The History of an American Idea

640 pages

November, 2017

ISBN: 9781479819836



Add to Cart Available: 10/1/2017

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Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters. 

All books by Ralph Young

Examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States, emphasizing the way Americans responded to injustices

Finalist, 2016 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis is on the way Americans, celebrated figures and anonymous ordinary citizens, responded to what they saw as the injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America. 

At its founding the United States committed itself to lofty ideals. When the promise of those ideals was not fully realized by all Americans, many protested and demanded that the United States live up to its promise. Women fought for equal rights; abolitionists sought to destroy slavery; workers organized unions; Indians resisted white encroachment on their land; radicals angrily demanded an end to the dominance of the moneyed interests; civil rights protestors marched to end segregation; antiwar activists took to the streets to protest the nation’s wars; and reactionaries, conservatives, and traditionalists in each decade struggled to turn back the clock to a simpler, more secure time. Some dissenters are celebrated heroes of American history, while others are ordinary people: frequently overlooked, but whose stories show that change is often accomplished through grassroots activism. 

The United States is a nation founded on the promise and power of dissent. In this stunningly comprehensive volume, Ralph Young shows us its history. 

This paperback edition features a new introduction that takes into account the wave of mass protests that occurred following the election and inauguration of President Trump.


  • "A sweeping, panoramic narrative that is ambitious in nature, and broad and deep in scope. It provides an alternative history of the United States—indeed of 'America.' It is a history—not from the vantage point of the forgotten or the 'losers,' per se—but from dissenters: those who fought—valiantly, nobly, with great foresight and insight, and often against overwhelming, even impossible, odds and at great cost to themselves—in order to push, pull, shift, and shape the American world around them."

    —Glenn Feldman, University of Alabama at Birmingham

  • "A beautifully written and impressively comprehensive survey of the history of dissent in America."

    —Thaddeus Russell, author of A Renegade History of the United States

  • "Ralph Young takes us on a journey from the distant Puritan past to the cultural divisions of the contemporary age, showing that at every step along the way the nation's most powerful and productive force has been its rich tradition of dissent, the willingness of its citizens to cut against the grain of conformity to help build a fairer, more representative democracy.  Marked by fast-paced and engaging prose, and filled with important insights and observations, Dissent may be the most important revisionist history of the nation since Howard Zinn's A  People's History."

    —David M. Wrobel, Merrick Chair in Western American History, University of Oklahoma

  • "A wonderfully erudite and lucid introduction to another 'American dream' that inspired millions around the world. A wise and topical invitation to reappraise global image of American culture today, when we are facing renewed struggle for hearts and minds."

    —Vladislav Zubok, London School of Economics and Politics

  • "A broad-ranging, evenhanded view of a tradition honed into an art form in America: the use of dissent as 'a critique of governance'...Young has a knack for finding obscure but thoroughly revealing moments of history to illustrate his points; learning about Fries' Rebellion and the Quasi-War with France is worth the price of admission alone, though his narrative offers much more besides...Refreshingly democratic—solid supplemental reading to the likes of Terkel and Alinsky, insistent on upholding the rights of political minorities even when they're wrong."

    Kirkus Reviews

  • "Temple University historian Young (Dissent in America) delivers a doorstopper that few readers will ever want to misuse in such a manner; his clear and elegant style and a keen eye for good stories make it a page-turner...Young convincingly demonstrates that the history of the United States is inextricably linked to dissent and shows how 'protest is one of the consummate expressions of Americanness.'"

    STARRED Publishers Weekly

  • "French historian Alexis de Tocqueville warned about 'the tyranny of the majority' in American democracy.  This work deals with that important topic from colonial times to the present.  Young brings experience and knowledge to this subject...This history will satisfy fans of Howard Zinn, Pete Seeger, and Allen Ginsberg."

    Library Journal

  • "[An] expansive and...impressive account...[Young] excels in story-telling mode."


  • "The Temple University historian Ralph Young's Dissent, a beautifully written, always-interesting, and analytically smart synthesis of American history, contends that dissent has shaped our world from the Puritans to the Barack Obama presidency...Here is wishing Young's big book a shelf life as long as the works of Hofstadter, Williams, and Zinn."

    Journal of American History

  • "A must-read for anyone interested in how dissent, protest, and other acts of civil disobedience have shaped the United States, Ralph Young’s Dissent: The History of an American Idea is a well-researched, 600-plus page tome that covers both the liberal and conservative movements that changed American history."  


  • “One of the great merits of Young’s book in his nuanced perspective on events and people that are too often reduced to clichés in our collective memory.”

    Political Science Quarterly

  • “[Young] presents a narrative history of the role of dissent in shaping the United States, foregrounding those who dissented and how Americans have responded to injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America.”

    Journal of Economic Literature

  • “Young takes his readers on a scenic, energetic, nonlinear walk from the seventeenth-century American Colonies to the present United States, suggesting all along the way that American history is, by definition, a history of dissent… The breadth of the historical account and the level of detail Young offers his readers are inspiring, particularly in an age of what he sees as apathetic, social media-driven ‘slacktivism’ and ‘clicktivism.’”

    American Political Thought

  • “In deeply conservative times it bears remembering that our nation also has a long and rich history of dissent-- one that always pushes our nation to become more just and humane. Ralph Young’s sweeping and powerful account of this history, his rescuing of myriad moments and movements that made our nation fairer and more equal, is a must read for any citizen interested in making a stronger democracy and a better future for our children.”

    —Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water

  • “For those looking for a most impressive compilation on the history of American dissent, Dissent certainly delivers in covering all of its intricacies, trajectories, and complexities through decades of discord and centuries of stridency.”

    Journal of American Culture