Civil Disobedience in the Suburbs
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107

Charlie, I am heartened to hear the news that my former neighbors in Connecticut are saying no to the state’s ridiculous, oppressive new rifle-registry law. A little resistance from time to time is an excellent thing.

The right to keep and bear arms is a civil right. I think it would be difficult to make the case that those Americans who knowingly and with intention aforethought violated Jim Crow laws were doing anything but their duty as Americans and as human beings. But we seem to have lost a little of our law-breaking spirit. It is always a difficult calculation to make (and, suspecting as I do that I am the only contributor here who celebrates John Brown’s birthday each May, I may not be the first guy it would occur to anybody to ask), but it is worth thinking about.

Everybody knows the story of Henry David Thoreau being clapped into jail for refusing to pay a tax to support the Democrats’ war in Mexico, the textbook act of civil disobedience. (Literally the textbook act, at least when I was in high school.) Less appreciated is Susan B. Anthony’s run-in with the law after she was arrested by U.S. marshals for casting a ballot in the 1872 election: “Positively voted the Republican ticket — straight,” as she put it in a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Antony maintained that the 14th Amendment, which contains no language of sexual exclusion, conferred upon her equal rights of citizenship so far as the federal government was concerned, including the right to vote in federal elections. She was prohibited from testifying in her own defense, and Justice Ward Hunt, after having given the jury explicit instructions to find her guilty, issued an opinion that had been written before the trial was even completed. Because of her national stature, Anthony was not sentenced to jail time, only a $100 fine.

Anthony, to her credit, refused to pay that fine. She dared the federal government to come and haul her away to prison, and the federal government, lacking the courage of conviction, never did. (Perhaps President Grant simply appreciated her vote.) Anthony was unquestionably a law-breaker, but I find it impossible to conclude that her law-breaking was anything other than a positive good and patriotic.

There are many things about the 19th century Republicans that I prefer to their 21st century counterparts. There is a great deal to be learned from them, and not just for Republicans. But civil disobedience is something that has to be approached with caution. As William F. Buckley wrote in 1969: “Dr. King’s discovery of the transcendent rights of the individual conscience is the kind of thing that killed Jim Crow all right. But it is also the kind of thing that killed Bobby Kennedy.”

What’s happening in Connecticut may be passive resistance (possibly even slothful resistance), but it strikes me as a good thing, and I hope that the state’s rifle owners will continue to decline to comply with this intrusive and unjust law. And if 30 million Americans should refuse to pay their taxes one year, it would make me smile. 


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