Liberty Matters

The Importance of Peaceful Mass Movements

In his lead essay David Hart has done a lot fruitful brainstorming and compiled a comprehensive list of important pro-liberty movements.  His rich mother lode of material might help resolve an enduring puzzle: There are far more libertarians now than a half-century ago, far more libertarian books published, far more libertarian think tanks developing and promoting libertarian ideas, and so on -- yet government is bigger and more powerful than ever. What, if anything, can be done about it?
My suggestion is that we reexamine peaceful mass movements because some some of the greatest advances for liberty have been achieved with that strategy.  Few if any libertarians seem to have had firsthand experience with a peaceful mass movement in the United States -- after all, the last one ended about a half-century ago. Among the most successful peaceful mass movements for liberty were the movement to abolish the British slave trade and British slavery in the Western Hemisphere (1838), the movement to achieve Catholic emancipation from civil disabilities (1829), the movement to abolish the Corn Laws and promote free trade (1846), the movement to achieve equal rights for women, including the right to vote (1918), and the movement to abolish compulsory racial segregation (1964).
A peaceful mass movement aims to get a policy changed, and the movement continues, perhaps for many years, until the policy is changed or the movement runs out of steam.  A peaceful mass movement involves mobilizing large numbers of people for rallies, protests, marches, demonstrations, concerts and other public events. Motivating large numbers of people to show up for an event is the most dramatic way to prove that there's a lot of discontent about something the government is doing or not doing.  Discontent, in turn, can put pressure on politicians to do the right thing. Mobilizing large numbers of people creates newsworthy events that generate photographs and videos tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of people can see, leading to more publicity. To be effective, a peaceful mass movement must have a specific, simple agenda -- which the recent anti‑Wall Street "Occupy" sit-ins notably lacked.
Recall how, in 1955, the American civil rights movement began as protests against compulsory racial segregation and persisted for nine years until compulsory racial segregation ended.  Martin Luther King Jr., as the movement’s most famous leader, sometimes required considerable courage since he was jailed 14 times, the target of countless death threats, stoned, and stabbed; his home was blasted by a shotgun and bombed, and a motel room where he stayed was bombed, too, before he was assassinated.
In 1823 Irish lawyers Daniel O’Connell and Richard Lawler Sheil formed the Catholic Association to challenge English laws that denied Irish people the liberty to own land, attend school, learn a trade, bear arms, hold public office, travel abroad, or practice their religion without interference. This was the beginning of a peaceful mass movement aimed to achieve Catholic emancipation.  O’Connell was on the road constantly, speaking in every city and hamlet. He generated so much popular pressure for reform that back in London, on April 10, 1829, Parliament passed the emancipation bill to reduce or remove many restrictions on Catholics.
In 1787 Cambridge University student Thomas Clarkson began to travel around England, helping to form antislavery groups and giving speeches at public meetings run like religious revivals. In this peaceful mass movement, Clarkson shocked audiences by holding up branding irons, neck collars, leg shackles, handcuffs, thumbscrews, and other gruesome devices for enforcing slavery. He displayed diagrams showing how slave ships chained human beings into tiny spaces, awash with excrement. Clarkson arranged for former slaves like Olaudah Equiano to testify about their experience.  Clarkson bombarded Parliament with about 500 antislave-trade petitions signed by more than 400,000 people.  Buoyed by this proof of public support, member of Parliament William Wilberforce introduced antislave-trade bills year after year. By 1807 Parliament voted to abolish the British slave trade. Clarkson and Wilberforce subsequently campaigned to abolish British slavery.   Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act on August 29, 1833.
In 1839 Richard Cobden and John Bright began a peaceful mass movement to abolish grain import taxes that made food more expensive for millions of hungry people.  "It appears to me," Cobden wrote, "that a moral and even a religious spirit may be infused into that topic [free trade], and if agitated in the same manner that the question of slavery has been, it will be irresistible."  Cobden and Bright were on the road almost nonstop.  Cobden recalled, "We spoke to about two thousand persons in the parish church [Aberdeen], travelled thirty‑five miles, held a meeting at Montrose, and then thirty-five miles to Dundee, for a meeting the same evening.  Tomorrow we go to Cupar Fife, next day, Leith, the day following, Jedburgh.”  Spurred by the failure of the Irish potato crop and the deadly famine there, Parliament repealed the grain import taxes in 1846.
In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton launched a peaceful mass movement to achieve equal rights for women.  She was mainly concerned about gaining equal property rights -- the right to sign contracts, to hold property, to inherit property and so on.  She viewed the right to vote as a policy needed for securing equal property rights.  She formed the Woman Suffrage Association of America and served as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She crisscrossed the country, giving speeches, as she recalled, “in log cabins, in depots, unfinished school houses, churches, hotels, barns, and in the open air.” Stanton and her principal partner Susan B. Anthony kept the movement going for decades.  The right of women to vote in America was secured 70 years after the movement had begun.
Would it really be possible to mobilize large numbers of people for liberty and justice today?  Well, it's hard to draw a crowd, since that involves motivating people to leave the comfort of their homes, to go someplace that might be inconvenient, perhaps to incur some travel costs, and most important, to make time for the event in a busy schedule.
I have some specific ideas on how this might be done, which I will pursue in more detail in a future post.
Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000-Year History, told therough the Lives of Freedom's Greatest Champions (New York: The Free Press, 2000).
Jim Powell, Greatest Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).