After my last article I became embroiled in several heated discussions, one ending up in a debate about dissent and how it has become ugly and personal. I do not prescribe to that belief.
We all know that this great country of ours was founded on dissent. One of the main flashpoints in pre revolution America was the “Stamp Act of 1765”. “The Stamp Act” was a tax placed on printed materials such as legal documents, magazines, newspapers and many other types of paper used throughout the colonies. This tax was put into place to pay for Great Britain’s large military expense in the colonies. Needless to say it didn’t sit very well with the American colonists. “Taxation without representation” was first coined by Reverend Jonathan Mayhew in a sermon in Boston in 1750 referring to this very tax. What followed pales the worst demonstrations of today. Tax officials were hung in effigy, than the dummies were burned in a mock funeral fires. Several tax officials had their homes looted and destroyed then were stoned by the crowds when they tried to stop. In Massachusetts several were dragged by representatives of the Sons of Liberty to the now famous elm tree and forced to resign; which they did happily. Violent attacks continued in New York where a crowd of two thousand strong looted the Governors house. Rhode Island saw similar protests. Needless to say the “Stamp Act” was never really enforced but it served as one of the catalysts that lead to The Revolution.
In the early 1800’s Americans protested the impressing of American seaman by the British. These protests, sometimes quite violent, helped fueled the fire that eventually became the war of 1812. After the war Americans took up the most important issues since the revolution, an issue which further molded this country into the great nation it is today, slavery. Slavery was an issue that had been smoldering since the revolutionary war and was to mark one of the most bloody and violent times in our history. Even today the scars left over from the Civil War are quite evident in certain parts of our country. The Civil War was dissent taken to its worst…open warfare. Over six hundred thousand Americans would die before it saw its bloody end.
In the 1900’s you had Eugene V. Debs who made an anti-war speech and was arrested under the “Espionage Act of 1917”. He was convicted, sentenced to serve ten years in prison, but President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence on December 25, 1921.
The “Women’s Suffrage” movement was also marred by violence. On March 3rd, 1913 the Woman’s Movement held a large parade in Washington DC. Five to eight thousand turned up for the march. However the onlookers numbering close to half a million were not all in favor of women’s rights. According to About.com many were angry opponents of suffrage, or were upset at the march’s timing. President Wilson’s inauguration was scheduled for the very next day. Some hurled insults; others hurled lighted cigar butts. Some spit at the women marchers; others slapped them, mobbed them, or beat them.
The parade organizers had obtained the necessary police permit for the march, but the police did nothing to protect them from their attackers. Army troops from Fort Myer were called in to stop the violence. Two hundred marchers were injured.
Then there was Prohibition, the protests for and against World War One, World War Two, Korea and Vietnam. And perhaps the defining issue of the last century…The Civil Rights Movement. All had their share of violence and all were necessary to move this country forward.
Theodore Roosevelt said it best:
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”
So when you complain about today’s protests being ugly and disgusting you can see we don’t hold a candle to the passions of past generations. Lies and half truths have always been a part of politics and always will. And it is true that they sometimes if not always show up in very public demonstrations and debates. But it is up to each of us to separate the untruths from the real truths and base our opinions on that. To do it any other way is lazy citizenry. Still “dissent” is the engine that has always driven this country forward and is one of the things that makes this country great. So when you say, “Do you want your children to see this?” I say, “Absolutely” because what you are seeing on the streets of America today is real democracy in action.
© 2010 by Ira Schwartz. Used by permission. All rights reserved