Dissent and Democracy in Modern American History



What is dissent? What role has dissent played in the development of American democracy? The Oxford English Dictionary helps us begin to answer the first question. The OED defines dissent as “difference of opinion or sentiment; disagreement” and the “opposite of consent.” This document collection encourages teachers and students to elaborate that definition and to develop answers to the second question by examining four case studies in dissent from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These case studies represent four very different forms of dissent: the mass demonstrations and violence of Haymarket, the parades and petitions of the women’s suffrage and anti-suffrage movements, the pamphlets and clinics of Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade, and the free-speech forums and masquerade balls of the Dill Pickle Club. These case studies, in their variety, allow us to consider the different forms that dissent might take, and the different paths that these movements could follow within national history.

This document collection explores the role of dissent in the development of American democracy through four case studies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

U.S. historians and political scientists often classify dissident movements along a spectrum from left to right, with the left side encompassing Communists, socialists, and others committed to greater economic and political equality, often achieved through government intervention, and the right side including those who embrace capitalist economics with little or no state regulation. However, these categories become more difficult to define in the area of civil liberties, which both the left and the right claim to embrace. For example, today, the civil rights and reproductive rights movements are both identified with the left, while the gun rights and pro-life movements are both identified with the right. In regard to these movements, neither the left nor the right can be characterized as simply for or against government intervention.

In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed America, Michael Kazin identifies two axes through which to interpret the history of leftist dissent in the United States. One axis concerns the relationships—and differences—between the political left and the cultural left. By political left, Kazin refers to movements and individuals, which advocate significant changes to national laws and, even, to the structure of government. Examples from this document collection include the Workingmen’s Party platform and the suffragists’ efforts to change voting laws. By cultural left, Kazin means the more amorphous, and often more widely accepted, set of artistic and literary practices that express dissent from prevailing cultural norms. Examples from this collection include the Dill Pickle Club records of “bohemian” life. As Kazin notes, there are plenty of moments when political and cultural activity intersect, however there are also many moments when they diverge and, as historians, it is useful to be able to distinguish between them. The second axis that Kazin identifies describes a tension within the goals of leftist movements, whether they are primarily political or cultural. That tension lies between, on the one hand, the desire to extend or protect individual liberties and, on the other hand, the desire to achieve social equality and justice. There are times when achieving collective good seems to require the sacrifice of individual freedoms and vice versa. Although Kazin writes specifically of the left, his terms provide a useful framework for many of the documents presented here and can help us formulate terms and questions for right-wing as well as left-wing movements.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • Develop a definition of dissent based on your reading of these documents. What do the documents have in common? How does the concept of dissent allow us to bring together documents that are, in many ways, quite different?
  • What forms has dissent taken in U.S. history? What are the objectives of the writers and organizations represented in these documents? In what ways do they dissent from the political and social conditions of their times? What are their methods for advocating change? What are their relationships to mainstream American politics and culture?
  • What is the role of dissent in a representative democracy such as the United States? Why have groups of Americans chosen to go outside of official channels (e.g., elections) in order to try to reform government and society? How have traditions of dissent changed the ways that Americans practice democracy?
  • In what ways does the pursuit of individual liberty conflict with the quest for social equality and justice? In what ways are these goals compatible?