Monday, November 25, 2013

Lewis Perry's "Civil Disobedience"

Lewis Perry is John Francis Bannon, S.J., Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Saint Louis University. His previous books have dealt with anarchism, antislavery movements, American intellectual life, and moral problems in history.

Perry applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition, and reported the following:
Page 99 brings us to a meandering passage in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in which Henry David Thoreau reviews his famous brush with the law and night in jail in 1846. He goes on to quote (and translate) Antigone’s defiance of King Creon’s death sentence as illegitimate under divine law. Thoreau learned his Greek at Harvard, but in his allegiance to timeless law he was dissociating himself from a view of ethics he had encountered as a student. He kept his copy of William Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy in his library but rejected its preference for expediency and public “conveniency” in ethical decision making. He upheld instead the call of conscience and the eternal claims of justice: “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war with Mexico, though it costs them their existence as a people.”

It will be no surprise to find discussion of Thoreau in a book devoted to exploring an American tradition of civil disobedience from the colonial period to the present. The surprise may be that it has taken more than ninety pages to get there. That is because I emphasize the role of predecessors – colonial protesters against religious injustice, missionary champions of American Indian nations, fugitives from slavery, benevolent women reformers – in creating a tradition. Thoreau’s greatest significance came in the 20th century, after he had been discovered by Mahatma Gandhi in India and South Africa and cited in defenses of civil disobedience by a succession of American dissenters and activists from the 1930s on. His influence would eventually be deplored by leaders who worried about the instability of democracy, while it was glorified by dissenters from national policy, and adopted in defense of activist law breakers in courtrooms and popular books.
Learn more about Civil Disobedience at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue