The United States was born, in part, out of collective acts of disobedience. Both republicanism and Protestantism — two defining features of early American politics and culture — emerged from acts of principled disobedience: the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation. Disobedience has continued to play an important role in American life since the founding of the United States. Reformers and activists have advanced their causes by disobeying codified laws in adherence to what they identify as a “higher law,” such as the natural law of human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In this course, we will focus on nineteenth-century Americans who created a tradition of disobedience, with some attention as well to those who criticized disobedience. As we do so, we will focus on the following key questions:
- What are the historical roots of the tradition of principled disobedience in the United States?
- How have American thinkers, writers, and activists defined and defended disobedience? How did Transcendentalists and abolitionists, in particular, draw on Christian and Enlightenment ideas in order to promote certain kinds of disobedience?
- What impact did antebellum reformers and abolitionists have on American society? What role did they play in the coming of the American Civil War and the destruction of slavery?
- How did radical abolitionist John Brown draw on an American tradition of principled disobedience to empower his attack on slavery?
- What are the social and political dangers of disobedience? At what point does disobedience become mere lawlessness? Was John Brown a terrorist? Does he deserve to be honored, or simply remembered as an important historical figure?
Note: This syllabus is © 2011 David J. Voelker; no permission is granted to republish it, electronically or otherwise.