The Tradition Henry David
Martin Luther
King, Jr.
& Outcomes
Useful Links
The Tradition of Non-Violent Protest
Image collage of Gandhi, the Boston Tea Party, Iraq War protesters, and Harriet Tubman. long description of image

The tradition of protest and civil disobedience in American politics stretches back to the movement for independence and the subsequent founding of the United States. While civil disobedience – breaking the law to call attention to the perceived immorality or illegitimacy of a particular law or set of laws – may be either violent or non-violent, non-violent resistance is deeply engrained in the American political experience. If you've ever crossed the street against the traffic signal, that was just plain jaywalking. But if you've ever blocked a street hoping to call attention to a policy you regarded as unjust or wrong, then you were participating in the American tradition of non-violent civil disobedience. In this tradition the motive for action is to resist publicly laws perceived to be unjust, with complete willingness to accept the punishment.

Non-violent acts of civil disobedience started the U.S. quest for independence from Great Britain, though they eventually gave way to acts of increasing violence. At first the colonists refused to pay for tax stamps for paper and other goods in violation of the Stamp Act. Then they refused to purchase only British manufactured goods (a kind of boycott) in violation of the Townshend Acts. This eventually led to the very public destruction of private property in 1773 when a group of about fifty colonists boarded a British merchant ship in Boston harbor and dumped crates of imported tea into the water to protest the Tea Act.

The Boston Tea Party overstepped the limit of non-violence through its deliberate destruction of property. But the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience continued to develop in the new country. Over the succeeding decades increasing numbers of citizens engaged in covert civil disobedience by harboring slaves who had run away from their owners.

The Underground Railroad of familiar routes and safe houses became more developed by mid-century and became somewhat less covert. Abolitionists were soon calling for wide disobedience of laws requiring that slaves captured in one state be returned to the state from which they fled.

Next: Henry David Thoreau >