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Throughout the history of the United States, various segments of the citizenry have resorted to armed and violent efforts in a bid to achieve their various divergent socio-political aims. Indeed, even the American Revolution itself was characterized by violent armed efforts by disgruntled citizens then under the English rule.
Specifically, as the US history testifies, various militant groups, fighting for and advocating various causes, have modeled their violent efforts on the idealism espoused by the fighters of independence.
Therefore, the armed abolitionists of the pre-Civil War era, the lynch mobs in the American South, and the vigilance committees in frontier areas during the famed “go west” excursions by American families are identified as “uncivil disobedience” by author Kirkpatrick Jennet.
According to the author, these militant, and usually violent groups of citizens view themselves as vanguards for republicanism (Kirkpatrick 11).
These groups are usually roused and motivated by a sense of discord that they discern in law or in the constitution, where they may perceive a sense of wrong, and they thus justify their violent efforts to correct these injustices, wrought by law, by engaging in violent “uncivil” acts of disobedience to authority.
For instance, in the case of violent abolitionists, having witnessed the ills of slavery and perceiving the sense of moral and legislative wrong in slavery and its applicable laws, they took it upon themselves to liberate slaves violently in order to correct what was, in their view, an injustice.
Therefore, uncivil disobedience regards their efforts as sanctioned by morality, coupled with a sense of duty for correcting a wrong legalized by law or within a constitution. This sense of idealism drives the uncivil disobedience, despite the usually catastrophic outcomes of their violent campaigns, where innocent lives are lost.
Abolitionists on a violent path of liberating slaves
The abolitionists of the pre-civil war days began their campaigns on purely ideological opposition to the institution of slavery. However, the slow pace of abolition of slavery in many states and on the federal government level slowly led a number of committed abolitionists towards the path of violence.
The famous case of John Brown and his militant drive to create an anti-slavery revolution in the American South is a case in point. This act led to the death of many innocent men women and children, and the destruction of property, ultimately earning Brown death sentence.
Vigilante Committees Out to Restore “Order”
Similarly, the actions of the vigilance committees in frontier towns where such committees acted as both prosecutor and judge in many cases qualify as uncivil disobedience.
According to the author, such committees were primarily moved by racist and xenophobic motives (Kirkpatrick 10). Many times the victims of wrath and unqualified judgment of members of these committees were immigrants out to claim their share of the illusionary American Dream. The violence meted out on these unfortunate immigrants, and their families by members of these committees were mostly based on unsubstantiated accusations. As stated earlier, the driving force was the racist agenda of the members of these committees.
The Lynch Mobs
The lynch mobs of the American South killed nearly three thousand African Americans, from the period immediately following the Civil War, until well into the first half of the Twentieth Century. After the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln during the war granted African American freedom from slavery, many Southerners were bent on ensuring that the African Americans did not enjoy equal civil rights as intended by the Proclamation.
Therefore, through terrorizing and lynching African Americans for any reason the mobs would come up with, African Americans were never able to exercise and enjoy equal civil liberties until the Civil Rights Act legislation was passed nearly a century later.
Taking the Law into Their Own Hands
The common thread in the violent acts of these three groups; the abolitionists, the vigilante committees and the lynch mobs was their contention that available law enforcement institutions had failed to deliver justice, and thus they had little choice, but to actualize their version of justice violently through citizen power and democratic ideals enshrined in the constitution of America.
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The contention by these uncivil disobedient groups that law enforcement agents had failed in their duties is hardly plausible. In the case of John Brown and other militant abolitionists, the real picture is that they had failed to allow the responsible institutions to handle the matter of abolition within the limits of law and the constitution.
In the light of the Civil war, and the emancipation proclamation that later freed the slaves, John Brown’s attempts of creating a violent anti-slavery rebellion seem unnecessary. Similarly, the vigilante committees believed that they had to take the action of preserving law and order because the law enforcement institutions in the frontier towns were inept.
Thus, the uncivil disobedience in the form of vigilant committee members visited terror on many immigrants under the guise of law enforcement. Concerning the Southern lynch mobs, they were mainly driven by a racist agenda that believed that the government had failed them by granting freedom to slaves and subsequently robbing them of a free source of labor.
Ultimately, uncivil disobediences cause unnecessary deaths, destruction and suffering on their victims. Insofar as these groups cause damage, on both their unfairly targeted alleged enemies and other innocent citizens in the name of democratic ideals, constitutionalism, and/or republicanism, their acts indicate a willingness to use the wrong means to secure just ends.
The Purposes for Studying Uncivilized Disobedients
Author Kirkpatrick gives several reasons for her interest in studying the uncivil disobedience’ violent means of understanding and enacting citizenship. Her first reason involves what, in her view, is the over-glorification of democracy and democratic ideals by uncivil disobedience.
According to the author, uncivil disobedience ‘moralize’ democracy and view it in absolute terms, a view which drives them towards their violent causes incase of a discord between the ideal and the real/actual. When the uncivil disobedience view democracy in such absolute terms, the actual reality of the implementation of such ideals of democracy produces a discord in their conscience that drives them towards militancy in an effort to correct the perceived discord.
Indeed, according to Kirkpatrick uncivil disobedience are usually extremely confident of their moral and political convictions (15). However, since democracy is much more complicated and even un-ideal, uncivil disobedience is slightly misguided in their, sometimes valiant, efforts at correcting perceived injustices.
Secondly, uncivil disobedience work with the wrong assumption that the will of the people, at any time, should triumph over existing laws and the constitution. Author Kirkpatrick believes that, such an assumption presupposes a lot and captures little of the real intention of laws and constitution.
Despite the intentions and ideals of democracy, the position that popular sovereignty should always reign is a recipe for chaos. Many laws are enacted and legislated in order to preempt future acts by people which may lead to chaos and disorder, whether such actions are advanced under the banner of popular sovereignty or not.
Therefore, disobeying such laws and institutions, even in justified causes such as the abolition of slavery, and thereby engaging in violent and murderous acts is tantamount to terrorism. Indeed the author is of the view that uncivil disobedience is akin to terrorism.
Militia groups and other entities of uncivil disobedient groups take a short cut towards democracy and in the process cause unnecessary harm and suffering on innocent citizens. These groups often cite the fact the necessary political institutions had failed them, thus their resorting to violent means.
However, as the author suggests if political and social institutions fail their citizenry in republics and democracies, the ideal action that the citizens should take is reformation of these institutions. Indeed, that is the purpose and intent of all democratic societies, that of changing the institutions that do not seem to fulfill the purpose for which they were created.
Therefore, ultimately militias and other uncivil disobedience groups are on a lost cause. As discussed in this essay, their tendency to view democratic ideals and applicable laws in absolute terms create discordance with the reality that leads them into unnecessary violent endeavors, where most of the time innocent citizens pay the price of such actions with their lives.
The ideals of democracy and republicanism that many of these uncivil disobedient groups espouse dictate that the proper path would be to seek a means of changing the unjust laws and institutions in a civil and proper constitutional manner.
Kirkpatrick, Jennet. Uncivil Disobedience: Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.