Friday, May 1, 2015

Ralph Young's "Dissent: The History of an American Idea"

Ralph Young is a professor in the Department of History at Temple University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dissent: The History of an American Idea, and reported the following:
Dissent: The History of an American Idea, is a narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters—from the perspective of those who did not see eye to eye with the powers that be; who pushed the United States to live up to the lofty ideals and constitutionally guaranteed rights so eloquently expressed in our founding documents. My thesis is that dissent is central to American history. Dissent gave birth to the United States and it has played a significant and influential role in our development ever since. Sometimes dissenters have won important victories, sometimes not, but always they influenced the debate. Dissent, in fact, is one of this nation’s defining characteristics.

Page 99 of Dissent is a transitional page that is representative of the book’s overarching theme. It concludes a section detailing the plight of workers who ultimately discovered that despite their protests and all their efforts to organize unions “the age of the common man did not provide quite as much opportunity for them to advance as it did for bankers, industrialists, and planters.” And then I begin a section on the tragedy that befell the Indians who protested against the Indian Removal Bill. Although they fought courageously against being expelled from their ancestral lands, and although Quakers and other Americans, even politicians such as Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, ardently supported their cause, they too, like the workers, met with defeat.

From page 99:
The Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were, in Jackson’s eyes, a barrier to progress. Even though the Cherokee had assimilated to a large degree into white society ... they were still regarded by Jackson and whites living in the southeastern states as uncivilized savages. Naturally, underlying this racist attitude was the basic economic issue of white lust for Indian land. If whites could convince themselves that Indians were inferior and uncivilized, it would ease whatever pangs of conscience that might otherwise have reminded them that the insatiable desire for Indian land in and of itself was dishonorable.

In 1830 Jackson sent a bill to Congress calling for the removal of these five Indian nations to an area west of the Mississippi. However, many humanitarians, largely evangelical Christians and Quakers, protested. They believed that the Indians ... had the right to remain on their ancestral lands.... Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey ... argued that the Indians, living on the continent for thousands of years, had title to the land, not Americans. “Our ancestors,” he reminded senators, “found these people, far removed from the commotions of Europe, exercising all the rights, and enjoying the privileges, of free and independent sovereigns of this new world. They were not a wild and lawless horde of banditti, but lived under the restraints of government.” The whites, when they first arrived, “approached them as friends” but soon began to take over their lands and destroy their way of life. The Indian has been wronged. “Do the obligations of justice,” Frelinghuysen asked rhetorically, “change with the color of the skin?”
Of course the Cherokee were expelled from their lands, forced to endure the infamous “Trail of Tears,” and found that their protests against their treatment were futile.

Still, there are many examples in US history when dissent did achieve remarkable success. The American Revolution, abolitionism, women’s suffrage, the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow, LGBT rights and marriage equality, the antiwar movement during the Vietnam war—although for most of these movements, especially the antiwar movement, eventual success came at an agonizingly slow pace. Still dissenters pushed against the establishment and even when success was elusive they raised questions that forced Americans to rethink the issues and pushed them to make up their minds where they stood.
Learn more about Dissent: The History of an American Idea at the New York University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue