Uncivil Disobedience: Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics

Overview

"This fine study explores the compatibilities and tensions between rule by the people and the rule of law. Grounded in history, it offers a rich and articulate analysis of actual violent conflicts. Informed by political theory, it provides a sophisticated and timely reflection on manifestations of conflicts of values in American democracy and their implications for liberal justice and politics."--Marianne Constable, University of California, Berkeley

"Jennet Kirkpatrick has done something quite remarkable in this...

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Overview

"This fine study explores the compatibilities and tensions between rule by the people and the rule of law. Grounded in history, it offers a rich and articulate analysis of actual violent conflicts. Informed by political theory, it provides a sophisticated and timely reflection on manifestations of conflicts of values in American democracy and their implications for liberal justice and politics."--Marianne Constable, University of California, Berkeley

"Jennet Kirkpatrick has done something quite remarkable in this book. She has taken a set of unsavory characters--vigilantes, members of lynch mobs, and far-right militiamen--studied their arguments, and placed them within the tradition of political theory. She demonstrates that understanding is the necessary prelude to criticism. And she adds militant abolitionists to the mix so that we can't resist the demonstration. The result is a wonderfully illuminating argument."--Michael Walzer, professor emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study

"Kirkpatrick has written a wonderful book--thoughtful, provocative, elegant, and unexpected. She begins with a jolting historical point: the United States has a long history of domestic terrorists. These are not revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the American regime but rather men and women pursuing democratic ideals and, as they see it, the promises made by the Constitution itself. This is an important book."--James A. Morone, author of Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History

"Kirkpatrick presents a clear and important argument, namely that the wish for an immediate and coherent connection between the moral values or will of any group and what the law says or does is dangerous and ultimately incompatible with democratic politics. Uncivil Disobedience is an intriguing study of the origins and philosophies of violent citizen action groups in the United States."--Austin Sarat, Amherst College

"An outstanding piece of scholarship. Kirkpatrick refers to the 'dangerous potential of democratic ideas.' This is a very apt phrase, and it is an expression of what she explores in this very original and thought-provoking book. Kirkpatrick is not at all hostile to American democracy, but she is very alert to its pitfalls. She is a social scientist in the best sense of the term."--Richard Maxwell Brown, University of Oregon

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Southern History
This well-written book not only provides significant insights into the motives of southern lynch mobs and others but also raises necessary and troubling questions about the nature of democracy in America. It is an important work that should be widely read.
— Brent J. Aucoin
Law and Politics Book Review - Jon Goldberg-Hiller
Kirkpatrick's study is rich in history and suggestive in its pursuit of other models for thinking about law's social meanings. . . . Kirkpatrick's book is worth reading and pondering for the ways that it makes one connect American legal history to these pressing issues.
Choice - J. Brigham
The book features adept forays into jurisprudence at the same time that it captures the cultural diversity and local character of political violence in the US. Here the challenges posed by Thoreau and Rosa Parks become a platform from which to jump into the bloody world of John Brown and Timothy McVeigh. Kirkpatrick warns that conventional treatment of violence as outside of law is a sort of denial that leaves us vulnerable.
Perspectives on Politics - April Carter
[O]ne of the great strengths of this book is its ability to relate illuminating historical examples of uncivil and civil disobedience to a wider tradition of political and legal theory. . . .This is an original, highly readable, and rewarding book.
Journal of Southern History - Brent J. Aucoin
This well-written book not only provides significant insights into the motives of southern lynch mobs and others but also raises necessary and troubling questions about the nature of democracy in America. It is an important work that should be widely read.
From the Publisher

"Kirkpatrick's study is rich in history and suggestive in its pursuit of other models for thinking about law's social meanings. . . . Kirkpatrick's book is worth reading and pondering for the ways that it makes one connect American legal history to these pressing issues."--Jon Goldberg-Hiller, Law and Politics Book Review

"The book features adept forays into jurisprudence at the same time that it captures the cultural diversity and local character of political violence in the US. Here the challenges posed by Thoreau and Rosa Parks become a platform from which to jump into the bloody world of John Brown and Timothy McVeigh. Kirkpatrick warns that conventional treatment of violence as outside of law is a sort of denial that leaves us vulnerable."--J. Brigham, Choice

"[O]ne of the great strengths of this book is its ability to relate illuminating historical examples of uncivil and civil disobedience to a wider tradition of political and legal theory. . . .This is an original, highly readable, and rewarding book."--April Carter, Perspectives on Politics

"This well-written book not only provides significant insights into the motives of southern lynch mobs and others but also raises necessary and troubling questions about the nature of democracy in America. It is an important work that should be widely read."--Brent J. Aucoin, Journal of Southern History

Law and Politics Book Review
Kirkpatrick's study is rich in history and suggestive in its pursuit of other models for thinking about law's social meanings. . . . Kirkpatrick's book is worth reading and pondering for the ways that it makes one connect American legal history to these pressing issues.
— Jon Goldberg-Hiller
Choice
The book features adept forays into jurisprudence at the same time that it captures the cultural diversity and local character of political violence in the US. Here the challenges posed by Thoreau and Rosa Parks become a platform from which to jump into the bloody world of John Brown and Timothy McVeigh. Kirkpatrick warns that conventional treatment of violence as outside of law is a sort of denial that leaves us vulnerable.
— J. Brigham
Perspectives on Politics
[O]ne of the great strengths of this book is its ability to relate illuminating historical examples of uncivil and civil disobedience to a wider tradition of political and legal theory. . . .This is an original, highly readable, and rewarding book.
— April Carter
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691138770
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Pages: 152
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Jennet Kirkpatrick is lecturer in political science at the University of Michigan.
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Read an Excerpt

Uncivil Disobedience Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics
By Jennet Kirkpatrick Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13877-0


Introduction WARTS AND ALL

As with most wars, the American war on terror has been depicted in simple terms: America, a defender of democracy, is engaged in a battle against foreign terrorists who are "enemies of freedom," as George Bush has put it. American democracy is on one side of this struggle; terrorism is on the other. The problem with this simple depiction is that it ignores America's long history of a homegrown version of terrorism. Militant abolitionists like John Brown, vigilantes on the western frontier, violent labor groups, lynch mobs in the post-Reconstruction South, and violent right-wing organizations like the militia movement were all terrorists by today's standards. What's more, these violent groups were not opposed to democracy. Indeed, democratic ideas nurtured and legitimated their terrorism.

Consider, for instance, this intriguing bit of American history. In 1854 an interracial mob led by a Unitarian minister smashed down the door of the Boston courthouse in order to free Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave. The mob intervened at almost the last possible moment: the following morning Burns would be escorted to the Boston harbor and, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, returned to slavery in Virginia. Morally opposed to Burns's rendition andthe law that sanctioned it, the Boston mob aimed its battering ram at the courthouse door. Climbing over the splintered rubble, several individuals engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a phalanx of guards. The abolitionist mob was repulsed in fairly short order, and its attempt to free Burns was unsuccessful. Though brief, its battle with the legal authorities was intense and deadly. In the melee, a guard was killed.

The killing caused a furor among abolitionists in Boston and beyond. Debate centered on two prominent abolitionists who delivered fiery speeches minutes before the attack on the courthouse. Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist crusader known for his oratorical eloquence, and Theodore Parker, the president of the Boston Vigilance Committee, exhorted their audience of five thousand to act on behalf of liberty rather than only talking about its value and import. Phillips urged his audience to recall that they lived in the revolutionary city of Boston, where, he hoped, "the children of Adams and Hancock may prove that they are not bastards." "Let us prove," he urged, "that we are worthy of liberty." Parker confronted legal obligation to the Fugitive Slave Act and the issue of violence directly. Advising disobedience to slave law, he exhorted his audience to instead follow "the law of the people," which "is in your hands and arms" and can be executed "just when you see fit." Execution of this populist law, Parker suggested, could require drastic measures. There "is a means and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means toward it."

Whatever their immediate effect on the abolitionist audience, Phillips and Parker's speeches proved prophetic. By the 1850s, militant abolitionists were increasingly willing to entertain the idea that, like their revolutionary predecessors, they might have to employ violent means to attain liberty. More abolitionists openly and violently defied the Fugitive Slave Act. By 1856 the violence had escalated: John Brown led a deadly raid on a pro-slavery settlement in Kansas in which five men were dragged from their cabins and hacked to death on the banks of Pottawatomie Creek. Three years later Brown attacked the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, in a desperate attempt to spark more widespread violent resistance to slavery. Brown was pilloried by some and lauded by others. Thoreau, for instance, compared Brown to Ethan Allen and Cromwell and defended his "perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder in order to rescue the slave." His violence was "employed in a righteous cause."

Like the Boston mob, other American groups have become enamored with the idea of righteous violence. They might logically be called "uncivil disobedients"-that is, groups of citizens who, protesting unjust laws or legal actions and upholding established political ideals, commit illegal and violent acts. Uncivil disobedients typically lay claim to many of the same ideals that prompted the American Revolution. They often look at the American revolutionaries with admiration for their idealistic commitment to liberty, their participatory zeal, and their militancy. The citizens who violently protested against the government in the late eighteenth century-in Shays's Rebellion in 1786-87, the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, and then Fries's Rebellion in 1799-did not, for instance, see themselves as rebels. Rather, they understood their acts as preserving republicanism, guarding liberty, and upholding the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

Vigilantes have also traditionally justified their violence by appealing to the right of revolution and self-preservation and the ideal of popular sovereignty. The first instance of vigilantism occurred in 1780 when Colonel Charles Lynch, a lapsed Quaker, and a band of leading citizens arrested, tried, and punished Tories plundering property on Virginia's western boarder. Offenders received thirty-nine lashes and were required to proclaim "Liberty Forever!" More vigilantes followed. Over two hundred vigilance committees formed on the western frontier, and, in the post-Reconstruction South, lynch mobs claimed nearly three thousand victims. As I write this introduction, a vigilante group called the Minutemen has recently made national headlines as they police the U.S.-Mexico border searching for undocumented immigrants. There's reason to think that this latest resort to vigilantism is not an anomaly. Vigilante themes are prevalent in Hollywood, ranging from the trite and harmless (Batman, Spiderman) to the violent and vengeful (Death Wish, Falling Down). Moreover, polling data suggest that a portion of the American population is sympathetic to the idea that vigilantism is sometimes appropriate: a CBS/New York Times Monthly Poll found that 31 percent of respondents agreed that there are times when people might need to take the law into their own hands.

As well as cropping up regularly throughout American history, uncivil disobedients have appeared on both ends of the political spectrum. On the left, portions of the labor movement adopted violent methods to improve the lot of working men and women. The results include the terrorism of the Molly Maguires, a group of anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania that bullied supervisors for better working conditions in the 1860s, the infamous explosion in Haymarket Square in 1886, the violent strikes in Coeur d'Alene and Pullman in the 1890s, and the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times in 1910. The Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and radical environmental and animal rights groups have also claimed the mantle of righteous violence. On the right, Carry Nation and her hymn-singing compatriots in the temperance movement smashed bars and stock with hatchets to protest weakened prohibition laws in Kansas. More recently, violent religious groups have killed those who provide abortions, and the militia movement has advocated violent resistance to a tyrannical and oppressive government. Looked at from the vantage point of the history of righteous violence, American civil society has had a notable uncivil streak.

The Burns affair and this larger history of uncivil disobedience remind us of an ignored relationship between democratic ideas, violence, and terrorism. Our history shows clearly that admirable democratic ideas and motivations can lead to violence and unjustified killings. The striking thing about the Burns mob and the violent abolitionists was that they were driven by commendable democratic desires for liberty, rights, and direct civic participation. This is true of many uncivil disobedients. Angered by a disjunction between law and justice, uncivil disobedients are convinced the law can be redeemed by direct civic activism outside of established legal channels. Many violent uncivil disobedients are also committed to civic empowerment, believing that citizens in a democracy can and should change laws they believe are unjust. For the militant abolitionists in Boston, for instance, the Burns case brought the evil of the Fugitive Slave Act into focus and made its unjust consequences tangible and undeniable. The Boston abolitionists understood that they were morally implicated in the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Act: their police were being used to carry out its dictates, their courthouse jailed Burns, and their tax money was being spent to send a free man back to a life of chains.

Like the Boston mob, uncivil disobedients generally assume that, as citizens, they can exercise political authority and are responsible for making certain laws or legal actions accord with justice, as they see it. This can-do approach to politics is evident in the will to act. Consider, for instance, the fact that the Boston mob chose to act collectively to right a wrong. This may seem like a small thing in retrospect, but it is not. The decision to act-and, more specifically, to act together in the public realm without shame or remorse-suggests that the mob was an empowered group confident in its moral and political judgment. While members of the Boston mob certainly felt disempowered by the political situation and were acutely aware of the law's oppression and injustice, they did not accept this state of powerlessness. The Boston mob was neither composed of browbeaten subjects who had grown used to injustices nor of self-interested individuals who had ceased to care about public life. Rather, the mob was composed of citizens who felt a moral responsibility to make the law just and cared passionately about what legal officials were doing in their name. The mob assumed that it had a role to play in relation to the law. In this respect, the Boston mob was not obviously different from civil disobedients. Like civil disobedients, the Boston mob believed that citizens should be morally and politically involved in the laws that governed them. And, like civil disobedients, the abolitionist mob was stymied by institutional channels of change and, thus, acted outside of them.

Because uncivil disobedients complain bitterly about inefficiency, inadequacy, and corruption in political and legal institutions, it is logical to wonder if these charges have merit. This is an important question, first, because we may have more sympathy for uncivil disobedients if political institutions are failing them. Second, if political institutions are at the heart of the problem, then a means to address uncivil disobedience presents itself-that is, the reformation of political institutions, making them more efficient, responsive, competent, and honest. In some cases, most notably on the western frontier, political institutions were in shambles and vigilante complaints about inebriated judges, corrupted justices of the peace, and outlaw sheriffs had merit. In other cases like lynching in the post-Reconstruction South, the lynch mob's perception that the legal system was too lenient in applying the death penalty to African American defendants has not been borne out by statistical analysis. In one major set of cases, then, institutional efficacy was low, while in another it was not.

The relationship between institutional efficacy and uncivil disobedience becomes more complicated still when we take cases like the Burns affair into account. As militant abolitionists in Boston saw it, the problem was not that political institutions were ineffective but rather that they were too effective. This was especially the case in Boston since the federal government was determined to make an example of Burns. President Franklin Pierce's orders were clear: "Incur any expense deemed necessary ... to ensure the execution of the law." In response, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent marines, cavalry, and artillery to make certain that Burns's procession from his jail cell to the Boston harbor was without incident. The show of force succeeded. Though an estimated fifty thousand individuals watched as Burns and a mass of federal guards processed through the streets of Boston, order was maintained and the law was enforced.

The Burns case and others like it suggest that the motivations behind uncivil disobedience are broader than the efficacy of political institutions. Uncivil disobedients are concerned about perceived injustices of the law and the legitimacy of legal and political institutions. What constitutes an injustice changes from case to case. Beliefs about whether the legal wrong was caused by political institutions that were too careless in executing their duties or too zealous in fulfilling them, too bloated with bureaucratic procedures or too inattentive to the requirements of due process, too willing to bend to contingencies or too formalistic and rigid also change from case to case. What does not change, however, is that the government is the object of enmity. Also unchanging across the cases is the steadfast belief that the corrective to institutional problems lies in shifting power away from legal institutions and officials and depositing it in the people.

The passionate call for liberty and the participatory democratic ideas elucidated by the Boston mob may have been commendable, but its results-violence and killing-were not. Looked at in terms of results and consequences, the picture of uncivil disobedients changes radically. They seem markedly different from civil disobedients. Rather than protests, sit-ins, and marches, the Boston mob took up a battering ram and used deadly force. And, rather than thinking carefully about tactics, the mob focused primarily on accomplishing its goal of freeing Burns. As Parker predicted in his speech at Faneuil Hall, ends trumped means.

The tendency of uncivil disobedients to engage in indiscriminate killings is of even greater concern. Not all uncivil disobedients have been arbitrary and unsystematic in the targets of their violence. Many frontier vigilantes only targeted individuals they believed to be guilty of wrongdoing. Though frontier vigilantes were swayed by racism and xenophobia and they certainly made errors in assessing guilt, many also made efforts to punish the appropriate individual. In the Burns affair, Frederick Douglass defended the killing of the guard along similar lines. The guard chose to be allied with a pro-slavery government, and he was actively assisting to send a free man back into slavery. As Douglass saw it, the guard was guilty. In this sense, violent uncivil disobedience is somewhat different from terrorism. The paradigmatic example of terrorism is a bomb on a bus: the explosion kills whoever happens to be on the bus, despite the fact that the woman riding the bus to work or the man running errands is not responsible for the political problem that the terrorists seek to remedy. The violence is random and unassociated with guilt.

In other instances of uncivil disobedience, however, guilt has been a ruse and violence has been random. Some lynch mobs in the post-Reconstruction South killed innocent relatives when they could not locate the ostensibly guilty party. They strung up cousins, uncles, and brothers instead. Other southern lynching crowds made it clear that their goal was to terrorize local freedmen and -women into submission. In these cases and others, guilt is gutted of meaning. What, for instance, were the children killed in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City guilty of? Absent guilt, the distinction between uncivil disobedience and terrorism is less apparent. To capture these points of similarity and dissimilarity and to acknowledge this movement from targeted violence to indiscriminate violence, I've called uncivil disobedience a homegrown version of terrorism. Regardless of what one calls it, it is important to note that the phenomenon has affinities with terrorism, though it is not exactly the same as terrorism.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Uncivil Disobedience by Jennet Kirkpatrick
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments ix
Introduction
Warts and All 1
Chapter One: Violence, American Style 17
Chapter Two: Frontier Vigilance Committees 39
Chapter Three: Southern Lynch Mobs 62
Chapter Four: Militant Abolitionists 91
Conclusion: A Nation of People or Laws 110
Sources Cited 119
Index 133
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