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>CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL RESISTANCE – GREAT AMERICAN TRADITIONS

April 6, 2008

>From Puritans through Thoreau and Martin Luther King to rave parties, Presidents Carter and Eisenhower…


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) Author of “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849)

Writing in Foreign Affairs (Human Rights and the American Tradition, 1978), Arthur Schlesiger states:
“Human rights — roughly the idea that all individuals everywhere are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on this earth — is a relatively modern proposition. Political orators like to trace this idea to religious sources, especially to the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense — not only for their acquiescence in poverty, inequality and oppression, but for their addiction to slavery, torture, wartime atrocities and genocide.”

One may very well differ.

Already in the Five Books of Moses, one may find discussion of various forms of government and branches of government, with clear limits set on their discretion, and consequently – on their legitimacy.

Deuteronomy, 17:14-20 includes Laws pertaining to Kings, which can be seen as setting the grounds for the conflict of Henry VIII and Thomas More, and also for the checks and balances among the branches of government:

”16: But he[the king] shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way. 17: Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. 18: And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: 19: And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:”

The return to Egypt may very well be read as a figurative prohibition on enslavement of subjects by the king, and big government is clearly disfavored.

Similarly, the Five Books of Moses do include clear commandment regarding the conduct during wartime, putting limits on atrocities, whether or not in a manner acceptable by contemporary standards. Such laws also distinguished in a meaningful way between wars that are an absolute must for the safety and security of the subjects, and wars that are declared at government’s discretion.
Deuteronomy 20:5-14
5: And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it. 6: And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it. 7: And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her. “…
10: When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11: And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. 12: And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: 13: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: 14: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.”

The five books of Moses surely do not advocate “addiction to slavery”, on the contrary, they mandate emancipation of all slaves on the seventh year.
“…in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. 15:13 And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty:”

And a verse from the Five Books of Moses (Leviticus), referring to the jubilee and the freeing of slaves is engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia:

“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof “

And in a clear commandment that surely resonated with the abolitionists states:
“23:15 Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: 23:16 He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”

The Five books of Moses, also speak of the need to appoint judges who are impartial – an early code of judicial ethics:
Deuteronomy 16:18-20:
18: Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. 19: Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. 20: That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

One may also call Schlesiger to task for another incorrect statement in the same article:
“…humanitarianism — the notion that natural rights have immediate, concrete and universal application – — is a product of the last four centuries.”

The origins of this modern concept are often traced to a very clearly promulgated document, perhaps the most significant, early Modern document – Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), written when he was just 23 years of age, and surprisingly born out of his immersion in the study of Caballah and the Song of Solomon… And Pico’s Manifesto was in and of itself an act of civil resistance, since it was sent as the opening statement to a polemic letter to the Pope, and that and more landed him for some time in jail.

With all these disclaimers, one must still agree with Schlesinger that Human Rights and Civil Rights are a tradition that is deeply embedded in the American fabric.

These points are connected, of course through the Puritan tradition. It is no accident that the one of the early Puritan rebellious acts was unauthorized translations of the bible into the vernacular – English. Therefore, making it accessible to all members of the congregation. The insistence on accessibility of the law – engraved in the United States Constitution, as part of the 5th and the 14th Amendment – Due Process of the Law, can be traced back to that principle.

It is therefore no accident that Anabaptist congregations such as the Mennonites and the Quakerswere were at the forefront of abolition and anti war protests, as forms of civil resistance based on their religious convictions.

From there on, one may make an relatively small leap to the icon of Civil Resistance in the US and the world – Henry David Thoreau, and his “Resistance to Civil Government” (1848).

In it, to clearly distinguish himself from anarchist, Thoreau states:
“I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government” .

Thoreau’s clashes with government are not surprisingly centered on slavery and war. Thoreau’s own ideas were vastly influenced by Ralf Waldo Emerson, and Emerson himself was the product of a long line of Unitarian Ministers…closely tied (even in dispute) to Harvard Divinity School.

Summing his own philosophy, Emeson is said to have stated it to proclaim:
“the infinitude of the private man.”
Emerson too, was a abolitionist, but his approach never culminated in the resistence that landed Thoreau in jail. On the contrary, Emerson is the one who paid Thoreau’s tax, to get him out of jail…

This difference is summed up in the tradition that relates the anecdote of Emerson’s visit with Thoreau in jail:
“What are you doing in there?” Emerson asked.
Thoreau replied: “What are you doing out there?”
In his eulogy

of Thoreau, Emerson said:


“He was a speaker and actor of the truth, born such, and was ever running into dramatic situations from this cause.”
And –
“No truer American existed than Thoreau.”

Thoreau and Civil Resistance became a popular culture icons again in the 1960’s, with MLK, the Baptist Minister, the civil rights movement, and the anti- Vietnam war protests. Joan Baez, for example, who grew up not far from Concord and Walden Pond, repeated the defiant act of Thoreau by refusing in 1964 to pay 60% of her tax bill, as an antiwar protest.

In recent years civil restistance have seen a new development – rave dance parties have become both in north America and in Europe the main instrument of civil resistance of the anti globalization movement, not the least because of the emphatically civil and non-violent nature of such protest.
In historical perspective, the Carter Presidency, for better and worse, is likely to be the judged as uniquely American phenomenon. In it, promotion of peace and civil rights sincerely became the corner stone of foreign policy of the leading superpower. Needless to say, in historical perspective, Jimmy Carter may also be judged to be the 20th century’s American president who was most religiously anchored.
And uniquely American in historical perspective, no doubt, is also the defiant act of another American 2oth century president, who in historical perspective may be judged to be one of the greatest of that century – one, who as a youth rebelled against his Quaker parental tradition and enlisted in the military – Dwight Eisenhower. He ended up his presidency with a Farewell Address denouncing Military-Industrial Complex, and the danger it posed to American democracy. That address became of course a classic reference among those who advocate civil resistance for various causes, but the fact that such an address was made by a president, can clearly be defined as a uniquely American phenomenon, one that is rooted in the Quaker tradition he grew up in, and rebelled against – the tradition of civil resistance.
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