- Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young
Ralph Young admits at the beginning of Dissent: The History of an American Idea that his tome “is the product of [his Temple University course Dissent in America], the teach-ins, and the extraordinary discussions” he has conducted throughout his career researching protest in American history (p. ix). Dissent is not a monograph in the strict sense but a “personal reflection” on a career spent absorbed with the subject of dissenters (p. 1). Therefore, historians looking for complex notes and forays into the historiography of protest movements may be disappointed. But Young succeeds in demonstrating his vast knowledge by surveying social protest throughout American history from the Puritans to the Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements of the twenty-first century.
The strength of this text is the accessible way Young presents the material. In fact, Dissent could be assigned as a good introduction to the history of protest in the United States. Young touches on most of the major dissent figures historians usually cover in the context of a U.S. history survey course. In the first chapter, important first-generation dissident voices such as Anne [End Page 746] Hutchinson and Roger Williams make appearances as seminal independent thinkers. Dissent then moves rapidly from one period to the next: in the first hundred pages the reader is taken from the British North American colonies to the controversies that defined the United States after the drafting of the Constitution.
Chapter 5, which explores the trajectory of dissent by African American activists and writers before the Civil War, will be of interest to historians of the South. The narrative will not be surprising or reveal new insights, but students will benefit from seeing how dissenters like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass fit together in broad strokes. Chapters 8 and 9 deal specifically with the Civil War and Young’s take on its ultimate cause. “Radical abolitionists who would not compromise on slavery and southern fire-eaters who defended the institution and the principle of states’ rights with every fiber of their being were clearly responsible for setting in motion forces that led to the outbreak of the Civil War,” he concludes (p. 201). While not everyone will appreciate the brevity of Young’s approach to either the cause of the Civil War or other major historical events, he is evenhanded throughout his history of dissent and treats the historical actors with care.
In the final chapter the author addresses events as different as Operation Desert Storm, the confrontation at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the attacks of September 11, 2001. In a short conclusion, Young finalizes Dissent by telling the reader that “the arc of dissent,” as he calls it, is often “in the eye of the beholder” (p. 522). He asks citizens of the United States to keep authority in check by demanding better journalism and politicians independent of corporate finance.
While Young’s book is valuable for its concise portrayal of the history of protest in the United States, the reader may desire a more detailed picture of protest from a specific event or period. However, specificity is not Young’s primary aim, as he has instead chosen to portray the “many faces” and varying avenues of dissent throughout American history (p. 3). Nevertheless, this book will prove to be a necessary text for anyone needing a solid overview and social history of protest in America. [End Page 747]