Aspects of Nonviolence in American Culture

by Mulford Q. Sibley

Edward Hicks, “William Penn’s Peace Treaty with the Indians”; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Mulford Sibley wrote this article in the early 1960s as his contribution to the scarce anthology Gandhi: His Relevance for our Times, edited by G. Ramachandran and T. K. Mahadevan, New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1962. Please see the Editor’s Note at the end for further information about Sibley, and acknowledgments. JG

American culture, it is sometimes said, has been peculiarly violent, both in outlook and in practice. It has exalted physical force, praised rough action, and placed in the forefront such cynical statements as “Fear God and keep your powder dry.” One of America’s leading Presidents Theodore Roosevelt is well known for his advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” (1) Violence has been associated with the frontier spirit, the Westward movement treatment of the American Indian, the rise of business corporations, and the development of labor organizations. Violent crimes are more numerous proportionately than in most other nations of the world; and the police, by contrast with those in Britain, are heavily armed. Popular culture, moreover, if we are to take radio, television, cinema, and pulp magazines as indicators, exults in violence.

Now all this is in some measure true. Yet there is another side, which is the theme of this paper. Obviously an essay of this length can only hint at certain aspects of the tradition of nonviolence – the notion of principled nonviolence in early American religious thought and practice; elements of nonviolence in the theory of federalism; the struggle against compromise in the American peace movement; nonviolence and American labor; and nonviolence in the struggle for social justice, particularly in the movement for racial desegregation.

Early American Religious Thought and Practice

Explicit doctrines and the practice of nonviolence were reflected during the seventeenth century, when Mennonites and Quakers (the Society of Friends) – two important heterodox sects of the Protestant Reformation – settled in the colony of Pennsylvania. The Quaker William Penn was granted the colony by Britain’s King Charles II and because religious toleration became the watchword of Pennsylvania, it attracted groups like the Mennonites who sought refuge from persecution in Europe.

The Mennonites were part of the great Anabaptist movement, which had been so bitterly attacked by the orthodox during the sixteenth century. Theologically, Mennonite doctrine had much in common with Lutheranism, in that it tended to dichotomize the world into the Kingdom of Grace – that in which the saved lived – and the Kingdom of Power, which was ordained by God to control the unsaved through coercive and therefore violent political relations. But whereas the Lutherans believed that the good Christian had to serve in both realms, the Mennonite tended to attempt to separate them. Thus while the Lutheran said that one must observe the Sermon on the Mount in private relations between Christians, one was equally obliged, when the State called, to serve in the army, go to war, and execute criminals. (2) Mennonites, while recognizing the Christian’s obligation to obey the State passively in matters that did not involve direct taking of human life, felt that on the whole the life of pure “grace” could best be kept free from violence if believers lived separately from the world in largely-agricultural communities. (3) Mennonites held that all active participation in politics would impair their testimony against violence. Hence, while they paid taxes, in accordance with what they believed to be the New Testament command, they refused to serve as magistrates, policemen, jurors, or soldiers. (4) Theirs, we might say, was an ethic of withdrawal; or, as they themselves have put it, one of non-resistance rather than of nonviolent resistance. (5) In their early Pennsylvania communities they had an influence on American life far out of proportion to their numbers; for although they did not believe that the political world could be redeemed by human effort – it would remain violent, corrupt, and coercive to the end of time – their personal example of inoffensiveness was undoubtedly important. (6)

Pennsylvania Quakers, by contrast, tended to believe that political and group, as well as personal relations could be redeemed. It was possible, through appropriate institutions and positive action, to engulf evil indirectly, or, in the words of the New Testament, to “overcome evil with good”. (7) Quaker political principles were reflected in William Penn’s organization of Pennsylvania. There was no army or militia; the death penalty was abolished, in an age when more than 200 crimes were punishable by hanging in Britain; religious toleration was guaranteed; the Assembly, relative to seventeenth century practice, was democratically based; and jails were to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Relations with American Indian tribes were to be on a plane of absolute equity: compensation for lands purchased was generous; white men were forbidden to peddle liquor among the tribes; and fear was reduced by the disarmed state of the colony. (8)

These were among the main features of what Penn called the “Holy Experiment”. In considerable measure, the faith of those who initiated it seems to have been vindicated by actual results. For about 70 years – from its foundation in 1682 to shortly before Quakers withdrew from the colonial Assembly (which they controlled) in 1755 – there were no Indian wars, even though they were waged in all the other American colonies. Despite its disarmament – Quakers would probably have said largely because of it – the colony was, in relative terms, a model of order and peace. It is said that throughout this long period, only one Quaker was killed by an Indian, and he had made the mistake, in a weak moment, of obtaining a gun.

In general, we may say that Quakers implicitly accepted the concept of nonviolent resistance, rather than the Mennonite idea of non-resistance. Thus on one occasion, Quaker judges resisted by resigning their offices, to indicate their opposition to a law, which they deemed unjust. Individual Quakers refused to obey illegal statutes and the Assembly itself at many points resisted royal requests for money to support armies.

As the colony grew, it became more heterogeneous and eventually consisted mainly of men not devoted to Quaker principles of nonviolence. Under these circumstances – and under an increasing pressure to make unacceptable compromises – Quakers eventually decided that they should withdraw from the Assembly. Thus ended the Holy Experiment.

Although Pennsylvania Quakers have often been rightly criticized for certain inconsistencies in conduct, the great experiment in nonviolence still stands out as one of man’s noblest efforts. Many will agree with Thomas Jefferson in calling Penn “the greatest lawgiver the world has produced . . . in parallelism with whose institutions, to name the dreams of a Minos, or Solon, or the military or monkish establishments of a Lycurgus, is truly an abandonment of all regard to the only legitimate object of government, the happiness of men.” (9)

Nonviolence and the Theory of Federalism

In Pennsylvania, a careful distinction was made on the one hand between non-killing force discriminately applied under law, and on the other military force, together with war. Pennsylvania Quakers accepted the legitimacy of genuine police work but rejected what they thought of as the almost inevitably destructive and indiscriminately applied force associated with war. The latter they associated with violence.

In the formulation of the Federal Constitution in 1787 a similar, although not identical, issue was posed: should provision be made, in implementing decisions of the national government, for military coercion of States? After debate, the Convention came to the conclusion that the answer must be “No”. Forcible sanctions were to be available against individuals but not against the States as such.

The basis for this decision was the contention that the States could not be coerced without undergoing serious risk of war. To embody in the Federal Constitution such a notion would, therefore, defeat one of the major ends of the union itself – order and public peace. The principle of coercion of States would have provided a remedy far worse in its effects than the disease to be cured. (10)

The framers of the American Constitution seem to have reasoned wisely, in terms of historical experience. Whether in federal unions, (early nineteenth century Switzerland is an example) or in international organizations, inclusion of the idea of military threats against States seems to have been both unworkable and an incitement to violence. If we are to build a genuine world community in the twentieth century, this lesson must be learned. Although it may not take us far in the philosophical discussion of violence and nonviolence, it will surely make no slight contribution to our never-ending quest of forms of organization which will minimize violence in practice.

Nonviolence and Compromise in the American Peace Movement

The organized peace movement in the United States dates from the late twenties of the nineteenth century. Its history is complex. Here, however, we concentrate on the perennial conflict between “relativists” and “absolutists”; between those who hold that while war in general is to be repudiated, some wars may be necessary, and those who maintain that no war can ever be justified. (11)

The discussion began early in the last century when some advocates of international peace – notably the Rev. John Lathrop in 1814 – attempted to make a distinction between “aggressive” and “defensive” wars. The argument was deemed invalid by men like David Low Dodge, who often based their opposition to all war, in part at least, on what they thought had been the moral degradation, which followed even the allegedly defensive American Revolutionary War. (12) The efforts of absolutists like Thomas S. Grimke, a lawyer and judge, eventually led the influential American Peace Society in 1837 to reject the relativist position.

Many of the absolutists, however, were also vigorously opposed to slavery and when the Civil War came they were confronted by the dilemma of whether to support the war ostensibly being fought against slavery or to reject it as utterly contrary to their pacifist principles. Some of those reckoned as pre-war absolutists shifted to the relativist position: this was true, for example, of William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist, and of James Russell Lowell, who during the Mexican War had called war “murder . . . plain and flat”. (13) Even Henry David Thoreau, who had refused to pay his poll taxes during the Mexican War and whose Civil Disobedience is one of the classics of nonviolent resistance, supported the war supposedly fought against slavery. On the other hand, the remarkable self-educated blacksmith and scholar of Greek, Elihu Burritt, one of the greatest of the absolutists, refused to be deceived: just as he opposed the use of violence in the great nineteenth century European revolutions, while agreeing with many of their ends, so he declined to endorse the Civil War. Burritt advocated use of the disciplined nonviolent general strike as one means of emancipation from social injustice of all types. (14)

After the Civil War and down to our own day, the basic conflict between absolutist and relativist positions has continued. By and large, the great bulk of the peace movement has been relativist: like the proverbial vegetarian between meals, it has been against war only between wars. When, for example, absolutist organizations like the Universal Peace Union opposed the Spanish leaders of the Spanish-American War in 1898, respectable leaders of the peace movement boycotted the absolutists.

After World War I, the burden of carrying on the absolutist position passed to relatively small organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation (founded during World War I), the War Resisters’ League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of whose founders was the eminent American social worker Jane Addams. The absolutist stand was greatly strengthened intellectually between World War I and II by the writings of men like Clarence Marsh Case and Richard Gregg, the former a sociologist and the latter a lawyer. (15) Case emphasized that nonviolent resistance, however much it might be differentiated from violence, was still a form of coercion; Gregg endeavored to understand some of the psychological ramifications of nonviolent attitudes.

The days immediately before World War II were characterized by contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there was great enthusiasm in colleges and churches for the peace movement in general and a not inconsiderable interest in nonviolence as a principle. Thousands of ministers of religion said they would never support another war and college students were taking the so-called Oxford pledge never to bear arms. On the other hand, it was precisely at this time that doctrines of men like Reinhold Niebuhr were beginning to reinforce the relativist position by developing a “realistic” ethics and politics that termed pacifism “utopian” and therefore irrelevant. (16)

In the end, when World War II came, most of those who had sworn that they would never again support another war did in fact do so, as their ancestors had done in the Civil War and in World War I. There may have been as many as 100,000 conscientious objectors of registration age; but in comparison with the millions who were either supporters of or acquiescers in the war, this was a pitiably small number indeed. Once more, most Americans, sincerely no doubt, believed that however much one might repudiate military violence in general, one must support this particular war.

Since World War II, perhaps the most significant development has been the increasing awareness by scientists of the political implications involved in the use of modern weapons. Although most have not yet accepted views which could be identified with the absolutist position, there can be little doubt that the military technology of the post-war period added a new dimension to the old issues central to the ethic of nonviolence. (17) Absolutists of mid-century were asking themselves: How can believers in nonviolence help shape the policies of the most powerful and most heavily armed nation in history? Although the answer was not always certain, it was being asked by some of the most dedicated absolutists in the entire history of the American peace movement.

Nonviolence and Labor

The vital role which organized labor must necessarily play in highly industrialized societies makes its attitude to violence and nonviolence of unusual importance. Two contradictory tendencies have been present in American labor. On the one hand, its lack of political sophistication and difficulty of gaining recognition have all too frequently involved it in the violence of a capitalist culture. On the other hand, it is from certain leaders of labor, active as they are in the practical day-to-day problems of negotiating agreements and considering strikes, that some of the best insights into the power of nonviolence have come.

Legal recognition and protection of the right to organize and bargain collectively were won only after much travail: the story begins early in the nineteenth century, when organizing labor was deemed a “conspiracy” under common law, and continued to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since Roosevelt, problems of large-scale organization and bureaucracy, jurisdictional conflicts, and leadership issues have provided new temptations to violence.

During the period between the Civil War and the New Deal, business corporations often stooped to almost any methods to control labor, not excluding private police, professional strikebreakers, and actual physical force. It is not surprising that in this context workers often resorted to violence in retaliation, particularly since the corporations were so frequently supported by public authority.

In part, the tendency of labor to sometimes turn to violence was, as Robert Hunter argued, the result of its lack of political sophistication. (18) Despite the arguments of Socialists within its ranks, it refused to develop an independent political movement, which might have related its own immediate interests to long-term considerations of fundamental public policy. Its very lack of commitment to revolutionary change subjected it to the imperatives of a frequently violent culture. Even the sit-down strikes of the thirties (in industrial Michigan), which might have become the inspiration for a philosophy of nonviolent power, were marred by acts of violence. Although the industrial union movement (Congress of Industrial Organizations) helped remove some of the frustrations of an American labor organization hitherto dominated by narrow craft unionism, the very rapidity of growth which resulted, combined with continued absence of an over-all political philosophy for guidance, subjected post-World-War II American labor to many stresses. Sometimes labor organizations were allied with the under-world of violent crime; and on occasion certain leaders resorted to violence to maintain their own power or that of their organizations.

But the other side of the picture is also important. In the early days, many were impressed by the way in which German socialists resisted – largely by nonviolent methods – the repressive legislation of Bismarck; and they noted the comment of Wilhelm Liebknecht that “moral force” had preserved the integrity of the labor and socialist movement. To some extent, the ideology of the general strike, which had its devotees in the United States, exalted the principle of nonviolent coercion. The novelist Jack London, in a graphic essay, portrayed a vision of what the general strike might do to paralyze the whole machinery of industry and government without firing a shot, thus inaugurating a truly nonviolent revolution. (19)

Several American anarchist theorists, too, thought that both labor and society in general were to be emancipated primarily through political enlightenment and passive resistance to social wrong. Thus Benjamin Tucker, a well-known individualist anarchist, maintained that while governments can usually quell violent resistance, no army can in the long run defeat men who simply stay home from the polling booths, refuse to enter the army, firmly and peacefully demonstrate, or decline to pay taxes. (20)

From a more orthodox point of view, Tom Mooney, a well known American labor martyr, observed: “Violence is the weapon used by the employers. Violence wins no strike . . . only education and organization.” (21) Other labor leaders from time to time have repeated his sentiments, contending that the greater the violence, the less likely it is that a strike will be successful. And in post-World-War II America, as a matter of fact, most spokesmen for labor would undoubtedly have endorsed this position.

Although American labor itself had not by the post-war epoch developed a general philosophy of nonviolence (as contrasted with more or less pragmatic observations), the idea of the perfectly nonviolent and self-disciplined strike had become a model for the thinking of those, like Richard Gregg (himself a lawyer interested in labor matters), who had worked out such a philosophy.

To the student of nonviolence observing labor now in the 1960s, a number of questions might occur. Was there a chance that, under stress of rapid technological change, labor might at long last develop an overall political philosophy that would embrace a theory of nonviolence? Could it re-think its position vis-a-vis an America so committed to preparation for war? Could it come to realize its vast potentialities for leading American society away from notions of military defense to conceptions of nonviolent resistance to invasion – conceptions that might well rely on its own experience of the strike? The possibilities appeared so great; yet the vision, on the whole, remained so narrow.

Social Justice: The Negro Struggle and Nonviolence

As for nonviolence and the struggle for racial justice, it had its antecedents in earlier movements and particularly in the conflict for the emancipation of women. After first turning to respectable methods without many results, women like Alice Paul, who had been brought up in the Quaker tradition, suggested more dramatic and less orthodox action. A recent writer has thus described the methods used after Alice Paul’s techniques came to be adopted: “The militants staged massive parades and kept them marching while the women were subjected to obscene insults, spat upon, slapped in the face, tripped up and pelted with burning cigar stubs. Early in 1917, Alice Paul launched her most belligerent effort – the day-after-day picketing of the White House with purple-white-and-gold banners shrilling: Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Democracy?” (22)

Negroes, like women, had been exploited, denied human dignity and for many years been kept in a condition of near-servitude. In the 1950s, they decided that they had had enough and in effect asked the same question as the early feminists, How Long Must We Wait for Democracy? They turned to direct nonviolent action, aided and abetted by such legal decisions as that of the Supreme Court declaring, in 1954, that racial segregation in the public schools (a common practice in many States) was a violation of the Constitution of the United States.

By nonviolent direct action they began not merely to undermine the structure of racial injustice but also to develop a sense of self-confidence and dignity. Just as Gandhi found that the Indian masses had first to eliminate their own slavish attitudes before they could effectively oppose imperialism, so Martin Luther King, a leader of the Negro struggle, emphasized destruction of the “Uncle Tom” mentality. He observed: “The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.” (23)

The power of nonviolence to develop a sense of dignity and self-confidence as well as to accomplish social results was demonstrated in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of the 1950s and in such later examples of nonviolent direct action as freedom rides, sit-ins, wade-ins, and street demonstrations. In the bus boycott, thousands of Negroes walked to work, often over long distances, rather than surrender their objective, the desegregation of buses. In sit-ins, mixed Negro and white groups deliberately ordered food in segregated restaurants and, if physically abused, would refuse to retaliate in kind. Wade-ins involved similar action in segregated swimming pools. As for freedom rides, groups of Negroes and whites helped break down segregation patterns in buses. Street demonstrations, which were unusually well disciplined considering provocations, sought among other objectives to affect patterns of employment and to secure implementation of and respect for equal opportunity laws already on the statute books.

Although there were many frustrations and full Negro freedom may involve struggles for another generation, nonviolent direct action helped revive the conscience of the United States, provided implementing power for court decisions and statutes, and built up the courage of Negroes for future action. In terms of immediate results, too, it appeared to be effective. Thus the Montgomery bus boycott did break down segregation in the buses of the city; and Martin Luther King tells us that between 1959 and 1961, lunch counters in more than 150 cities were actually desegregated by “sit-in” direct actionists. (24)

The major stream of Negro action, moreover, was animated by principled nonviolence and not merely by expediency. Men like Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy were deeply influenced by Gandhi, as well as by their interpretation of Christian teaching. Although King at no point in his life had wondered whether there was validity to the thesis that group action could not or need not abstain from violence, Gandhi’s teaching appeared to remove any doubts he may have had.

Negro nonviolence did not lack its challengers, however. Some doubted whether it could be effective in the long run. Others frankly thought of it as a mere expediency, at best. It was by no means certain, as this is written (1961), that the exponents of principled nonviolence would continue to occupy the center of the stage.

Were nonviolence to be repudiated by the American Negro, it would be a sad day for the Negro, for America, and for the world. For the Negro, it would cut off a promising development in mid-stream and almost certainly help frustrate the quest for freedom: repudiation of nonviolence would restore the initiative to segregation leaders and alienate public opinion as well. America as a whole would lose, since the abandonment of nonviolence would probably strengthen the many forces of authoritarianism and militarism undoubtedly present in the United States. Finally, the world would find compromised and clouded the case studies on the Negro emancipation movement which it might otherwise have used as bases for the development of principled nonviolence elsewhere, especially in international relations.

Endnotes: (MQS)

(1) Theodore Roosevelt’s full quote is “I’ve always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far.’” It is generally agreed that he first used the phrase on January 26, 1900 in a private letter to then Governor of New York Henry L. Sprague.

(2) Matthew V, VI, and VII, in which occur such well-known admonitions as “Resist not evil”; “Judge not that ye be not judged”, and “Love your enemies”.

(3) Here Mennonites as well as Lutherans cited Romans XIII, where St Paul admonishes early Christians to “obey the powers that be”.

(4) Luke XX: 25; Romans XIII: 6,7.

(5) See Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, Pa.: The Herald Press, 1944).

(6) One might also note in passing that the Mennonite suspicion of “politics” is very similar to a not atypical general American cultural attitude to the political world.

(7) Romans XII: 21.

(8) See Isaac Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment in Government (Philadelphia: A. J. Ferris, 1898).

(9) Letter dated “Monticello, Nov. 16, 1825”; quoted from Poulson’s Daily Advertiser, Oct. 28, 1826, in The Friend, Philadelphia, v. I (1828), p. 104.

(10) The argument against coercion of States in federal unions is developed in The Federalist.

(11) For a detailed account of the theme down to the period following World War I, see Devere Allen, The Fight for Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1930).

(12) Absolutists frequently cited as authority Sylvester Judd, The Moral Evils of Our Revolutionary War (1841).

(13) In James Russell Lowell’s Biglow Papers.

(14) Much of his pacifist agitation was carried on in his paper, The Christian Citizen.

(15) Clarence Marsh Case, Nonviolent Coercion (New York: Century, 1923) and Richard Gregg, The Power of Nonviolence (British Ed., London: Routledge, 1938).

(16) See Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (N.Y.: Scribner’s, 1932).

(17) One organization of scientists and technologists deserves special mention: the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, one of whose founders was Albert Einstein. It includes those who conscientiously object to all war and encourages its members to work in occupations not connected with the military. It seems to be most sympathetic to the absolutist position.

(18) Robert Hunter, Violence and the Labor Movement (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

(19) Jack London, The Dream of Debs (Chicago: Kerr, 1919).

(20) Benjamin Tucker, Individual Liberty (New York: Vanguard, 1926).

(21) Tom Mooney Molders’ Defense Committee, Press Service, August 26, 1936.

(22) Eric F. Goldman, “Progress – By Moderation and Agitation”, New York Times Magazine, June 18, 1961, p. 5.

(23) Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, Christian Century, April 13, 1960, p. 444.

(24) Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Time for Freedom Has Come”, New York Times Magazine, 10 Sept. 1961, p. 119.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mulford Quickert Sibley (1912–1989) was a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. His advocacy of socialism and pacifism during the 1950s McCarthy era, often put him at the center of controversy. He was a very popular teacher with long lines of students waiting outside his office door for a consultation, and was alleged to teach Greek philosophy dressed as Plato. A prolific author and essayist, most notably for our site he edited the still relevant and excellent anthology, The Quiet Battle: Writings of the Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Resistance, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963, second hand copies of which are readily available on the web. We might also recommend his The Political Theories of Modern Pacifism, Ithaca, NY: Pacifist Research Bureau, 1944. Our thanks to

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi