Protest is a feature, not a bug, of American politics

Protests are inconvenient. They disrupt everyday people just trying to do their jobs. They are “dumb.” They are “arrogant.”   They take American liberties for granted. These arguments appear, as if from the ether, every time a protest (individual or widespread) makes national headlines. The people who make them – who come from across the political spectrum – seem to see protest as a modern tactic, one anathema to the genteel politics of yesteryear. Why, these arguments imply, in the aftermath of political defeat, can’t we all just come together, put differences aside, not resister displeasure?

Some excellent scholars have spent a lot of time pointing out the problems with applying this vision to the Civil Rights Era (the short answer is that Civil Rights was never just about peaceful protest, and that protests that began peacefully were often rendered violent by state actors), but I want to look farther back in time, and to sketch the history of protest in early America.

What follows is a series of historiographical vignettes about protests, riots and violence in American history. The short version of this history: protest – disruptive, sometimes violent, always inconvenient, rarely genteel – is baked into American politics. It is not a modern or millennial invention. It is not a product of rudeness and self-centeredness. It is a feature, not a bug.

In the decades before the American Revolution, protests often followed a set ritual.   Wayne Lee has documented the ways in which complainants gathered signatures for a petition, asking those in power to accede to their demands. If petitions went ignored, protesters would often turn symbolic violence on symbolic targets – hanging effigies, demanding performative gestures or trying absent officials in an invisible court of law. If symbols did not work, protestors would engage in structured, nominally legal protests, which often included bonfires, toasts, parades and public spectacle. If none of these worked, unstructured violence was seen as a feasible alternative.

The idea that protests were legitimate politics did not die with the colonial era. In the 1970s Pauline Maier pointed out that protest mobs – both those that sought to subvert the law and those which endavoured to enforce laws they though were being flouted – were central to the American Revolution. Not only were mobs important tools for revolutionary action, they were also viewed as legitimate political action by leading eighteenth-century Americans, who “could still grant such incidents an established and necessary role in free societies, one that made them an integral and even respected element of the political order.”

Neither did protest end with the Revolution. Scholars have documented the various ways in which people excluded from formal politics were able to make claims on those in power during the Early Republic. These included boycotts of non-American goods, public refusals to pay taxes to the new nation, and even the ceremonial presentation of a mammoth block of cheese. These newly minted American protestors were not inventing a new form of politics. They borrowed from colonial and revolutionary norms, rejecting what did not work, and keeping what did.

Enslaved people also engaged in similarly structured public protest. Some employed formal petitioning, others embodied protests – though (unsurprisingly) these protests were and are still today called rebellions or revolts. Eugene Genovese, and subsequently many others have put these protests, rebellions, revolts in the long genealogy of American resistance to structures of power. The idea that the way a person looks, or a set of behavioral markers, determines whether a protest is cast as legitimate or mob – riot or march – will surprise no one, but I think it is worth noting that these features also have historical roots.

In the decades that followed the era of the early republic, and leading up to the Civil War, protest remained a valuable part of Americans’ political repertoire. When faced with perceived injustice (perhaps most visibly the Civil War draft and the practice of buying out of military service) American men and women took to the streets. They embodied their political frustrations. Some of their causes were sympathetic, others are deplorable, but the mode of politics they were using to make those claims had a clear genealogy with roots in Colonial America (or, as Lee would have it, in the European polities from which colonists came).

All of this is to say that there was never a golden age of genteel and polite objections to politics. The only way to arrive at the impression that there was is if you willfully restrict your attention to what was happening in halls of power, where the rituals of politics are bound by yeas, nays, motions and seconds (though even in these spaces have been memorable instances of violent protest).

However, if we were only to study American politics from the perspective of these halls of power, we’d miss out on some of the driving engines of political change. Imagine a history of the American Revolution without the Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre. Imagine a history of the Civil War without the draft riots. Imagine a history of the Great Depression without the Bonus army.

Histories of politics that lack what is happening outside of formal political spaces are missing a fundamental engine of change. To look to our current politics and ask that we limit ourselves to statehouses and capitol buildings is unreservedly ahistorical.


For some more reading, see

Dorsey, Bruce. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Cornell University Press, 2002.

Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. University Press of Florida, 2001.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. WW Norton & Company, 1991.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness : Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London ; New York, NY: Verso, 1991.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1997.

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