Independence Day: Celebrating Dissent in America

Dissent is one of this nation’s defining characteristics. Every decade since the earliest days of colonization Americans have protested for just about every cause imaginable, and every time they did, defenders of the status quo denounced the protestors as unpatriotic and in more recent times as un-American. But protest is one of the consummate expressions of “Americanness.” It is patriotic in the deepest sense.

We are a product of dissent. During the seventeenth century religious dissenters like Quakers and Puritans played a significant role in the planting and development of the English colonies. In the eighteenth century political dissent led to the open rebellion that resulted in the birth of the United States. And the founding fathers were so aware of the role of dissent that they placed that right prominently in the First Amendment of the Constitution. In the nineteenth century dissenters demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, fair treatment of Native Americans, and the rights of workers to organize. And they protested against the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War (on both sides), and the Spanish-American War. In the twentieth century dissenters have continued to demand rights for workers, women, African Americans, Chicanos, gays, immigrants, and all minorities, as well as protesting against every war (declared or undeclared). And since the election of 2016 dissenters have vehemently protested against the new administration’s blatant attack on the ideals upon which this nation was founded.

The methods and forms of dissent are wide-ranging. Many protesters express dissent through petitions and protest marches. Some use their talent, whether music or art or theater or athleticism or comedy to articulate their message. Some engage in acts of civil disobedience, willfully breaking laws to put pressure on the system to force those who have political and economic power to acknowledge and address the issues. They have sought more equality, more moral rectitude, more freedom. They have demanded that America live up to what it had committed itself to on paper at the Constitutional Convention. Many of these dissenters have viewed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as binding contracts between the people and the government and protested when they believed the government was not fulfilling its part of the contract. They are pushing the United States to be what it professes to be. Is this not the highest expression of patriotism? To try to make the reality of present-day America more closely resemble the ideal image we have of ourselves.

So when Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee during the national anthem to protest the violence and racism that is embedded in our society he was acting in this long tradition of dissent. (He was certainly not the first athlete to use his position in society to make his voice heard. Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith were among many who preceded him.) And when critics denounce him as unpatriotic I would advise them to look a little more closely at the complex history of this nation. The dissenters, I would argue, are truly more patriotic than those who denounce them for expressing their desire that the United States live up to its exalted ideals.

Note: The above piece is from ILNH member, Ralph Young, history professor at Temple University and author/expert on Dissent in America. He sent this piece while on a lecture tour in Germany. Look for excerpts from the upcoming paperback edition of his book, Dissent: History of an American Idea in future newsletters.