Literature: Tool For The Masses to Grasp and Form Opinions on A Subject
Over the centuries, one of the most important tools available to protesting
became the spokesmen for their particular protest movements.
Thomas Paine was an English-born man who seemed to stir controversy wherever he
reform, and the natural rights of man. At the age of 37, Paine strove for the
essay written for the Pennsylvania Journal in which Paine openly denounced
it clearly whet 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
Paine stated that:
but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer,
country without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we
furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of
paradise (Fast 6).
He went on to dismiss the King as a fool, and stated that natural ability is not
for British profit, and that the colonies must unite quickly if they were ever
by Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon. Finally, Paine argued that the only
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).
Fort Lee, New Jersey, Paine’s unit joined with General George Washington’s army
the first of thirteen papers that would become known as The American Crisis.
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.
of 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:
gained in 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
Although somewhat braggadocios (it is very unlikely that the Americans could
have doubled their numbers), Paine sends a clear and powerful message to all
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
them to do it” (Fast 54). Paine further pictured General Howe as a “chief of
left no doubt as to the poignancy of his arguments.
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
showed a bitter, resentful, shallow Paine rather than the man of objectiveness
thing 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
and refuse to help another country trying to gain independence. He concludes by
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 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
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,
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.
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
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
asinine, as well as the Republican elephant, for their heavy-footed, slow manner
One of Nast’s favorite 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
Tammany Hall, signified by a vicious tiger, attacking and devouring the
watches the show and enjoys various “spoils” in the background.*
In an illustration compromising no more than half a page, Nast showed the view
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
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
his most famous cartoons, Nast lashed out against government corruption and
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 more blunt by entitling this work “Who Stole the People’s
Money?–Do Tell. ‘Twas Him.”*
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
Another American giant in “traditional” protest literature was John C. Calhoun.
fiery emotions with the eloquence of an esteemed author.
furious at what they bitterly called the “tariff of abominations.” They claimed
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
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, than 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 which 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
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. There are two types of laws:
There are just laws, and there are unjust laws.
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
Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.
refused to accept him as an equal, he also argued the case of Negroes as a race,
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,
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
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
eloquence and skill of the above easily ranks them with the most important
leaders of American protest ever.