Dissent: Powered by "neighboring"


An example of a like-minded, "neighboring group" in Colonial America - from the point of view of Britain. Cartoon is a satire of American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to the Continental Congress resolution in 1774.

Then as now, dissent can be either a positive or negative force depending on the dissenting message and which side you are on at the moment. Smith proposes an effective way to look at positive forms of dissent, specifically, groups of people serving as a source of power in dissent. She describes the idea of "neighboring," a concept of the group within which an individual at almost any class level possesses some level of security and support from which they can express dissent, as long as the neighbor group within which they belong aligns itself to the same general dissent, the "common cause." While Smith reserves this neighboring concept for non-elites, she does acknowledge that, during the American Revolution, white male elites joined neighbor groups to form the "common cause" of patriotism.[1] While it lasted, a neighboring group proved a powerful enough force to grow the seeds of a new nation.

Looking at the neighboring concept from Randolph’s experience helps us understand how a dissenting voice can start on a secure base that later erodes, leaving the dissent treasonous. For example, when his regular neighboring group of fellow elites began to coalesce into a new neighboring group made up of a much broader set of classes, forming around the ideas of opposition to British oppression, Randolph found himself increasingly abandoned by his neighboring group and the security and safety on which he had always based his opinions. This is underscored in Randolph’s statement that, when he and his family were threatened for their views, the “insults” were “unrestrain’d by the Influence of Gentlemen of Rank."[2]  The "Gentlemen of Rank" - those who were expected to set the standard for appropriate discourse and behavior, those who had had a lifetime of training to fill this societal role - did nothing. Thus Randolph’s dissent resulted in not just loss of his power but personal and family security and physical protection in the world.


[1] Smith, The Freedoms We Lost, 87-88.

[2] John Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, London, 25 October 1779, in Founders Online.

Dissent: Powered by "neighboring"