Lewis Perry’s Civil Disobedience

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on April 28, 2015
This post is the author’s pre-print version of my review of Lewis Perry, Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition, published by Yale University Press in 2013. The final version was published in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14, no. 2 (April 2015), 272-273, and can be found online at Cambridge Journals.

Over the last sixty years, numerous reformers have laid claim to what the antiwar activist Philip Berrigan called, in 1968, “a rich tradition of civil disobedience” in American history (25). Often, such activists have even claimed that civil disobedience is a civil right inherent to the American democratic tradition itself. “Such claims were not stated so clearly before the 1960s,” notes Lewis Perry in his wide-ranging, fascinating narrative of the evolution of civil disobedience (25). But the notion that civil disobedience was a shared heritage of all Americans “remained strong” in the anti-nuclear and anti-abortion protests of the 1970s and 1980s, and continues to surface today (304).

Indeed, American activists of many different kinds often share a basic set of assumptions about civil disobedience—that it was born with the Boston Tea Party, theorized by Thoreau, pioneered by abolitionists, and decisively legitimated by the sit-ins and non-violence protests of the Civil Rights movement. Perry agrees that a “distinctive American tradition” of civil disobedience does exist (1). But his nuanced and deeply researched account challenges many of the assumptions behind this commonly repeated lineage.

For example, Perry finds precedents for modern civil disobedience before the Boston Tea Party, whose disguised, destructive revolutionaries looked and behaved quite differently from activists who sat at lunch counters in their Sunday best and then politely went to jail. Neither Thoreau nor his contemporaries used the term “civil disobedience,” even though that title was posthumously affixed to his 1849 essay on “Resistance to Civil Government” in an 1866 collection (95). More importantly, Perry explains, notions of an unbroken radical tradition ignore the many critics of and disagreements about civil disobedience in American society, as well as the historical discontinuities that helped create what we recognize as civil disobedience today.

For Perry, the most significant of these discontinuities was the transition from an early era—in which protesters framed acts of civil disobedience either as a form of obedience to higher moral laws, or as one of many tactics legitimated by a general right of revolution to overthrow tyrants—to a “new era of disobedience” in which protesters used it as a practical tool “to advance the rights and aspirations of groups of citizens” whose civil rights were not being recognized (155-6). That transition began, slowly, in the antebellum period, with the primarily moral protests of Christian missionaries against Indian Removal. Black and white abolitionists, though still often appealing both to moral duty and the right of revolution, accelerated the shift by creating new “ways of protesting against law, even violating law, without forsaking the quest for citizenship” by African Americans (93). But the transition Perry traces was not fully complete until the 1930s, when American popularizers of Gandhi’s ideas like Richard Bartlett Gregg and Kirshnalal Shridharani redescribed civil disobedience as a form of “moral jiu-jitsu,” in Gregg’s famous metaphor (189).

For Gregg and Shridharani, as well as Civil Rights activists who later adopted their ideas in what Perry calls “America’s Gandhian moment,” civil disobedience was a tool designed to result in the “conversion or persuasion of an antagonist” (181, 200). Nonviolence became not (or not only) a form of obedience to a moral code, but “a source of power” (200). According to Perry, “one striking feature” of Gregg’s work was “its lack of emphasis on obedience to an absolute higher law,” especially when compared with accounts of civil disobedience in the early “nineteenth-century American tradition, which includes Thoreau” (200).

To explain this shift, Perry pays special attention to the period between 1866 and 1920, an era usually elided from popular (and even some scholarly) genealogies of civil disobedience. Indeed, the Progressive Era was, in two senses, “a crucial period in the making of American traditions of civil disobedience” (127). First, “New Departure” suffragists, as well as Wobblies, temperance reformers, and “free speech” activists who protested the Comstock Law, pioneered protest rituals that placed civil disobedience in a “new secular vein” (167). Civil disobedience became, in their hands, a “means for organized citizens to … achieve change, while ignoring appeals for moderation, but without quite engaging in revolution” (156). The pragmatists’ emphasis on the practical effects of ideas also informed the work of later writers like Gregg, whose idea of “moral jiu-jitsu” drew not only from Gandhi, but also from his experience as a Progressive labor organizer, his study of psychology, and the martial metaphors of William James and Walter Lippmann in their famous essays on the moral and political equivalents of war.

Activists in the Progressive Era also accelerated the “Americanization of civil disobedience” by self-consciously claiming to be heirs of the nation’s democratic traditions and by exhibiting a general reverence for American institutions and laws; they usually accepted the legal penalties for their disobedience (143). With inventive new legal strategies designed to create test cases in the courts, Progressive Era reformers helped join the threads of a distinctively American civil disobedience—active, but peaceful, confrontation with authorities, combined with a willingness to suffer whatever legal penalties resulted from such noncooperation. Yet in doing so, they also bequeathed to later generations an American tradition of differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate forms of civil disobedience. That process of differentiation became even more pronounced after the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, according to Perry. Wider public discussions of civil disobedience bespoke a general consensus that it was a “source of strength in America’s democratic system” (274). But acceptance of civil disobedience dependend on an expectation that it stay within certain limits. “Legitimized and to some degree circumscribed—that was the new state of civil disobedience” (285).

That is also largely the state of civil disobedience today, Perry argues. But in his closing chapters, he notes some recent, troubling departures from the rituals of civil disobedience that Progressive activists and their heirs worked so hard to establish, both on the part of activists willing to violate the law anonymously instead of publicly suffering an unjust penalty, and on the part of law enforcement officers too intent on the maintenance of order to care much for the almost choreographed drama of peaceful protest and public arrest that proved so powerful in the past. Perry’s attention to the present-day legacies of civil disobedience underscore the greatest virtues of this masterwork—its humane, moral concern, combined with an appreciation of the surprises, problems, and paradoxes that recur in the history of “civil disobedience.” The term itself is somewhat oxymoronic, Perry notes, in its odd coupling of civility and resistance. But Perry’s sensitive, engrossing account brilliantly uncovers the historical conditions that led to that coupling in the United States. It will be the defining work on its subject for many years to come.