Ralph Young: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

imgresRalph Young is a history professor at Temple University. He has done extensive research in the history of protest movements, terrorist organizations, and 17th-century Puritanism. He is the author of Dissent: The History of an American Idea, a narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements that reveals the centrality of dissent to American history, and Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, an edited compilation of primary documents written by American dissenters over the past four hundred years. Young has won several teaching awards at Temple University and has taught his Dissent in America seminar as a Fulbright Specialist at the University of Rome and at Charles University in Prague. He also writes fiction and has published three thrillers: Crossfire (winner of a Suntory Prize for Suspense Fiction in Japan), Double Exposure, and Hitler’s Children.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my interview of Ralph.

* * *

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Dissent?

Young: In 2002 I developed a new course for Temple University’s Honors Program, Dissent in America. The idea was to show the centrality of dissent for the development of American history. That America was founded by dissenters and that we guarantee the right to dissent to all people and that dissent has indeed been the fuel for the engine of progress. At least mostly progress. I wanted students to read the words of dissenters themselves and not learn of their goals through my analysis…or anyone else’s. I wanted the dissenters to speak for themselves. So I gathered together dozens of documents to photocopy and distribute to students.

One day an editor from Longman (now Pearson/Longman), Ashley Dodge, came to my office and asked me if I had any thought of writing a textbook. I said no, but someone needs to put together a book of documents of dissenters. If they did, I would use it for my course. She said “Why don’t you do it?” And so for the next hour we talked about it and eventually she convinced me to tackle the task. It was not easy to decide which documents to include and which to leave out. And then edit some long unwieldy documents into more user-friendly form. The result was Dissent in America: The Voices that Shaped a Nation and it has been very useful every time I’ve taught the course and in fact I’ve heard from professors at other universities who use it for their classes. After the success of DiA, another editor at Pearson (Priscilla McGeehon) urged me to write a narrative history of the US from the standpoint of dissenters (sort of like Zinn’s classic, Peoples History, but from the point of view of protest and not class.) And so the idea for Dissent: The History of an American Idea was born. I started writing it in 2004, but I only had time to do so during the summers and between semesters, so I can’t say it really took me ten years to write it.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Young: Many. Here’s one. It soon became apparent to me that dissent has been more deeply entrenched in US history than I thought it was. And that dissent has come from the right as well as the left. True, most dissent in America has come from the left, but a significant portion has come from the right. It was also clear that many thousands of Americans, unheralded, unknown Americans, had just as much impact on protest and change as famous dissenters like Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King. There are famous leaders of dissent movements, but the real power comes from the grassroots organizers.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Young: It’s actually trimmed down considerably. The final manuscript was 250,000 words. The editors at NYU Press insisted I cut 50,000 words so the book would be more manageable. Even so, even the 250,000-word version does not include all the dissenters in American history. Far from it. In the end the published book is just the tip of the iceberg.

Morris: As I read your brilliant book, I was again reminded that there are various motives for dissent and, in my opinion, dissent that has the greatest credibility and impact is primarily altruistic in nature. Phrases such as “in the public interest” come to mind as does Nathan Hale’s declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death.” What do you think about all this?

Young: Dissenters are usually ahead of their time. They see things and act on them that others fail to see. Dissenters are the ultimate patriots. Their goal is to make the United States live up to its ideals. To make the United States a better place. If they hated the U.S. they wouldn’t make the effort. (Of course “ideals” are fluid and change over time. They are open to interpretation.) In fact, it wasn’t Nathan Hale who made that comment. It was, purportedly, Patrick Henry but even that is disputable. He wrote, decades after his speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses, that this is what he said but there were no witnesses who ever corroborated it.

Morris: To what extent is the “idea” of dissent throughout U.S. history significantly unique?

Young: In some ways it’s not really unique. Dissenters and protestors have pushed for change and resisted tyranny and oligarchy in many countries over hundreds of years. What’s different about American dissent is that we guarantee the right to dissent in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s a promise the founding fathers made to subsequent generations. And Americans have taken them at their word. They have taken that right seriously.

Morris: One of my ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. He and the others offer, together, an excellent example of collective dissent. In your opinion, which others are also of special importance in U.S. history? Please explain.

Young: Do you mean the others who signed the Declaration? Or do you mean others generally speaking in all dissent movements? Of course in order to bring about change dissent needs to be a collective movement. One man, one woman, cannot change the world. It needs thousands, millions of others to accomplish change.

Morris: There are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please respond to questions that several of them evoke.

First, Dissent: American Revolution (Pages 55-78) In your opinion, which individual’s dissent had the greatest impact? Please explain.

Young: As I said earlier, dissent works as a collective movement. No one person is essential. But there certainly was a significant number of individuals who, together, enabled American independence. Obviously Jefferson, Franklin, and Samuel Adams were at the core. Perhaps one of the most important was Thomas Paine who entered the scene and published Common Sense at exactly the right time. Common Sense had the impact of pushing many of those who were on the fence about remaining loyal to Britain into the drive for independence. But even that wouldn’t have had as much of an impact if fighting had not already broken out. It was a combination of events and personalities.

Morris: Dissent: War of 1812 (91-93) In your opinion, what would have probably happened had the United States lost?

Young: One could argue that the United States did lose. The war, at best, was a draw. I don’t think much would have changed. Perhaps the United States would have lost some territory in New England and the Great Lakes region, but perhaps not. The British were mostly engaged with Napoleon and that threat was their greatest concern. One thing the war did do was result in the demise of the Federalist Party, which had gone way out on a limb in protesting against James Madison’s policies.

Morris: Slave resistance and rebellion (115-122) What did it accomplish?

Young: It helped expand the abolitionist movement. Slave rebellions, of course, were suicidal. There was no way enslaved Africans were going to be able to defeat state militias, much less the US Army. The rebellions clearly showed, however, that slaves were not acquiescing in their treatment, they were not accepting the fate of everlasting enslavement.

Morris: Dissent: Mexican War (161-166) Why was this war waged? Who opposed it? Why?

Young: It was an imperialist war. It was waged to expand United States territory specifically to serve the interests of the planter elite in the South. The Missouri Compromise Line left little room for southern expansion and southerners, wishing to expand the cotton kingdom (which would necessitate the expansion of slavery) were the primary force behind the war. It really started with southerners moving into Texas in the 1820s and 30s and then, after Mexico abolished slavery, these settlers successfully revolted against Mexico City, which led to the establishment of the Lone Star Republic.

Ever since Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett show Americans have lauded the defenders of the Alamo for dying for freedom. Well, at bottom, they were dying for the freedom to own slaves. By 1845, when Texas was admitted to the Union as a slave state, tensions with Mexico had risen to such a point that President James Knox Polk successfully engineered an incident that led to the outbreak of the war.

Keep in mind that Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln was one of many in Congress who opposed the war because he, like the others knew, that the purpose of the war was to gain territory into which cotton and slavery could be expanded. Many Whigs and abolitionists in the North vehemently opposed the war. If anything, the war helped strengthen the abolitionist movement. And of course the most famous antiwar dissenter at the time was Henry David Thoreau who spent a night in jail as a result of his protest and later penned the extremely influential essay “On Resistance to Civil Government.”

Morris: John Brown (185-189) In your opinion, what will be his legacy?

Young: I think it’s pretty clear that his legacy is (as Herman Melville put it) being remembered as “the meteor of the war” — the harbinger of the war. After John Brown’s Raid it seemed there was no turning back. Lines were drawn. Positions were hardened. For decades after the war Brown was portrayed (by both North and South) as insane. But this was more an effort by historians and politicians to bind up the nation’s wounds, to speed up reconstruction and reconciliation. But the most recent interpretations of Brown argue that he was very sane indeed and that he knew his martyrdom would hasten the end of slavery.

* * *

To read all of Part 2, please click here.

Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Ralph cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

New York University Press link

Publishers Weekly link

Kirkus Reviews link

Sound Cloud link

YouTube links

KALW (San Francisco) radio interview link

Dynamics of Dissent (Tumblr) link

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