Over the centuries, one of the most important tools available to protesting groups was literature. Some of the most famous protest literature in the world has its roots in American history. For example, some great American authors of protest literature include Thomas Paine, Thomas Nast, John C. Calhoun, and Martin Luther King. Through eloquent, sometimes subtle means, these authors became the spokesmen for their particular protest movements.
Thomas Paine was an English-born man who seemed to stir controversy wherever he travelled. Paine’s forceful yet eloquent prose made him a hero for the three great causes to which he devoted his life; the American Revolution, religious reform, and the natural rights of man. At the age of 37, Paine strove for the fabled shores of America, determined to forget his past. He made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin and settled in Philadelphia.
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There, Paine was eventually hired into the profession of an editor for the Pennsylvania Magazine. He published a series of minor essays, but his first important work was an essay written for the Pennsylvania Journal in which Paine openly denounced slavery. This was Paine’s first foray into the world of protest literature, and it clearly whets his appetite. Paine soon became fascinated with the ongoing hostility in Anglo-American relations, and, much to the dismay of his publisher, could not seem to think of anything but. Therefore, in late 1775, Paine had begun what was to become a 50- page Pamphlet known as Common Sense. In this work, Paine stated that:
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a Government, which we might expect in a country without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like a dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise (Fast 6).
This very biting and controversial stance is what characterized Paine’s writing. He went on to dismiss the King as a fool and stated that natural ability is not necessarily related to heredity. Paine argued that the colonies existed only for British profit and that the colonies must unite quickly if they were ever to form a single nation. This latter argument was more than likely influenced by Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon. Finally, Paine argued that the only way to gain the rights desired by the colonists and help from outside powers was to claim total independence. In Paine’s own words, “Until an independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business…and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity” (Coolidge 31). While Paine was working on Common Sense, the war had changed theatres into New York. Paine felt it his duty to fight in the cause he wrote so valiantly for, and thus enlisted in a Pennsylvanian unit in August of 1776. After fighting at Fort Lee, New Jersey, Paine’s unit joined with General George Washington’s army in its retreat.
Here, Paine gained quiet respect for Washington and began the first of thirteen papers that would become known as The American Crisis. Again, Paine’s eloquent prose struck the hearts of patriots and laymen alike and earned him a large following. It is in the first of these Crisis papers that one of the most stunning lines in protest literature is written: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” (Coolidge 38). Paine signed the pamphlet “Common Sense”, and this furthered his reputation. Washington was so impressed by this work that he ordered it read to the men to bolster morale just before the first major offensive of the war.
Reinforced by the dramatic coup which Washington scored at Trenton, the first of the Crisis papers helped to inspire many thousands of men into joining the war effort. The second Crisis paper was a great chance for Paine to launch a personal attack on George III, whom he deemed incompetent and unintelligent. His third paper was directed against the American Tories, and particularly the loyal Quakers of Philadelphia, whom Paine scathingly rebuked for their lack of courage.
In his fourth Crisis, Paine gave a call for his fellow man to join in the fight against the yoke of British oppression, stating that “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it” (Fast 54). This helped to draw new members into the faltering Army, and also to convert some of those who were considering leaving into freedom fighters. Another great talent of Paine’s was in explaining events, as was evidenced by his version of the events of the winter of 1776: Look back at the events of last winter and the present year, there you will find that the enemy’s success always contributed to reduce them. What they have gained in the ground, they paid so dearly for in numbers, that their victories have in the end amounted to defeats.
… He (Howe) has everybody to fight, we have only his one army to cope with, and which wastes away at every engagement: we can not only reinforce, but can redouble our numbers; he is cut off from all supplies, and must sooner or later inevitably fall into our hands. (Fast 54)
Although somewhat braggadocios (it is very unlikely that the Americans could have doubled their numbers), Paine sends a clear and powerful message to all those who read his works. He further insults the British by comparing their army to a “band of ten or twelve thousand robbers” and implores the American people to continue the fight, stating that the only way the British could possibly conquer so great a nation would be if the people “sit down and suffer them to do it” (Fast 54).
Paine further pictured General Howe as a “chief of plunderers” (Fast 55). Through his clear language and remarkable imagery, Paine left no doubt as to the poignancy of his arguments. Paine’s other influential protest work was his Letter To Washington.
Paine, after long-sufferings in Europe, had appealed to America to help rid him of his imprisonment and been many times denied. He did not realize that Washington had nothing to do with this refusal to help, and as such Paine narrow-mindedly attacked Washington. As always, Paine was not gentle, striving merely to prove his point, and not heeding the consequences and people he may have hurt. For example, Paine bluntly accuses Washington of complacency, stating that Washington was obviously conniving to keep Paine jailed and that Washington was the last person Paine would have suspected of treachery.
These damning terms showed a bitter, resentful, shallow Paine rather than the man of objectiveness and intelligence he had once been. In a statement that is humorous today, Paine states that the only logical explanation to Washington’s silence was “that everything is not as it ought to be amongst you” (Fast 334). He further accuses various officials as “prate”, “pompous”, “offensive, suspected, and ridiculous” (Fast 334). Paine also was disenchanted with the development of the Federalist Party, and could not bring himself to understand how a country that had fought against injustice for its own freedom could issue a proclamation of neutrality and refuse to help another country trying to gain independence. He concludes by expressing regret for having lost the friendship of a man he once respected:
I am sorry you have given me cause for doing it (writing the letter); for, as I have always remembered your former friendship with pleasure, I suffer a loss by your depriving me of that sentiment. (Fast 336).
This cynical piece of the literature showed how much of a personal fight Paine’s protest of the development of America had been, and the degree of his disenchantment with it spurred him into writing one of the most scathing protests ever. Protest literature is not confined to the written word. For example, another very important American to protest “literature” was Thomas Nast.
When one mentions protest literature, Nast is not a name that many people would refer to, mainly because much of the general public thinks of him as “only” a political cartoonist. However, political cartoonists can be considered authors of protest literature; after all, they oftentimes can point out problems with one illustration much more efficiently than a journalist who writes a lengthy story. Also, political cartoons often invoke humorous images in order to send a message, and many people let political cartoons give them a fresh perspective on events. Nast began his career at the age of 15, being hired by Leslie’s Weekly.
In 1862, Nast became employed by Harper’s Weekly, and throughout the Civil War, he penned many patriotic drawings, exhorting Northerners to join in the fight to crush the Rebels. Nast protested that the Rebels were in violation of the Constitution and as such must be dealt with harshly. President Lincoln was so impressed by Nast’s work that he complimented the cartoonist for being “our best recruiting sergeant” (Levenstein 75). After the war, Nast was particularly involved in protesting Andrew Johnson’s attempts to weaken Reconstruction. For those who tried to undermine the rights of blacks, Nast was equally vocal. By exaggerating the features of his intended “victims”, Nast revolutionized the art of political caricature, and his work reached new heights. He has also been accredited with creating the Democrat donkey, after he deemed their ideas to be asinine, as well as the Republican elephant, for their heavy-footed, slow manner of action.
One of Nast’s favourite targets was the corrupt organizations of machine politics; in particular, Nast unrelentingly attacked New York’s infamous Tammany Hall. Although this and William “Boss” Tweed were the subject of numerous Nast cartoons, perhaps the most well known is the “Tammany Tiger” cartoon. Set to look like Roman entertainment, this cartoon shows the political machine of Tammany Hall, signified by a vicious tiger, attacking and devouring the “innocent citizen” of the Republic, as Tweed (dressed as a Roman emperor) watches the show and enjoys various “spoils” in the background.*
In an illustration compromising no more than half a page, Nast showed the view of the common man in protesting the viscousness and total control that the political machines exercised to come by their goals. Nast is also warning people of the danger to come if they do not fail to break the power of the machines. His arguments may have helped lead to Tammany Hall’s eventual downfall and Tweed’s imprisonment (Levenstein 75). Mr. Tweed is quoted as telling Nast at one point: “Let’s stop those damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures.”
That such an argument could be stated with little by way of words and in such graphic terms is truly a testament to the power of the political cartoon as protest literature. Nast didn’t stop with protests about machine politics, however. In another of his most famous cartoons, Nast lashed out against government corruption and political lobbying groups.
This illustration showed members of the “Tammany Ring” standing in a circle, each pointing at the person to his right, with “Boss” Tweed figuring prominently. On each man’s jacket is written the name of a company or lobbying group, who are pictured as either bloated or wiry. Nast made his point even blunter by entitling this work “Who Stole the People’s Money?–Do Tell. ‘Twas Him.”*
*Images on pages 7 and 9 (Levenstein 75-77) This illustration protests the corruption of the government, and attacks the common bureaucratic policy of “passing the buck.” Again, very little was needed lexically, and the resulting statement is as poignant as any written article on governmental corruption. Another American giant in “traditional” protest literature was John C. Calhoun. Most well known for his “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” Calhoun blended fiery emotions with the eloquence of an esteemed author. In 1828 the cotton-growing states of the South, especially South Carolina, were furious at what they bitterly called the “tariff of abominations.”
They claimed it levied tribute on the South for the benefit of New England manufacturers. Calhoun then wrote the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” anonymously. In it he ingeniously claimed the right of states to nullify federal laws that they deemed unconstitutional. He argued also that a state has the constitutional right to refuse to obey a law, which would in effect be declaring that law null and void within its limits.
This work was based on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written by Madison and Jefferson some years earlier, as well as Jefferson’s Compact Theory. The nullification controversy came to a head in 1832 when South Carolina declared the tariff laws null and void, to which President Jackson responded with the threat of force. The stern and resolute attitude of Jackson, combined with Henry Clay’s compromise tariff, prevented an armed clash, although in 1861 a plan Calhoun had drafted for seceding from the Union would be called upon. Calhoun and Jackson, once amiable, became bitter enemies. What began as a protest against tariffs eventually led to a North-South power struggle, culminating in the Civil War. Finally, Martin Luther King can be said to have been an important player in the form of protest literature. A crusader for black civil rights, King had three plans for achieving complete black equality.
Literature comes in during King’s third segment, known simply as “Plan C” (Preston 110). During the 1960s, the embodiment of the deep-South mentality was found in Birmingham, Alabama. The entire city, it seemed, was dedicated to “keeping Negroes in their place.” King felt that if he could succeed in gaining rights here then his dream would flourish everywhere. As such, beginning on April 3, small, isolated sit-ins and church meetings. April 6th marked the first real event, a march on City Hall, where 40 blacks were arrested. This began a movement that inspired previously despairing blacks into joining the protest. Massive marches and sit-ins began, and arrests piled up.
The NAACP nearly bankrupted itself paying bail for the so-called “Freedom Riders,” much of it was never recovered. As it became impossible to pay bail, close friends of King urged him to lead the battle from the sidelines, without actually participating. They feared that if King was arrested, the gains that they had gained would revert. King, however, could not ask others to risk arrest if he was unwilling to do so, and as such he took place in a march in direct violation of a court order. He was immediately arrested and taken to Birmingham Jail. Here King wrote a letter protesting his imprisonment and the unjust laws which held him. Written on borrowed paper and addressed to his fellow ministers, the letter stated: I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. There are two types of laws: There are just laws, and there are unjust laws.
… We cannot forget that everything Hitler did in German was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarians fighting for freedom did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation because the goal of America is freedom.
In this short letter, King not only protested the unjust laws of a society which refused to accept him as an equal, he also argued the case of Negroes as a race, and pleaded with President Kennedy for legislation guaranteeing blacks equality. The effects of King’s literature in Birmingham, coupled with his non-violent approach, were the elimination of segregation in public places, an end to discrimination in employment, the release of jailed marchers, and the formation of a joint black-white committee to discuss problems in the city. Nationally, King gained thousands of supporters, and on June 18 President Kennedy presented to Congress a sweeping civil rights bill. The short and emotionally-charged letter which King wrote did much to motivate people to accomplish these goals.
As we have seen, literature is a very potent and influential tool for protesting groups. Literature is a medium that enables the masses to easily grasp and form opinions on a subject, and as such has often been an instrument of significant value to leaders of protest movements. The manipulation of words and images has made literature one of the most successful means for expressing discontent with the status quo.
The works of authors such as Thomas Paine, John Calhoun, and Martin Luther King, along with the illustrator Thomas Nast, have proven beyond a doubt that protest literature gains results. One merely has to browse the annals of history to find examples of literature enhancing protest. The eloquence and skill of the above easily rank them with the most important leaders of American protest ever.
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