Category: American History

Video: Ship of Death, A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World

In 1792, a ship set sail from England with the best of intentions. Its tragic journey would change the course of history forever.

Historian Billy Smith uncovered a remarkable story of tragedy unleashed from misguided humanitarianism in his book Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World. The Hankey was engaged to ferry abolitionists seeking to establish a colony free of slavery to West Africa. Lack of understanding and respect for the cultures they encountered doomed the ship’s original mission. The video below, narrated by Smith, traces the far-reaching results—the changes to the fate of the Haitian Slave Rebellion, contributions to the Louisiana Purchase and the death of hundreds of thousands across several continents.

On the Anniversary of the Iraq War

On March 20, 2003, coalition forces led by the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in what is still seen as a highly controversial decision made by the United States and its allies to “end the regime of Saddam Hussein” and to eliminate what were allegedly weapons of mass destruction in the possession of the Iraqi government.   On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech proclaiming the end of major combat operations in the war. Instead, it was only the beginning of the insurgency that has lasted to this day.

Read Pete Mansoor’s Reddit AMA


Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War

Retired US Army colonel Peter Mansoor, author of Yale University Press titles Baghdad at Sunrise and Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War, formerly served as executive officer to Petraeus, who was commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq from 2007 – 2008.  But Mansoor is an educator, too; currently he holds the position as General Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Chair of Military History at Ohio State University In writing Surge, he observes:

The misinformation and ignorance—among the general public, in the historical community, within the halls of government, and even in the military—about why the surge in Iraq succeeded is somewhat disheartening. Indeed, a number of pundits still refuse to admit that the surge had anything to do with the reduction of violence in Iraq. The American people need a more comprehensive account of the Iraq War during the years of the surge, one written from the inside perspective of a member of General Petraeus’s team.

Using newly declassified documents—including Petraeus’s own papers— unpublished manuscripts, interviews, author notes, and published sources, Mansoor‘s account of the 2007-2008 surge is the first to fully address not only insider events and knowledge alongside journalistic reporting in the media, but also information presented in the body of literature recently published on the topic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. The results of Mansoor’s “perspective that time alone can provide” are synthesized in the book, and in fascinating detail he tells the on-the-ground story of what might yet become one of the most famous turning points in American military history. Watch our video trailer with the author and get started on the withdrawal from misinformed status.


The Urban Singles Comedy and Public Diplomacy

Preview the book and learn more on the Through a Screen Darkly website!


As a form of light popular entertainment, television sitcoms such as the hugely successful Friends, which depicts the lives of six young, singles Manhattanites, appear to be unlikely candidates for ambassadors of American culture. In Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, Martha Bayles illustrates the transformation of entertainment and popular culture into the primary form of American public diplomacy after the Cold War and highlights the resulting distortion of the American image abroad. According to Bayles, the television genre of “urban singles comedy” exemplifies the disjunction between the American image and its reality that is created by boundless exportation of American popular culture. In the chapter “The American Way of Sex,” she establishes the far reach and global viewership of American shows like Friends:

When I started my research, Friends was not uppermost in my mind. But the more I traveled, the more I saw the extent of its global appeal. The producer of Friends, Warner Brothers, estimates that the program has been telecast in 135 countries and “key territories,” reaching an average of fourteen million viewers per telecast. And these figures are only for the lucrative markets of Europe, Australia, and East Asia. They do not include a host of other countries where Friends is carried by satellite and terrestrial channels. Nor do they reflect the incalculable distribution of Friends via illegal downloads and pirated VCDs. When pressed, they estimated that the total number of “hits” (individual viewings of a single episode) was in the neighborhood of seventeen billion!

Bayles’s interviewees attribute two reasons for Friends’s (and the urban singles comedy’s) international appeal and staggering popularity. The first reason is “the sheer display of affluence,” or “eye candy,” in the sitcom’s representation of Manhattan as an opulent world consisting only of sophisticated, white individuals and fashionable business establishments. The second reason is “titillation” over the fictional sexual situations enacted onscreen. But Bayles also reveals that the most important reason – and the one most often cited to her by young people overseas – is the urban singles comedy’s portrayal of the seemingly seductive “sweet spot” between living with family and getting married, during which young, single men and women live in “pleasant urban settings with a comfortable income, a huge amount of personal freedom, and little to no contact with their families or communities of origin.” At the same time, she observes, regardless of appearing on Friends, Sex and the City, or Desperate Housewives, the fictional inhabitants of this “sweet spot” are isolated from the rest of society. Even when they venture out, the relationships they form with those outside their own established circles inevitably fail after a number of episodes. Encounters with parents or older characters are rare. Long-term commitment is but a distant possibility. Despite the glamorousness and provocativeness of these characters, they lead profoundly limited lives trapped within this “sweet spot.”

The problem with this, Bayles argues, is that while American viewers probably realize that television comedies offer a skewed version of American life to entertain and make a point, foreign viewers who have met few (if any) Americans are less likely to perceive the distinction between American comedy and reality:

To Americans, the urban singles comedy draws a more or less amusing caricature of life in the sweet spot. To others – not media officials in China, but millions of ordinary men and women – this caricatured aspect is harder to discern. Without a doubt, foreigners enjoy watching the erotic shenanigans of Americans on television. But their enjoyment is tinged with a voyeurism that should give us pause. Are they laughing at Americans as fellow human beings, struggling in all our comic frailty to achieve a more equitable path to commitment and generativity? Or are they laughing at alien, even grotesque creatures who refuse to acknowledge any sexual good beyond pleasure?

Imagining Black America

To begin with, some basic biology. Human beings share fully 99.5 percent of our DNA. In other words, the individual difference between us – in height and weight, in skin color, in hair texture – are shaped by a mere 0.5 percent of our genetic material.

Imagining Black AmericaThis is how Michael Wayne begins Imagining Black America, a text based both in scientific research and cultural ethnography. While race has been proven merely a social construct, much of society is still centered on these manufactured demarcations. Wayne’s text travels the span of Black American history, beginning in 1619, when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown and spanning through the reelection of President Barack Obama.

Wayne is well suited to undertaking this task. In his introduction he speaks of his childhood in Toronto. Growing up in a predominantly white area, he writes, “I did have one occasion to see large numbers of black Americans during these impressionable years, though at a distance.” He recounts traveling into New York City, rolling through Harlem. He writes:

To me, the black people I saw from the window of the train, now they were real Americans. How my pre-teen self arrived at that conclusion I can’t say. Like most boys my age, I was preoccupied with sports, so maybe it was because many of the baseball stars in the 1950s – many stars of “America’s game” – were black: Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe.

Yet, as Wayne grew older he realizes that the topic of race in America is more complicated and nuanced than his childhood self originally realized. Imagining Black America traces Wayne’s work in the field, charting a complicated and fascinating aspect of American culture and history.

Abolitionism, Yellow Fever, and the Legacy of Slavery: Excerpt from Ship of Death

In 1792, the Hankey left Britain full of abolitionists who hoped to establish a colony free of slavery in West Africa. Botched negotiations with local tribes and the failure of the colony sent the Hankey on a trip around the Atlantic with a terrible infestation of Yellow Fever. Billy Smith follows the journey closely in Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World, recording both the experiences on deck and the larger impact of the pandemic it spread on the politics of the newly formed United States, the Haitian Slave Rebellion and more.  As the nation reflects on the legacy of slavery during Black History Month, we would like to share the following excerpt from Smith’s book in which the antislavery colonists first reach the island of Bolama, off the coast of West Africa.

Smith_sod“Whether poor or rich, all the participants in the Bolama adventure were caught up in the swirl of the revolutionary era. The expedition emerged from a ferment of radicalism and reform that typified much of the transatlantic world during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In North America in 1776, in France in 1789, and in Saint- Domingue in 1791, millions of people engaged in violent rebellions that transformed their societies fundamentally, with the general goal of making all people more equal.

The Hankey set sail for Africa in the spring of 1792 within this political context. The idea for the expedition had grown out of the radical and reformist movements, but the conservative governmental backlash had set in by the time the ship sailed. Even if the British government did not support their venture, many of the Bolama colonists were still proud of their nation and its ideals. Some of their antislavery motivation emerged from the notion that “British liberties” should be extended to the entire globe. Yet as part of their humanitarian spirit, the Bolama migrants intended to impose their political, cultural, and religious ways of life on African peoples. Unfortunately for them, most Africans had little desire to have their lives transformed by outsiders, even well- intentioned ones.48

Shortly after their arrival, Dalrymple sent several boatloads of armed men ashore to explore what he believed was an uninhabited island. The appeal of solid ground and a chance to see their new home was too great for the colonists, weary of confinement on the ship. Dalrymple initially pleaded with them to stay on board, but discipline quickly broke down as eager pioneers swarmed ashore to search for water, escape their cramped quarters, and find fresh food. Dalrymple was an easygoing dreamer rather than a hard- driving disciplinarian, and he could not control his passengers.

During their first “jovial day” on the island, they rejoiced in their good fortune, hoisted the British flag, and, disregarding their constitutional pledge to purchase Bolama from the Africans, took possession of the land for the British king. The future of their enterprise seemed worth celebrating. Each male settler, as one of them wrote, “flattered himself with the pleasing idea of acquiring, by his industry, a sufficient fortune to enable him, in a short time, to return to his native country in a state of independence.”5

On the same day they claimed the island, the settlers spotted a small craft in the distance. Rowing furiously in their jolly boat to catch it, they came even with the craft, which contained six Africans, who informed them in a Portuguese Creole language that this was indeed the island of Bolama. However, they cautioned, the British should not stay there until they held a palaver with the owners, Canabacs, “who were very hostile to Europeans.” The Canabacs lived on a nearby island and belonged to the larger ethnic group of Bijago inhabiting the archipelago. The colonists—actually invaders at this point, since they were occupying somebody else’s land—understood neither the African men’s language nor their own personal danger.6

As more than one person has observed, history makes fools of us all. The Bolama colonists could have served as models for that aphorism. Even when three dozen armed African men appeared the next day off shore in a canoe, the colonists were not upset, at least not sufficiently to take precautions. Despite British engagement in the slave trade for more than a century, the colonists knew virtually nothing about Africa or the peoples who lived there. No one in the expedition except Dalrymple had ever set foot on the continent.

In stark contrast, Canabacs and their fellow Bijago across the archipelago knew Europeans all too well. They had been among the first Africans kidnapped and enslaved by white foreigners in the fifteenth century. They had a long history of interactions with British, continental European, and American ship captains and merchants. During the first century of contact, European traders often were powerful enough to seize what they wanted by force, and they had no scruples about kidnapping free people and selling them into slavery. Many of the foreigners had routinely plundered and destroyed Bijago villages if their efforts to obtain slaves were thwarted. However, Africans gradually began to take control of their interactions with the new intruders. Unlike the Vincheai in the Canary Islands, the Bijago had the immense benefit of adjusting to Europeans over a long period. They learned important lessons from the frequent incursions. They kept all but the most aggressive intentions of the visitors at bay through trade and alliances, and they waged war with those who could not be appeased. The Bijago developed a reputation for considerable military prowess, which they employed against both Europeans and Africans on the continent as they deemed necessary. As a result, they were able to maintain an independent homeland well into the nineteenth century.9

The people on Canabac Island grew alarmed when they saw the fires raging on Bolama, and they set off to investigate. They discovered a peculiar tribe of white people cutting down trees, constructing huts, burning grasses, damaging rice fields, and disrupting wildlife— all on an island where Canabacs had hunted and gathered food for generations. It required no great leap of imagination to conclude that these strangers had come to take their land. Canabacs knew very well how to respond to white predators. They would repel the intruders from their shores.

Ironically, and certainly unknown to them, the antislavery colonists had chosen an island that lay at the heart of the region where the Atlantic slave trade had begun. After the Portuguese tried unsuccessfully to conquer the Vincheai in the Canary Islands, northwest of the Bijago’s homeland, they established an outpost on an unoccupied island of the Cape Verde archipelago south of the Canaries. In 1446, two Portuguese ships, commanded by Gil Eannes and Nuño Tristão, became the fi rst Eu ro pe an vessels of record to sail down the West African coast as far south as the Bijagos Archipelago. They were equipped with the new technology of the movable lateen sail, which they had picked up from Arabs. These sails would enable them to tack into the strong northern headwinds on their return to Portugal. Eannes and Tristão landed at the Bijagos Islands to buy ivory, pepper, and gold— commodities (along with a few slaves) that West Africans and Europeans had been trading overland for centuries via caravans across the Sahara.1

After exchanging goods with Africans in the region, the two captains attacked a Bijago village, kidnapping a handful of individuals and carrying them back to Portugal as slaves. It was a suitably brutal beginning for one of the greatest crimes in world history.2 Hundreds of European explorers around the world, including Christopher Columbus, would continue this tradition of kidnapping indigenous peoples to take home to display, present as gifts to kings and queens, or use as bound servants.

As early as 1526, slavers began to sail regularly between Africa and the Americas. Portuguese and Spanish slavers initially bought Africans from the Upper Guinea coast, the region encompassing Bolama. During the seventeenth century, the slave trade expanded substantially to meet the labor demands of the plantations in the West Indian sugar islands and Portuguese Brazil. Slavers transported the largest number of captives from Upper Guinea in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At the same time, they started to work more intensively south of Bolama, especially in the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra. The number of enslaved people forced across the Atlantic Ocean by the two Iberian powers rose sharply from the end of the eigh teenth century until the end of the slave trade in the second half of the nineteenth century. However in total, only 4 or 5 percent of Africans transported as slaves across the Atlantic came from the regions near Bolama.3

Both the Bijago and the colonists were compelled to conduct their lives within the framework of imperial expansion, industrialization, and, crucially, the slave trade, striving to maintain their communities and cultures against a vast array of forces, both local and international. The British colonists, pulled to Africa by altruism and avarice, were also pushed from their homeland by a variety of problems that afflicted their communities, the region, and the larger Atlantic world. Over the centuries, the Bijago had developed creative strategies to deal with the growing importance of buying, selling, and slaving, while at the same time resisting capture and transportation themselves. One mistake might condemn an individual or an entire village, along with all their future off spring, to a lifetime of slavery. Neither the Bijago nor the British were able to act completely independently of the intermeshed economic, political, and social networks that framed their choices. In that sense, the struggles of the two groups had parallels, even as there were also vital differences.

The colonists did not have to fear the brute power exercised by well- armed slavers in Africa. The Bijago had the home- field advantage, local knowledge, an advantage that they successfully defended for a long time. If measured by sheer longevity, the Bijago held their own against the Europeans who initiated the Atlantic slave trade in the region, certainly for a far longer period than the Vincheai. The Bijago were able to control many of the aspects of their existence for more than four centuries. In stark contrast to the Bijago’s local knowledge and centuries of dealing with Europeans, the colonists knew nothing of the region or its history, which played no small part in their inability to found a successful settlement. The changing nature of commerce, cooperation, and strife with their neighbors on the nearby African coast played a significant role in the Bijago’s ability to manage their affairs.”

Excerpted from Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World. Copyright © 2013 by Billy G. Smith. All rights reserved.

Remembering Robert Dahl

Photo: Yale University

Robert Dahl. Photo: Yale University

Robert A. Dahl (1915 – 2014), eminent political scientist and champion of democracy, passed away on February 5, 2014 in Hamden, Connecticut, at age 98. Named by Foreign Affairs magazine the “dean of American political scientists,” Dahl was instrumental in building one of the first modern political science departments. Dahl authored hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including the Who Governs? (Yale University Press, 1961), On Democracy (Yale University Press, 1998), and many other works.  He was Sterling professor emeritus of political science, the highest academic rank at Yale University.

Born in 1915 in Iowa, Dahl’s family moved to Alaska during the depression. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1936 and received a doctorate in political science from Yale in 1940, joining Yale’s faculty in 1946. In the intermittent years, Dahl enlisted in the Army, serving in Europe during World War II. He was decorated with the Bronze Star Medal. He also worked as an economist for the War Production Board.

Who Governs?, winner of the 1962 Woodrow Wilson Prize, argued against the conception that political power is held by one elite group through a close examination of New Haven, Connecticut. Instead, Dahl suggested power is comprised by groups with competing interests, what he termed polyarchy. Democracy and Its Critics, an analysis on the nature of democracy and its function, won the Woodrow Wilson Prize in 1990 and the Elaine and David Spitz Book Award in 1991. Dahl earned many such accolades, and in 2002 The New Yorker wrote he was “about as covered with honors as a scholar can be.”

Known for being a generous presence, attentive adviser and active participant in the university community, Robert Dahl will be missed. Yale University Press is privileged to be the publisher of eight of Dahl’s books including After the Revolution? (1990), How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2003), and his most recent, On Political Equality (2007).

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How Technology Turned the Entertainment Industry Into America’s Ambassador to the World

People who watch U.S. television shows, attend Hollywood movies, and listen to pop music can’t help but believe that we are a nation in which we have sex with strangers regularly, where we wander the streets well-armed and prepared to shoot our neighbors at any provocation, and where the life style to which we aspire is one of rich, cocaine-snorting sybarites.

Through a Screen DarklyIn the opening of her latest book, Martha Bayles relates an encounter with Muhammad Rizieq Syihab, the leader of Indonesia’s most disruptive Islamist group, the FPI. Asking him about his thoughts on America’s cultural influence, she received a reply that was hardly surprising from an opponent of Western democracy: rap and rock “reduces you to the level of animals,” films and TV shows are simply exhibitions of “immoral behavior,” and the US government is deliberately exporting these harmful influences to destroy Islam. It’s tempting to respond to such statements, Bayles writes, with “Get over it! Sex and violence in the media are the price we pay for freedom, and, compared with living under a dictatorship, it’s worth it.” But such a response fails to acknowledge the millions of other, more moderate people who favor democracy while worrying about the impact of American entertainment on their society. In Through A Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image AbroadBayles explores how the entertainment industry has become America’s de facto ambassador to the rest of the world, the attitudes that this engenders, and some possible solutions to the problem.

During the Cold War, American popular culture served a very different purpose from the role it plays now. Bayles points to the testimony of former Soviet subjects who attributed their dreams of freedom to American movies, jazz, and rock music, such as the government-supported famous jazz broadcasts on the Voice of America international radio service, or the more organically-occurring craze for rock music that swept Eastern Europe and the USSR in the 60s and 70s. In all these cases, Bayles writes, “the lesson was clear: American popular culture helped free the world from Communism.” But this is no longer the case. American movies, pop music, and T.V. shows may still be attracting people all over the globe, but they are hardly winning hearts and minds for freedom and democracy. The change is due to three key factors, one of which is technology.

[F]or most of the twentieth century, the only US government body with the power to censor the electronic media, the FCC, rarely used the power, because the broadcast networks were privately owned entities that, like the film studios, practiced fairly rigorous self-censorship. But with the massive deregulation of the 1970s and 1980s, to say nothing of the subsequent rise of satellite television and the Internet, the American system of self-censorship has eroded. The networks still enforce certain rules, such as the prohibitions on nudity and profanity. The MPAA still rates movies for theatrical release. And record companies still affix “parental advisory” stickers to certain CDs and MP3 downloads. But as any American ten-year-old can attest, these controls are like a wire fence strung across a river. The American media regime is, in effect, the most libertarian in the world.

Meanwhile, in the former Soviet bloc and many other places where the media had been state-controlled, a revolutionary technology appeared in the 1990s—not the Internet (that came later) but commercial satellite television. Intensely competitive, voracious for programming, satellite television opened new vistas for the American entertainment industry. The result, as we’ve seen, is a tsunami of movies, pop music, TV shows, and video games coursing through legitimate and illegitimate distribution channels, including pirated videodiscs and unlicensed downloading from the Internet. This situation is unprecedented and bears scant resemblance to the slow, often tortuous diffusion of American popular culture during the Cold War.

In other words, technology has expanded and deregulated the dissemination of American cultural influence to the rest of the world. What used to be a carefully controlled flow of cultural exports has been unleashed to become a torrent. How, then, can U.S. public diplomacy be revived against the distorting backdrop of globalized popular culture? In Through A Screen Darkly, Bayles charts a more positive path for the future.


Editor Sarah Miller on Wilderness and the American Mind

Sarah Miller—

Right before Yale College’s course “shopping period” at the beginning of each semester, I visited the campus bookstores. Among the best parts of each new semester was an excuse to buy new books, and I was drawn to more than a few courses based solely on the corresponding titles on display at the York Street Barnes & Noble or our beloved former Labyrinth Books. One such course was a seminar on the history of environmental justice taught by a new visiting faculty member, and now a Yale University Press author, Paul Sabin. The book that drew me in was Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind.

3rd edition copy of Wilderness and the American Mind

Wilderness was then in its third edition, published in 1982; its unremarkable jacket featured 70s era sans serif type and cattails along a lake. It wasn’t the jacket that drew me in, but the title, and particularly the questions embedded therein: is there really such a thing as the “American mind”? If so, what does wilderness have to do with it? I spent several weeks with Wilderness during Sabin’s course and came to admire Nash’s accessible, direct writing style, as well as his prescient insight into the efforts that would become our present day environmental and conservation movements. I toted it around in the dining halls and read it on the city bus, dog-earing and underlining. It was one of those books that I had to keep, that remained a companion and reference long after the class was over.

Waiting in the lobby for my first interview at Yale University Press, I noticed that same edition of Wilderness on a bookshelf. Only then did I run my eyes down the spine and notice the publisher. Years later, as I began to work on our course books program here at YUP, I wrote to Nash about reissuing his now classic text as a fifth edition. For months, he didn’t respond. I left messages at the UC Santa Barbara Environmental Studies office. I sent old-fashioned printed letters. Finally I wrote with my story of picking a class based on his book, of its role in piquing my interest in environmental history, of toting it around with me from country to country, apartment to apartment, all these years. And this time he replied.

Wilderness and the American Mind, 5th edNash told me that he submitted Wilderness to Yale University Press as an unrevised doctoral dissertation, when he was not much older than I was when I first read it. The year was 1965, the peak of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and U.S.  military engagement in Vietnam. Environmental concerns were not making headlines. Nash not only examines all of American environmental history but also boldly offers an historically-framed call to action. Through evidence, Nash demonstrates that the positive shift in American ideas about wilderness does not independently ensure any level of protection for wild places. It takes broader movements and efforts to save them.

Published in 1967, Wilderness and the American Mind was met with immediate critical acclaim. Though its influence would only be felt over time, as the movements Nash traced continue to grow in importance. Now more than four decades later, Nash’s book is an essential classroom text in environmental history, American history, and environmental studies, warranting our brand new fifth edition. This trajectory has also earned the book its oft-cited descriptor as “the Book of Genesis for conservationists.” And, much less remarkably, it was the first of many books I would come to love from Yale University Press.

YUP Editor Sarah MillerSarah Miller is College Editor for Yale University Press. 

Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition

In the newly published Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition, Lewis Perry traces the history of civil disobedience in the United States from its pre-revolutionary backgrounds to the present. Amidst the controversy that ebbs and flows over civil disobedience, and the studies of individuals and events, there seems to be one element missing from public discussion: the examination of long-term patterns, influences and discontinuities. Not only does Perry fill this gap by tracing connections between periods and movements, he also highlights some recurrent problems as experienced by those who have violated laws in the name of a higher morality, focusing particularly on the underlying paradoxical feeling of wanting to respect the law while being unable to ignore immoralities in those institutions of civil society.

Civil Disobedience“Civil disobedience,” Perry, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Saint Louis University, writes in his introduction, ”appears in the news almost daily.” During the spring, the stories often occur on campuses. Take for instance the 2001 sit-in by Penn State students to bring attention to death threats against a black student leader; the hunger strike conducted by Wesleyan students, angry that a popular teacher was being let go; the take-over of a campus building by Harvard students for three weeks to press the university to pay a “living wage” to janitors and other workers. But of course, civil disobedience is hardly limited to campuses in the springtime, and it is unlikely to disappear from American public life at any point in the future. Perry explains, “In recent years protests against abortion clinics, police brutality, nuclear armaments, marriage laws, and world trade policies have featured dramatic and well-publicized acts of civil disobedience. These are late instances of a long-standing tradition, and even amid heightened concern about terrorist threats there has been relatively little public talk of suppressing American’s recourse to sit-ins and other expressions of civil disobedience.”

But what exactly qualifies as an instance of civil disobedience? For instance, in 2008, a group of Long Island teenagers protested against high gasoline prices by walking or biking to school instead of driving; in another case, the managing editor of the National Review urged college applicants to lie about their race on their applications—do these really count as examples? In his book, Perry distinguishes civil disobedience from forms of violent resistance and indirect protects like boycotts. He acknowledges that while civil disobedience is an “odd and elusive concept,” it cannot be understood “if we generalize it to include all forms of resistance, day-to-day or extraordinary.”

One intriguing pattern that emerges in the book, which Barton Swaim points out in his review in the Wall Street Journal, is that before the middle of the 19th century, Americans activists almost always justified their disobedience by referring to a higher authority such as divine law, but later the justification tended to be derived from within rather than from above; from abstract principles rather than God. One exception, however, was the civil rights movement in the South, as black Southerners were “still steeped in a religious worldview,” Swaim explains.

Ultimately, Perry’s book demonstrates that the American tradition of civil disobedience exhibits tremendous variation, and does not come with a predictable code of behavior or dogma. But what is certain is that the tradition is unlikely to die out any time soon, for as Martin Luther King once proclaimed, “The day of the demonstrations isn’t over.”

The Men Who Lost America: “The Tyrant”

men_who_lostAs we transition from American History November to Holiday Gift-giving December, we are sharing a series of previews of Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s profiles of the British leaders during the American Revolution from The Men Who Lost America, beginning with King George III. Each profile looks carefully at the myths that have develop around each man and reveals their true role in losing the war.

King George III, referred to in the Declaration of Independence, and in many history classes to this day, as a “Tyrant . . . unfit to the the ruler of a free people.” O’Shaughnessy challenges this image of George III, demonstrating through exhaustive research the larger role that Parliament played in inciting the American Revolution. George III ruled England when the power of the monarchy was declining. He opposed policies which chafed at the colonists, arguing with the ministers who enacted them to make the policies more fair. Until his support of the Coercive Acts in 1774, most colonists were not displeased with the King himself. Detailing George III’s reign from coronation to death, O’Shaughnessy reveals how the King’s opinion on the Revolution changed over time, his involvement in military strategy and why John Adams and his wife loved George III, but Thomas Jefferson hated him.

Preview O’Shaughnessy’s profile of George III in the following excerpt.


George_IIIGeorge III did not instigate the colonial policies that triggered the American Revolution. The government ministers, not the king, were the architects of those policies, whose origins predated his reign. When he ascended the throne, George III was politically inexperienced. Throughout the 1760s he was preoccupied with the problem of forming a stable government. The king appointed the ministers of the government—the most significant of the political powers remaining to the monarchy—but his choices were confined to men who were able to command majority support in Parliament, and were governed by domestic rather than imperial considerations.

George III not only did not initiate the policies that led to the breakdown in imperial relations, but he was even a restraining influence on some of the more extreme measures proposed by his ministers. His first statement about affairs in America recommended that the colonies receive proper compensation for their expenses in the French and Indian War. He discouraged George Grenville’s government from including a clause in the Quartering Act (1765) that permitted the billeting of soldiers in private houses in America. He later remarked that the Stamp Act was “abundant in absurdities,” having “first deprived the Americans, by restraining their trade, from the means of acquiring wealth, and (then) taxed them.” He supported the conciliatory colonial policies advocated by the Duke of Grafton’s ministry in 1769.

George III advised against the more draconian proposals of Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of state for America. He agreed that the abolition of elections for the Council of Massachusetts Bay might indeed “from a continuance of their conduct become necessary; but till then ought to be avoided as altering Charters is at all times an odious measure.” He similarly advised against the proposal to abolish assemblies that denied the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. He argued that such action was “of so strong a nature that it rather seems calculated to increase the unhappy feuds that subsist than to assuage them.” He cautioned that colonial governors “ought to be instructed to avoid as much as possible giving occasion to the Assemblies again coming on the apple of discord.” He suggested that a hint be given that colonies that submitted to the Townshend Duties (1767) might be exempted from the tax on tea. He had been willing to grant such a favor to Virginia and the British West Indies in 1769, but desisted because “the Virginians were so offensive the last Spring.”

It was not until the Boston Tea Party (1773) that George III suddenly became actively involved in the growing imperial crisis in America. He became more vehement from the conviction that the crisis had been caused by too much lenience towards the colonies. He regretted that Britain had previously indulged them by repealing the Stamp Act in 1766. Believing that any concessions were likely to be interpreted as a sign of weakness and that they would only encourage further demands, he was against appeasement of the colonies. He was much impressed by the advice of the commander of the British army in America, General Thomas Gage, that “they will be lyons, whilst we are lambs; but, if we take the resolute part, they will undoubtedly prove very meek.” He denied wishing to use force, but argued that it was the only means of success.

Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy. All rights reserved.

This month we will share and excerpt from O’Shaughnessy’s profile of Charles, Earl Cornwallis in The Men Who Lost America. Be sure to subscribe to the blog using the form in the sidebar for e-mail updates on new posts!