Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition . By Lewis Perry . New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press , 2013. xv + 407. $35.00 cloth.

Book Reviews and Notes

This impressively comprehensive survey traces the practice and theory of civil disobedience in the United States from the eighteenth century to the present. Violating the law "in the name of a higher morality" is, according to Perry, "a distinctive American tradition" that flourished in every age and achieved special prominence in the decades before the Civil War and in the 1960s (1). Perry moves deftly from abolition to Occupy, from campaigns against Indian removal to Operation Rescue, touching en route on women's rights, temperance, pacifism, labor organizing, and other impulses for social transformation.

Several thematic arguments give shape to Perry's chronological narrative. The first is encapsulated in the subtitle: gently resisting the "transnational" tendencies of other American studies scholars, Perry insists on the American provenance of civil disobedience. This approach to social change appeals to democracy-loving Americans because it is "civil" as well as "disobedient." It allows the activist to affirm the general validity of democratic institutions even while violating specific unjust laws. Perry's stress on the Americanness of civil disobedience helps him underscore its character as a tradition that is continuous over time. Too much emphasis on the "Gandhian" character of civil rights, for example, would obscure its homegrown reliance on abolitionist precedents. On the other hand, Perry's approach obscures the profoundly cosmopolitan sensibilities of most civil disobedients. In the abolitionist era, Henry David Thoreau read the sacred texts of India, William Lloyd Garrison declared that "our country is the world," and William Wells Brown began resisting Jim Crow segregation after experiencing integration in England. Their twentieth-century successors filled their homes with icons of Mohandas Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and Nelson Mandela. Few imagined that the United States was the only arena for their activism.

A second guiding theme is the religious origin of civil disobedience. Though many activists claim the Boston Tea Party as inspiration, Perry suggests that it was less influential than the refusal of eighteenth-century Baptists to pay church taxes. Shortly before abolitionists began using civil disobedience on a large scale, a group of protestant missionaries to the Cherokee accepted imprisonment rather than comply with the Jacksonian policy of Indian removal. I found these stories to be the most exciting part of the book, but they raise questions. If eighteenth-century Baptists in New England are part of the story, why not sixteenth-century Anabaptists in Switzerland? And if the Baptist campaign against state religion launched the tradition, why were Baptists proportionately under-represented in subsequent civil disobedience campaigns, while establishmentarian Congregationalists and Unitarians were over-represented? (The even more over-represented Quakers might offer a clue, since they had both an anti-establishmentarian theology and a heritage of quasi-establishment in Pennsylvania.)

Perry's training as an intellectual historian informs a third theme. He is fascinated with the theory underlying civil disobedience, and repeatedly skewers activists for seeking to circumscribe it within a narrow definition. Civil disobedience, he insists, has never been restricted to pacifists. …

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